Can Yoga Treat Mental Illnesses?



Yoga is good for the mind - anyone who's ever done a yoga class will vouch for its psychological benefits. Feeling calmer, more connected to your body and suddenly aware of your thought patterns, a yoga session will leave you refreshed and energized. While the benefits of yoga are due, at least in part, to it being a form of exercise, there are many different elements that combine to produce the ‘post-yoga’ high. We spoke to Lana, a psychologist and yoga teacher based in Amsterdam, about yoga’s effect on the brain, how it can relieve mental illnesses, and be used to bring about big changes in your life.

 7 min read

When did you start practicing Yoga?

I started around practicing yoga around 10 years ago.

Growing up, I did a lot of dancing – ballet, modern and jazz. I pushed myself too hard and got lots of injuries. I found yoga helped strengthen the weak places and form a better relationship with my body.

Like many people, I started practicing with power yoga and ashtanga – the more powerful, energetic styles. In time, I discovered that balancing these energetic practices with more restorative forms, like yin, feels wonderful. Although I remember the first time I went to a yin class, I was like ‘what am I doing, lying down here. I have better things to do - I’m not doing anything!’ Over time, though, I began noticing the mental benefits of Yin and how it helped me practice self-acceptance. 

When did you start thinking about combining yoga and psychology?

Maybe because of my interest in psychology, I have always been aware of how much yoga affects not only my body, but also my mental and emotional states.

After I graduated, my first job was a PHD position. My research focused on treatment of chronic depression through magnetic brain stimulation. By placing a magnetic coil against the skull, it normalises brain activity that is dysfunctional in people suffering with depression. I was doing a lot of literature research and found that the same mechanisms that were affected through this magnetic brain stimulation are also affected by conscious abdominal breathing, which of course you do in yoga. I thought about the decades of research that have gone into creating the magnetic therapy techniques, and how expensive it is, and I was excited that the same outcomes could possibly be achieved through yoga practice.

While doing this research for my PHD, I also did my yoga teacher training. The pieces of the puzzle somehow seemed to fall into place.

Lana offers her yoga and psychology classes on Dedico.

Is there any research into yoga as an effective psychotherapy?

The traditional practices of yoga have been used and studied for centuries. In western medicine, however, yoga is very new and just coming to the attention of medical researchers. While there are more and more studies going on, the studies so far have used very small samples.

The problem is that it is hard to isolate elements of yoga to conduct a scientific study. Yoga consists of so many different aspects: breath, movement, intentions, positive inner dialogue, lifestyle. I believe that it is the combination of all these elements that is so effective for your mental health.

In yoga philosophy, these multiple elements are explained as the ‘eight limbs’ of yoga: Yama (ethical principles e.g. no stealing), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath control) Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption). Together, the eight limbs encourage a healthy lifestyle and balanced way of living and thinking. If you take one limb, it is still good for you, but it’s not as good as if you have all together.

What do you do in yoga therapy to help people improve their mental health?

In yoga therapy I help people to make big life changes by starting with small changes. People sometimes come to yoga therapy wanting to change their lifestyle and the patterns that keep a depression or anxiety coming back again and again. They want to develop healthy habits: eating, sleeping, exercise. These are hard to change because they are often deeply ingrained and rooted in the unconscious.

Through yoga, you can develop an awareness of these habits, which is the first step towards changing them. The second step is thinking how you can move in a direction towards your goals; how exactly can you make the steps? This can be quite hard. But the trick is to look for a way for an individual that is easy. For some, meditation is easier, or setting intentions at the beginning of their day. That is the process you start with.

To capture this process in scientific research is very hard, just because it is slightly different for everyone and there are so many different factors. I have been racking my brains about how you could develop a sound research study that examined the effectiveness of yoga as a therapy.

I help people make big life changes by starting with small changes

You mentioned that yoga therapy helps people struggling with depression and anxiety symptoms, are there any other mental health diagnosis or issues that yoga therapy can help?

Psychology likes to categorise mental states, whereas yoga has a holistic vision of the mind. This is coming back in modern science: people are starting to realise that the rigid definitions and categories we have created are not that valid for describing a human. 

Yoga and other holistic practices look more at the underlying mechanisms, not the superficial, surface symptoms. For example, let’s consider stress. It might be slightly reductionist to say that any mental or physical symptom is a result of activity in your nervous system, but it is accepted that chronic stress, for example, can cause changes in the nervious system. Yoga can be helpful to balance the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (which is activated during stress) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which is activated during relaxation). Through the different practices within yoga - postures, breathing, meditation, and conscious relaxation - the nervous system becomes more balanced, and thereby more resilient to stress.

Working with clients in yoga therapy, I avoid setting diagnosis’. Instead, I ask about the cause of their problems, in which areas of their life they struggle. I have an idea of what the diagnosis might be, but I don’t want to focus on it. I just look at the patterns that exist in the individual and what that tells us about their nervous system activity and how we can use the different elements of yoga to affect and balance their nervous system and mind set.

Yoga examines the underlying mechanisms, not the superficial, surface symptoms

As it stands, you are only encouraged to seek psychotherapy if you are suffering from a debilitating mental illness. This ignores the fact that everyone struggles and goes through hard times. Yoga therapy recognises that none is perfectly balanced: everyone would benefit from some help. Yoga therapy is about returning to a place of balance over and over again. We all go through periods where we feel more tired, or your mood is a little bit off, or you feel stressed or anxious. It is a process of becoming aware of these patterns and thinking, okay, what can I do to balance and change in a positive direction again. It is a long-term maintenance of health and wellbeing. That is the core of yoga therapy.

How does a yoga class that is focused on psychology differ from a standard yoga class?

At the beginning of the class, I would invite the students to reflect on how they are feeling today. I then lead them through different exercises and meditations, helping them explore the different ways they can affect how they feel. They are encouraged to adjust each exercise to their own needs or intentions. If they need rest, they can move a bit slower or gentler. If you feel like you want to move and be more energised, you could breathe with more power and move more dynamically.

I love helping people explore how moving makes them feel. When you start practising these things in the long term, you begin noticing your boundaries and what works for you. In the yoga therapy classes, I integrate my psychological background and let people know how what they are doing in the class affects their psychology. 

Do you see yoga being taken up in mainstream psychological treatment programs?

I was recently teaching a yoga workshop to psychologists and healthcare workers. The class was very popular – it was booked up in one day! There were people from lots of different sub-fields of psychology: psychiatric nurses, child and youth psychotherapists, adult mental health workers and psychologists specialising in burnout, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and OCD. They were all interested in how yoga therapy could be used in mainstream treatment programs.

At the moment, it is hard to integrate yoga therapy into mainstream treatment programs because of insurance and policies that demand, understandably, only solid evidence-based treatments are used. As I mentioned before, it is hard to do scientific research into yoga therapy. I work as a psychologist for 3 days a week in a mental health organisation. What I do, and what my colleagues do, is integrate exercises and practices from yoga into cognitive-behavioural therapies and other regular treatments.

There is a growing interest in yoga therapy amongst medical professionals and that is great to see. As it becomes more popular, it would be great to see it being accepted by medical organisations and insurance companies.

There is a growing interest in yoga therapy amongst medical professionals

Who comes to your workshops?


Even if you don’t suffer from a diagnosed mental health issue, the classes are great for building self-care techniques and a healthy lifestyle. Yoga therapy is a process of self-discovery and suits everyone.

I make sure the classes are held in a safe, welcoming space. We always start off by introducing ourselves. If someone doesn’t want to share anything, that is absolutely not a problem. I just get a bit of an idea of what people are coming to the class for – what I should focus on more.

You can adjust any asana to your intention. That’s why It’s important, if you have specific mental or physical ailments, to look at the individual. I give a few poses and how to practice, but with the instruction to explore what works for them. You always know yourself better than someone else.

How regularly do people need to practice yoga psychology?

It’s like anything you want to learn – you get better with practice. 

It's very important to practice consistently. It can be wise to go to classes that help you keep it going, but it's also beneficial to do a bit at home. This can be even 5 minutes in the morning to do some breathing exercises, or 10 minutes for some sun salutations. Carving out a little bit of time for self-care is very important; working it into your daily routine and habits.

From the U.K, Molly has lived in Norway and now Amsterdam. After her first yoga class 5 years ago, Molly has loved trying out different classes, teachers and styles. Molly is a Content Creator at Dedico.

Why Yoga & Psychology?

  • Enjoy tailored yoga sessions
  • Learn about the eight limbs of yoga
  • Start with small steps to make big changes
  • Learn how to work towards balance in your life

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