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Behavioral Health Matters: Yoga offers hope

Eastern traditions have long recognized the physical and mental health benefits of practicing yoga. In fact, this ancient form of mind-body awareness has a framework that originates from the Yoga Sutras’, teachings that provide guidance on how to gain mastery over the mind and emotions. During these turbulent Pandemic times, yoga can be a life-saving tool to manage stress in a balanced way.

Our lives are necessarily filled with stress. However, if there is a period of significant trauma or acute stress, this can cause the body to become dysregulated. Sleeplessness, anxiety, agitation, depression, anger, loss of appetite, etc., are examples of some of the potential symptoms. The lack of control that people feel right now due to the impact of COVID-19 can cause an over activation of their nerves and their thoughts. Increased cortisol levels, or stress hormones, are linked to both physical and mental health issues.

One of the foundations of practicing yoga is breath. Even though the body inhales and exhales naturally, yoga teaches us to focus on our breathing as a way of decreasing the heart rate and allowing the mind to be less distracted with our daily lives and more centered. Sitting in front of the television or behind a desk, you can take a moment when you close your eyes and think about the inhalation and exhalation of each breath. This moment of meditation doesn’t cost money or take a lot of time, yet its benefits can be reaped immediately.

Many people think that yoga is for adults only. However, yoga as an ancient tradition has been practiced by people of ALL ages. In fact, for children it offers a safe, non-competitive activity that teaches self-acceptance. Moreover, since it can be done alone or with others, it is more flexible than traditional sports. No costly equipment or uniforms is needed – just shorts, a t-shirt, and a household towel/mat.

Yoga definitely has many purposes and is increasingly being utilized as a therapeutic modality for people recovering from substance use disorder. By preventing relapse, reducing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings, yoga can provide a healthy outlet to cope with potential triggers and daily life stressors. Studies have shown that yoga can positively affect brain chemistry by increasing the GABA-neurotransmitter levels. Low levels of GABA are often connected to anxiety and depression which underlie many types of addictive behaviors. Instead of reaching to dangerous substances to numb the pain, or sleeping the day away to escape the devastating effects of these challenging times, yoga can provide a way to achieve better equilibrium.

In addition to helping people stay in recovery, yoga can also be beneficial in managing anxiety and depression. Yoga causes an increase in serotonin levels in the brain, which helps alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Studies have also shown that yoga enhances heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly. Many behavioral health practitioners are now prescribing yoga not only for people in recovery and those suffering from anxiety and depression, but as a PREVENTION tool for EVERYONE!

In the words of Miranda Harrah, a counselor at Life & Purpose Behavioral Health who is also certified yoga instructor:

“The brain takes cues from the body. So when your body feels calm and relaxed, the brain gets the message that everything is peaceful. My favorite go-to is the body scan. It takes 15 to 20 minutes and gives you an opportunity to check in with your body. Many people believe that yoga is for girls or fit people, and this is not the case. Anyone can do yoga. It is part of learning to know and love your body while fostering positive outcomes and a better connection between your mental and physical health.”

There are many options for practicing yoga in the Mid-Ohio Valley:

Full Circle Yoga in Vienna, W.Va. (fullcircleyogawv.com/), Simple Breathe Yoga (reflectionlifestudio.com), the Marietta YMCA (mariettaymca.org/), Movement Fitness (movementmarietta.com/) Rockstar Wellness (facebook.com/rockstarwellnessllc/), and Marietta Bootcamp (mariettabootcamp.com/). Please note: If you are interested in practicing yoga at home, try searching on YouTube, where you will find lots of free options.

Hilles Hughes is the Deputy Director for The Washington County Behavioral Health Board.

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