The Work of the Light: Explaining the Benefits of Yoga as Therapy

The Work of the Light: Explaining the Benefits of Yoga as Therapy

October 19, 2014

Yoga as therapy has tremendous benefits for mind, body and Spirit. From injury of the body, to a wounded mind, yoga heals. The following post is an explination of the benefits of this great practice geared toward a potential yoga therapy client. If you're seeking healing and increased well-being, and wondering about how yoga as therapy might support that process, you'll enjoy this read. 

I’m so thrilled you’ve sought consultation on the potential benefits of yoga as therapy. Asking these kinds of questions is the very thing that will assist you in this process of yoga as therapy.  Indeed, this same quality of discernment is one we’ll employ together in what is ultimately an investigative process of what it feels like to be you, here now. I want you to feel completely comfortable delving into all the whys and hows this practice works. If we I don’t know the answer, we can investigate it together. In general, though, I can tell you I’ve asked a lot of the questions myself, and have learned a great deal about the physiological mechanisms behind the “better” that many people feel after a practice of yoga. I’d like to spend the next few minutes sharing some of these mechanisms. If anything doesn’t make sense, please ask me to explain it again. It’ll help us learn the ways each of us communicates, which will strengthen, for sure, our ability to work together.

In general, though the practice is an experiential one, understanding why things work can help the benefits of the practice take even deeper root.  I know you’ve got questions about how yoga might help with the depression you’ve been living with. There is so much good research, these days, supporting the notion that a regular yoga practice can actually change the brain in a way that positively impacts depression. For example, there is a protein your brain produces called brain derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF. This little protein is essential in your brain being able to change, to grow, and to adapt. It’s been demonstrated that people with depression have lower levels of BDNF than people without depression. One of the ways anti-depressants work is by increasing levels of this protein in the brain. Well, at the University of Bangalore, a team of researchers found that regular yoga practice can increase BDNF in the brain better than pharmacological anti-depressants! Isn’t that exciting?

A team of researchers recently conducted a survey of all of the research out there about the effectiveness of yoga in addressing mental health issues. They analyzed the findings of a number of studies on yoga for depression, and found that numerous studies support the larger conclusions of the research on BDNF I talked to you about – that yoga can, indeed, decrease depression in clinically depressed individuals, without the use of anti-depressants.

See, the thing is, your brain contains its own pharmacy. All medications do, ultimately, is help your brain dispense the endogenous, or internal medications that already exist. Research suggests that yoga, without the use of drugs, can help your brain dispense the right endogenous medications so that you feel better, and function better. It’s really thrilling.

Additionally, I know you mentioned troubled sleep as a major, life disrupting issue you’re regularly facing. That same survey article I just mentioned also found that yoga can provide real benefit to individuals suffering from troubled sleep.  I’d like to see if we can design a practice that you might be able to do before bed that would help turn off the parts of the brain and body that might be informing your troubled sleep, and turn on the parts of your brain and body that might help you de-stress, and sleep better.

It’s likely that even though your physical body is tired after a long day, your mental body is still wide awake, ruminating on all the things you have to do, or didn’t do as well as you wanted to. Yoga can help you begin to focus less on the past, less on the future, and more in the present. By beginning to anchor into the present moment, in which none of the worries of the past or future exist, we can practice inducing a kind of relaxation response that will help greatly. I want to share with you a book by a man named Herbert Benson. He talks a lot about the mechanisms behind the relaxation response. I think you’d like it. In any case, you and I can work to construct a practice that can help turn on your body’s natural capacity to seek and find the ease within.

When we talked about your work and home life, you mentioned that you felt stress all the time. You also said that “stress was just another part of life, right?” Well, I’d like to propose another point of view. Yes, indeed, situations will always arise that will be stressful.  I mean, so long as the heart is beating, life will be full of ups and downs. However, the way we react to those stressful moments has the capacity to either engender more suffering and stress—or, alternatively, more ease and peace, even in a moment of challenge.

Another team of researchers out of the University of Boston have proposed a theory as to why yoga has been found to provide benefits across a range of diverse physical and mental health issues, including depression, PTSD, and even epilepsy. They suggest it’s in how yoga positively affects the systems of the body that regulate the response to stress. Essentially, your body contains mechanisms and processes that function together to mediate the build up of stress on the body. You mentioned to me that you love the beach. Well, you can think of your body like a beach house: your body is going to be exposed, just by virtue of it being alive on this planet, to wind, and sand and sun, even storms. If you don’t maintain your body, your beach house, it’s going to eventually become so weathered, it won’t be able to withstand the stress of life’s elements.  That kind of maintenance requires regular work. Yoga is that regular work. Yoga can help strengthen the body’s natural capacity to turn off the stress response, and turn on the part of its system that helps you rest and digest. It does this by inducing the production of certain chemicals in the body that up-regulate systems that help you relax, and down-regulate systems that make you feel more stressed.

If you’re interested in the exact mechanisms of this process, I’d love to share them with. I think they are fascinating, and it seems you, too, have a real interest in the science behind yoga. I think, also, the more you experience the practice, the more you’ll understand first-hand about its benefits. I don’t want to give the impression that finding the change you seek in your life will be easy, or quick. This is a process that takes time, and commitment, and sometimes can leave you feeling worse before you feel better. However, the power of yoga as therapy rests in the fact that real, lasting changes do take place. We’re not just inducing a short term response—we’re changing the brain structure to support your internal ability to make choices that engender more joyfulness than suffering. I’m here to work with you on this process of change. If you will make the commitment, I will too.

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