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Yoga: Prescription for wellness

Learn techniques for relieving anxiety and lifting mood

What can relax and revive you, lift your mood and strengthen your body, costs little or nothing and has no side effects? Yoga. Yoga is defined by the union of mind and body. A 6,000 year-old practice that originated in India, it has grown increasingly popular in the West. The mainstream medical community is beginning to recognize yoga as an effective way to maintain good physical and mental health.

How can yoga improve my mental health?

Research has shown yoga to be beneficial in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders and sleeping problems. Recent studies found that yoga may elevate levels of an important brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), improving symptoms of these disorders.

Psychological benefits of a regular yoga practice include:

  • decreased anxiety and depression.
  • greater self-control of body and mind.
  • increased calmness and relaxation.
  • increased self-confidence.
  • improved sleep.
  • improved concentration.
  • increased energy.

"When someone is depressed," says Karen J. Greene, a clinical psychologist who practices yoga, "they have negative thoughts, low self-esteem and poor concentration. They feel as if they're walking through mud. Yoga gets us involved in the here and now, focusing only on awareness of our bodies and the sound of our breathing. "Someone who's depressed feels that things will never be different. But, for that hour, they see that things have been different - they have been different. As they stretch a little more each time, they gain a sense of accomplishment and control. And practicing yoga in a class, with a caring teacher, can alleviate the social isolation that often accompanies depression."

How does it benefit my body too?

Benefits of regular yoga practice include:

  • improved flexibility
  • increased strength
  • better posture
  • improved heart health

How does yoga work?

In a typical yoga class, you may practice a dozen or more poses. Some poses are easier, such as the Mountain pose, in which you stand with feet about hip-width apart, hands at your side as you take several deep breaths. More advanced poses use more stretching and twisting. Yoga postures can relieve your tension, which then relaxes your muscles. Some postures increase blood flow to the brain, increasing oxygen and glucose, boosting neurotransmitters that enhance your mood and sense of well-being. You may do only poses which are comfortable for you and only for as long as you are comfortable. Breathing in deeply to fill your lungs and breathing out through your nose calms you. As you concentrate on your breathing, you learn to gain control over your body and mind.

How do I get started?

The best way to learn yoga is in a class with a qualified instructor, but you can also practice using tapes, books and videos. You can find classes at health clubs, and recreation and community centers. Look online or in the telephone directory. When you find a class, be sure to ask about the instructor's qualifications and whether the class is right for your level of experience.

What else do I need to know?

Talk with your doctor before you begin to practice yoga if you have any of these conditions:

  • high blood pressure
  • a risk of blood clots
  • eye conditions, including glaucoma
  • problems with back or joints (you may need to avoid postures that strain these areas)

Yoga by itself is not adequate treatment for severe depression or anxiety, but is therapeutic if used in combination with medication and/or psychotherapy.