By Melody Parker
Mental health is especially vital when combating the high-stress qualities of student life. It is possible for chronic stress to transform into debilitating mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Can the alternative therapy of yoga stand up against such serious ailments? Scientific studies are revealing to the West what has been known in the East for thousands of years. Yoga is now a medical treatment for a multitude of ailments, particularly those relating to mental health.
Karen Parrish had struggled with depression and anxiety since she graduated from UC Berkeley in 1980. It wasn’t until she started practicing yoga in 1992 that she was able to minimize the effects of both depression and anxiety. After graduating with a degree in English literature, Parrish recalled feeling, “a core sense of emptiness . . . without the structures in place that had been there all my life. I just felt very lost.”
Dr. Catherine Forest of the UC Santa Cruz Student Health Center does not practice yoga herself, but she knows the benefits of the practice well enough to recommend it to patients on a daily basis. “[Yoga] is one of the direct and structured ways to achieve deep relaxation,” she said. She also recommends pilates and other mindfulness activities.
A New-Age exercise fad turning out toned, flexible bodies nation-wide, yoga actually developed in India over 5,000 years ago with means of uniting the individual self with the Absolute Being, or God. Hatha yoga, the form of yoga best known to most Westerners, includes a number of poses that require one to stretch and bend one’s body. “However, to simply do poses is not yoga,” said Mark Stephens, yoga instructor at One Yoga Center in the Veterans Memorial Building, “yoga is really about steadiness, ease, and presence of mind.”
Many classes in Santa Cruz, and at UCSC stray from the typical Western practice by combining body postures, breathing, and meditation to better access the mental and spiritual healing elements of yoga. Parrish remembered some of her first experiences with yoga, “it began to open up a spiritual dimension that I had never been aware of before. . . it gives me a shift of experience that is guaranteed to connect me with the side of myself that I feel good about.”
Hundreds of asanas, or postures, were designed by yoga masters with the intention of extending life and even of changing the body’s biochemistry toward immortality. Many yoga masters claimed that yoga did extend their lives.
According to the American Holistic Medical Association, yoga gained Western scientific credibility with the first biofeedback experiments conducted at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, “India yoga master, Swami Rama was able to control various autonomic functions previously considered beyond the influence of conscious intent.”
More recently, yoga has gained recognition in Western medicine as a complementary medicine. Clinical breakthroughs indicate that yoga is one treatment for asthma, addiction, insomnia, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders among others.
According to a study conducted at the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, yoga proved to be a “successful adjunct therapy targeting a reduction in eating disorder symptomatology.” One participant described her yoga class as “the two hours during my week where I don’t have to think about being fat or eating.”
Dr. Forest recommends yoga, along with other forms of exercise, for what she calls the “student condition.”
“The lifestyle of being a student here is a fairly high-stress pressure cooker environment,” she said “[yoga] can counter the structure of the university”
According to the books, Yoga for Depression and The Women’s Book of Yoga and Health, stress causes the brain to alert the sympathetic nervous system, specifically the adrenal and pituitary glands. The adrenal glands produce a surge of adrenaline that increases the heart rate and releases extra cortisol or hydrocortisone.
“The problem is chronic stress when danger is not imminent . . .people’s bodies act as if it’s life-threatening all the time. Hearts racing, muscle tension, a lot of what is related to a ‘fight or flight response’ that just isn’t appropriate. . .they need to find a way out of that death-spiral.” said Dr. Forest.
“Every thought has a sensory and motor component,” said Dr. Tim Hartnett, a local marriage and family therapist. “A scary thought runs through your mind, but you don’t actually move; the signal is already sent to your muscles and causes them to tense.”
He adds that over time the fascia (the thin film around your muscles) can tighten, leaving the muscle insufficient room to change its shape. “What yoga does is actually stretch the fascia and allows the muscle to relax,” he said.
Chronic stress can create hormonal imbalances, alter brain chemistry, decrease metabolic efficiency, and lower immune functions. Prolonged stress and exhaustion have been known to contribute to impotence, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Parrish was raised in an alcoholic home where tension sometimes felt palpable. Even as an adolescent, she was burdened with the role of caretaker.
“[Yoga] puts me directly in touch with my breath and body with an awareness . . .and through the process I always feel better,” Parrish said. This is why during an effective yoga session it is not uncommon for her, like many others, to bubble up in sadness or laughter.
Like many that are stung by depression, Parrish went through, “real periods of darkness, and there was a pattern beginning of substance abuse to try and cope with it.” She bounced between the two sides of herself, “the representative of health and well-being on one side and on the other side, this person struggling with depression and lack of self esteem and lack of sense of self.”
Depression can be paralyzing physically and emotionally, but movement through yoga breaks the trend of immobility.
“What happens when I am depressed or anxious is that sometimes I withdraw from what I know is best for me, like taking care of my physical health,” Parrish said.
Yoga quickly increases oxygen consumption and reduces muscle tension. It also increases the release of chemicals in the brain: endorphins, enkephalins, and serotonin. These work as natural painkillers for the body and mind.
“Yoga places focused attention on the body which enhances your ability to sense feeling,” said Dr. Hartnett.
Local yoga instructors, Mark Stephens, Don Bard, and Julie Kimball all agree that yoga should be practiced on a regular basis, 5-6 times a week. Stephens admits that practicing sporadically is probably only beneficial for that day.
“When we practice yoga on a regular basis . . .we stretch, move and strengthen every part of our body,” said Stephens. “Along the way we are using our breath to bring more awareness . . .to all those places where old feelings, traumas, fears and other emotional stuff is hidden away. The effect of this regular practice is that negative emotional energy starts to dissolve, leaving in its wake an increasing feeling of emotional wellbeing and vibrancy”
Deep breathing from the diaphragm is restored and it improves oxygen absorption and carbon dioxide elimination, which is good for concentration.
“What I see in my students and in myself . . . I am more able to navigate through emotional challenges in daily life,” Stephens said, “I am better able to find that place of inner calm and clarity.”
At the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, hormonal and antidepressant effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga were tested in alcohol-dependent individuals. After just two weeks, cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones, the stress hormones, dropped substantially in the yoga group compared to the control group.
Some physicians agree that yoga should not be the only treatment for a severely depressed individual.
“Can yoga treat a severe depression? I doubt it,” Dr. Forest said, “Can it be a part of the treatment plan? Oh yeah.”
Dr. Milton Huang, a psychiatrist at the UCSC Health clinic does recommend yoga to his patients, but cautions, “Some people can feel danger with too much emotion. . .yoga can be a very powerful tool. . . [but] if I say go do yoga and they can’t bring themselves to go, then they feel like a failure.”
Limitations in Science/Medicine
Don Bard, yoga instructor at UCSC and biology teacher at Cabrillo College said, “Science is extremely limited . . . [Science] is only able to investigate physical, measurable phenomenon.” He adds that anything not measurable with the tools we currently have cannot be included in science. “[It] is not able to tackle fundamental questions of the world around us,” he said.
Dr. Huang believes in diagnosing the entire individual with all previous medical history and he prefers nonpharmaceutical techniques for depressed individuals. “We split up medicine into all these specialties . . . but we should take a look at the big picture . . .pills are basically passive where exercise and yoga are more active tools to combat depression.”
Unlike Western medicine, practicing different forms of yoga emphasizes looking inward for a cure.
Counseling Options at UCSC
Psychological and Counseling Services (PCS) is one of the first places students turn to for help with depression, stress, and anxiety.”The number [of students] is increasing over the years,” said Dr. MaryJan Murphy, acting co-director of PCS. There are many workshops that are offered this quarter through PCS, such as depression, stress, transitions, and eating awareness workshops.
The other acting co-director of Psychological and Counseling Services, Jerry Lee said, “I don’t think the services have changed much since last fall because we are still understaffed.” According to their office, there is a two-month waitlist to be seen by a psychologist. If the student is in urgent need of counseling, a crisis service is offered during the week, where the student is given a formal assessment before the counselor and student collaborate on a course of action.
Some psychologists at PCS offer yoga as a treatment option for crisis cases. But Dr. Badri Dass, a practitioner of yoga, does not recommend yoga to his patients. “I don’t [recommend yoga] partly because I don’t want to be proselytizing or preaching to my patients.”
Dr. Tim Hartnett disagrees with Dr. Dass. “Some professionals need to understand that withholding [treatment options] is not being neutral, it is being unhelpful,” he said.