Yoga has become extremely popular around the world as a form of exercise and a way of reducing stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s “a mind-body type of complementary and alternative medicine practice.”
Some of the health benefits of yoga include better fitness in the form of increased balance, strength and flexibility, as well as stress management and the reduction of risk factors for some chronic diseases.
The potential physical and psychological health benefits have led yoga to be included as complementary treatment for some patients with mental illness. In 2011, a meta-analysis of various studies on yoga and mental illness was published in the Primary Care Companion to CNS Disorders, and concluded that yoga could be an effective “adjunct treatment” for severe psychiatric disorders.
However, there have not been any peer-reviewed studies about the possible benefits or risks of yoga for patients with bipolar disorder. An article published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Practice suggests that yoga may improve the health and well-being of many bipolar patients, but that it may also have some risks for these individuals.
The article shared the results of a survey conducted by Lisa Uebelacker and Lauren Weinstock of Brown University, with assistance from Morganne Kraines of Oklahoma State University. The survey was the first phase of a research program that will continue with a pilot clinical trial comparing the outcomes of yoga for bipolar patients with the outcomes of a respected bipolar workbook.
Positive Impact From Yoga
More than 70 patients with bipolar disorder who have practiced yoga responded to the online study created by the research team. The vast majority of these patients reported that yoga has had a positive impact on their lives, and one in five respondents described their experience with yoga as “life-changing.”
Many bipolar patients reported a number of positive outcomes from practicing yoga. Twenty-nine said yoga helped them reduced their anxiety, while 23 patients said yoga has a calming affect on their episodes of mania. Some also said that yoga helps to distract them from depressive thoughts and helps them to think more clearly.
While negative outcomes from practicing yoga were not commonly reported in the survey, they were not entirely absent. One patient described the effect of yoga as too relaxing and meditative, causing this person to go from a depressed mood to one that was almost catatonic. Five other patients said that rapid or energetic breathing during yoga sessions made them feel agitated and anxious. Four respondents said they felt frustrated and critical with themselves during yoga.
Some patients—11 in total—said that there was some risk of physical injury involved in yoga. However, injury is a risk in any form of physical activity, and it is not clear that injury was any more of a risk for bipolar patients than for the larger population when practicing yoga.
Researchers Believe Yoga Can Help Treat Bipolar Patients
Uebelacker has spent a number of years studying yoga and unipolar depression, and Weinstock is an expert in bipolar disorder. The researchers believe that yoga could be a valuable treatment and wellness tool for many bipolar patients. They suggest that bipolar patients might want to avoid more intense yoga practices that could cause rapid breathing, and heated yoga since some bipolar medications can result in heat intolerance. But after weighing the pros against the cons, yoga appears to be a safe and healthy addition to any comprehensive treatment plan.