Joanna Cowper: Yoga As Therapy – Treating Mental Health Conditions with Yoga Practice

It’s widely accepted that exercise and activity can dramatically improve your physical and mental health, but it still surprises people when I tell them that Yoga can be used as an effective treatment for a range of mental health conditions including addiction, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Addiction, OCD & Anxiety

We now accept Yoga as therapy in the sense that we’re learning, collectively, to be more mindful and recognise we should be more attuned to our body. Throughout my young life and into adulthood I was plagued with a range of mental health issues I now know to be anxiety, OCD, BDD and addiction. Like many other sufferers, I felt especially isolated by my conditions following the birth of my children when my OCD went into overdrive. It took a rigorous routine of counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and yoga to get me through it. Quite simply though, yoga saved me.

So why is yoga gaining so much credibility as a treatment for a wide range of anxiety disorders? In its simplest form, Yoga means ‘union’ – bringing together the body and mind is essential in tackling conditions that present as repetitive, compulsive patterns of thinking and/or behaviour, be that skin picking, ‘checking’ or obsessive thoughts. By their nature OCD and anxiety make us feel detached from our body, emotions and surroundings.

By simultaneously occupying the mind and body, yoga helps us break these cycles and reconnect ourselves with the whole self and a greater universal power. We can silence our mind’s ‘chatter’.

I was lucky enough to study and become certified in ‘Success over Addiction and Relapse’ Yoga and I was spurred on to develop a specific Yoga for OCD and anxiety called YOCD in order to help others manage their conditions.

What Does YOCD Practice Look Like?

The physical practice itself is gentle and repetitive. A person in recovery is hugely sensitized and the body responds strongly to every physical sensation. We have to bear in mind that the nerves are ‘on edge’ and anxiety is always present, so this style avoids anything unexpected.

There are no hands on adjustments in YOCD; these can be deemed invasive, stressful, and counter-productive. Instead the class features verbal cues only. We have all experienced some trauma in our lives, and being singled out, shown up or touched in class only serves to bring up anxious, invasive responses in the student and in everyone else around them (who don’t want that attention either). It creates stress and can also injure.

The aim of the physical element in this practice serves to release toxins via twists, to still the body and help dissipate nervous energy, releasing stuck tension and assisting healthy blood flow around the body and to the brain. This preps the mind and body for an effective relaxation session, to further calm mental anxiety and bring mental, emotional and physical respite. This in itself promotes physical health, restoration and mental and emotional wellbeing.

Try A Mini Restorative Practice

  • Relaxation – shavasana. Imagine a ball of light moving up the body and filling you with light and heat.
  • Heart chakra breath (anahata pranayama) – deep inhale and exhale – count inwardly to five or more. Count out for longer.
  • Three x Sun Salutation sequence (surya namasakara)
  • Tree balance (Vrkasana)
  • Half lord of fishes (ardha matsyendrasana)
  • Headstand OR fish pose (sirsasana / matsyasana)
  • Relaxation in shavasana (as before).

By Joanna Cowper

Jo is a yogi with more than 25 years’ experience, she has a background in therapeutic massage and sport, including working on the London 2012 Olympics. She owns her successful practice called Jojoba Yoga from Yorkshire (UK)