As mental health issues become more prevalent in our fast-paced society, many UK doctors are warming up to embracing yoga as a powerfully healing modality. Has it finally been given the kudos it deserves by Western medicine? We look at the huge potential of yoga being offered as a mainstream health practice in the treatment of conditions such as stress, anxiety and depression.
The State Of Our Mental Health
In our frenetic modern world, one in four people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. This is a commonly quoted statistic, but around the edges of it, many more people are finding it difficult to switch off from the tech-filled and hectic everyday lives we lead today, experiencing stress and disconnection. (1)
In the UK, the NHS is meanwhile struggling to deal with rising obesity and associated diabetes, and as we work to break down old stigmas attached to mental health problems, we are also noticing an increase in people struggling with conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
Young people in particular are suffering, with rates of anxiety and depression soaring by 70% among teenagers in the last twenty five years. (2)
The Tipping Point
Thankfully, we’ve reached a point where the NHS is starting to listen and take heed of the immensely powerful healing effects of yoga.
When GP Dr Matt Joslin of Manchester’s The Docs city-centre surgery wrote an open letter to the NHS on Facebook in January this year, it is not surprising that he received an overwhelming response from the public. His letter received 17,000 Facebook shares. Joslin has a sixteen year Ashtanga practice and described how it saved him from work-related stress that otherwise would have led him to give up his work as a GP. In doing so, he posted a rallying cry for yoga to be adopted by the NHS for the treatment of a plethora of different conditions.
It’s a powerful argument, not only because the benefits of yoga are deep-reaching and diverse. By encouraging people to connect with their bodies and minds, learn how to breathe and how to tune into the innate intelligence of the body, a huge array of biological, mental, behavioural and emotional rewards become available. What’s more, it is at a minimal cost to all involved.
Yoga As Medicine
Unlike many Western treatments – yoga makes no demands for expensive technology or machinery. Patients can usually practice in a group context, and practice can be extended into their personal lives at maximum convenience and without expense. Whilst further thinking needs to go into how yoga can be taught and fully harnessed as a medium for healing within the UK health system, the wheels are already in motion. The NHS already offers yoga videos online for anyone to follow, and advises patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions to explore taking up a yoga practice. (3)
Indeed, Joslin’s letter cites various miraculous tales of patients suffering from difficult and often pernicious conditions who have greatly improved their quality of life. Such conditions range from severe depression to chronic pain, musculoskeletal problems to cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as other problems such as social isolation.
The NHS has started to realise the multiple benefits of yoga’s rich offering to all who practice it. It can also be a social activity, which can be extremely beneficial to older people who can combine warding off osteoporosis whilst participating in a group class.
Ideas to offer yoga vouchers free of charge to patients to whom GPs believe yoga could be of benefit have already been piloted. At The Docs surgery, some patients are already leaving appointments with a free voucher for a 45-minute yoga class taught by Joslin at a local studio. (4) “It is time yoga became the default option to get people moving, improve strength, flexibility and posture and – while you’re at it – to bring a helping of mindfulness to promote mental health,” Joslin says. And it’s looking hopeful that similar schemes may be rolled out in other places, too.
The Outlook For Yoga As Medicine In The UK
The introduction of yoga as a mainstream health practice is an exciting one, not only for the yoga world, but also for the medical world. It constitutes a potentially empowering shift in thinking towards the advocating of a more proactive attitude towards health. By offering patients the opportunity to try yoga – before taking medication, perhaps, where appropriate – the NHS may be able to start to alter the ‘quick-fix’ thinking that often leads both doctors and patients to reach for pill prescriptions as a first step. Not only could this bolster a national drive to adopt more of a ‘prevention-before-cure’ mentality towards mental and physical health, but it could also save the nation a considerable amount of money.
Yoga participation is on the rise, nationally, with Sport England figures suggesting that 388,200 people over 16 participated in yoga for 30 minutes per week in 2013-14. There is plenty of opportunity for yoga to be brought more prominently to the fore of wellbeing. One way to spread the message is to enable NHS workers to benefit from yoga themselves. It is of course important that GPs keen recommending yoga to their patients understand the differences between Ashtanga and Yin; Vinyasa Flow and Iyengar. Such distinctions could quite literally make or break a patient with musculoskeletal issues, or extreme anxiety.
If we can promote understanding of yoga as a dynamic practice, as potent at an energetic level as it is at the level of strength and flexibility, then yoga prescriptions can be strategically targeted and their benefits maximised. Encouragingly, the NHS England CEO, Simon Stevens announced in autumn 2015 that yoga would be offered to NHS health professionals themselves. Not only will this equip doctors to recommend the most relevant practices to their patients, but it will also benefit the NHS itself by improving the mental and physical wellbeing of its workforce. The yoga offering, which also includes Zumba and health checks, comes as part of an initiative designed to cut the £2.4bn cost of sick leave in the NHS every year.
We are entering an exciting time for the yoga world to become more integrated into that of conventional medical thought and healing. It is in the spirit of yoga to believe that every little helps, that small positive differences add up, and that we get out of something the energy that we put in. For the NHS, it looks as though the inclusion of yoga as an alternative, or even as an addition to conventional treatments to many common conditions, could add up to far more in health benefits and savings than it costs to introduce.
There is a lot of room for further medical and scientific research to be made into the specific benefits of yoga to individual conditions. Even if yoga starts out by constituting some of patients’ recommended exercise – already part of the treatment of many ailments associated with our stressful and sedentary lives – then the NHS looks set to see some rich rewards.