How does yoga help young people with anxiety and depression?

Yoga is a science of wellbeing. It is designed to take the student from a place of lethargy and disengagement to a place of optimal wellbeing through 8 steps:

  1. Ethics/ civic attunement
  2. Mindset/positive thinking
  3. Exercise
  4. Breathing practise
  5. Inward reflection
  6. Focus
  7. Stillness
  8. Balanced and sustained joy

This system was designed around 7000 years ago and has always been important as a guide to optimal wellness.

Scientifically we can point to a number of interesting studies, namely Dr Chris Streeter’s paper on the apparent increase of GABA (Anti-anxiety receptors) and yoga, 2007.  Dr Telles’ work on the impact of yoga on adolescents (2014) where she took a medical model of research and measured the impact of yoga vs PE on a group of young people, found that the yoga had more all-round benefits on stress levels. There is also Morgan’s qualitative research (2014) on a young group of yogis, showing increased social cohesion and pain management among 10 other results.

Other researchers, such as Klein and Roberts (2016) look at yoga as embodied social change and embodied literacy. This concept borrows Gandhi’s concept of “be the change you want to see in the world” in that when we manage to learn how to create peace and resolve conflict in an intelligent way within our own minds and bodies, then we inherently know how to do it within groups and eventually within society itself.

On a more practical level, there have been several studies (Butzer 2015 et al) who have looked at cortisol levels in saliva before and after yoga practise. These studies have proved that yoga decreases stress among young people to a considerable degree.

In my own experience, young people have a very particular set of stressors, unlike any generation before them. These involve most recently a set of political and economic uncertainties together with bombardment of information on cell phones and tablets 24/7, which cause a level of anxiety unlike any before. Moreover, in the personal sphere, young people are constantly being exposed (physically and mentally), judged and “informed” on how to be cool, good looking, smart and popular. This is happening from toddlerhood onwards. This trend, according to sociologists, is set to continue at a rapid speed. (we are using social media at 10% of the rate to which it will be used in 10 years’ time) . This has created an outward looking, vigilant and anxious generation, who do not know how to switch off, with their mobile phones in their beds next to them.

We are seeing a rise in: Chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, obesity, ME, suicide and depression among young people across the world as a direct result of these social and personal changes and the lack of resilience which accompanies these changes.

Yoga offers a move in the opposite direction. In yoga, we are continuously guided and invited to move inwards, on a journey that intelligently navigates our thoughts, emotions (including fear and anxiety) into a place of stillness. The magic and beauty of this practise is that it engages our body and uses this as an entry-point into stilling our minds and finally into the majestic silence of the soul. All this, with an embodied practitioner, who understands and empathises with our needs.

The physical practise is designed specially to engage all muscles and then release them, in turn. It also accesses our inner organs, squeezing and releasing, to ensure proper digestion, excellent muscle toning and balancing of the glands in the body that organise and secrete hormonal activity. It stretches and releases collagen fibre in the body, to support quick healing from injury. It also works on raising the bone density, which is connected to positive mental health.

The breathing, in turn, is an excellent way to slow down the hectic mind and bring focus and clarity, allowing the heart rate to slow down, regulating high blood pressure also raising HRV (heart rate variability), which is connected to positive mental health.

Many of the practises in yoga (breathing and physical) also impact the vagus nerve, which is the initiator of the parasympathetic nervous system( relaxation response). In mental health hospitals across the world, vagal stimulation has been one of the most successful treatments for deep and long lasting depression. In yoga, we stimulate the vagus nerve through backward bends and certain breathing practises in a gentle and non-invasive manner, slowly raising health.

Moreover, the practise is often done in a small group where the leader has been trained to create a “safe space” where emotions can be shared or felt openly without judgment. This creates community and social cohesion (Morgan 2014). Reported benefits have been a sense of release, connection and joy.

Yoga has also been attractive to schools and youth organisations, wishing to look at conflict resolution. The way this works, is simple. When we teach practises to manage our own emotions and we manage to embody and model these practises as teachers and adults, we become emotionally literate and able to meet tricky situations with balance and harmony within ourselves, dampening and managing anyone else’s anger simply with our own techniques for self-efficacy.

Many young people have been effected by trauma, which renders them almost helpless in the face of adversity, as they have a learned response of defensiveness and vigilance. There have been several studies indicating that the yoga postures and breathing support a healing from past traumas. (Telles review 2013)

According to recent figures and reports from medical staff within mental health units in the NHS,UK, many neuropsychiatric cases are a result of trauma in the adolescent years (8/10), so the impact of yoga on society and healthcare could therefore be extremely impactful in terms of saving money and promoting wellbeing, if brought to young people early enough.

SO, we start to see a picture of trauma, vigilance, conflict, anxiety and depression which is emerging as a direct result of the social and personal pressures on the young of today across the world. We also see from scientific research that the very same issues are directly addressed by the many and various practises of yoga.