Science Demonstrates Yoga’s Capacity to Heal the Mind

Posted on in On Our Radar by Mariana Caplan


Inever thought I was interested in science. There were the “scientist” types and the “spiritual” types, and it wasn’t spiritual to be interested in science. But then I grew up, became humbled and disillusioned in the ways that I believe life and the spiritual path are ultimately designed to do, and found myself in a world where the great insights of science are able to articulate with precise details the insights of the world’s great mystics. For many people, the empirical evidence of hard science is just what is needed to allow themselves to perceive and open to the invisible world of spirit. Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talked about how he loved the skepticism of his Western followers, because the other side of it is a pragmatic conviction that holds confidence and power. It has been a great revelation for me to discover how the research-based evidence of science has demonstrated yoga’s capacity for psychological, physical, and spiritual healing and thriving.

A year ago, 2 of my 10 research interns, Adriana Portillo and Lynsie Seely, and I began a project to survey all of the academic literature and scientific studies done on the integration of Western psychology and yoga. We wondered what could be possible when integrating a 5,000-year-old tradition from the East with a Western psychological model that is just over 125 years old. We pored over the academic, scientific, and popular literature only to discover almost nothing had been published on our topic. We then studied the related research on the impact of yoga on stress, anxiety, depression, psychopathology, wellbeing, and thriving. We became interested in neuroscience, trauma research, and anything else we could think of that would add to our knowledge base.

Here is what we found:

Many researchers, including Koemeda-Lutz and colleagues, found that body therapy treatments significantly improved symptoms of anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems, and psychosomatic grievances. These modern approaches, which are based upon and include important discoveries in neuroscience and trauma research, form the basis for newer integrative, body-inclusive approaches that are revolutionizing psychotherapy.

Trauma is also becoming understood by science. One of the most common misconceptions about trauma is that it must stem from one or more extreme events in the person’s life. Many people who do not remember a specific traumatic event in their life still experience trauma’s physiological and psychological symptoms, leaving them to doubt or diminish their experience by thinking, “Nothing terrible ever happened to me. Why am I feeling so upset and sorry for myself?” Yet trauma research demonstrates that even a seemingly mundane event, or a chronic, low-grade chronic stressor, can leave a traumatic response in the nervous system, body, and brain.

My friend Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling Buddha’s Brain, on our radar » research explained, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The opportunity each day is to approach life as a path strewn with lots of little jewels, little opportunities to internalize a useful experience one synapse at a time, and to weave these jewels into the fabric of your brain and your being. You can transform your brain through the conscious flow of attention, particularly by sustaining attention on positive experiences. Transforming your brain can transform your life.”

When we string together the jewels of knowledge from somatic psychology, trauma research, and neuroscience, along with the pearls of wisdom gathered from the vast body of scientific research done on the effects of yoga (including meditation and breathwork) and its capacity to heal the mind and body, we have the seeds of a holistic approach to psychological health and thriving.

Scores of scientific studies continue to confirm the healing benefits of yoga for many of the common psychological and psychiatric conditions that afflict hundreds of thousands of people every year, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, schizophrenia, and psychotic symptoms.

What Does It All Mean?

This new synthesis is just beginning to develop. When we bring these fields together, they combine to be greater than the separate parts, resulting in a groundbreaking potential for new psychological and healing approaches. From where we sit at this early stage of synthesizing these fields, Lynsie Seely, Adriana Portillo, and I came up with these insights and possibilities:

  • » The Western psychologist can benefit from the insights of yoga—particularly when yoga includes meditation and breathwork, and draws on the research done in relationship to yoga and psychology.
  • » The Western practitioner of yoga can benefit from integrating a larger perspective on yoga, as well as somatic psychology, neuroscience, and trauma research.
  • » There exists the possibility for us as human beings to become fully embodied—for the consciousness and intelligence that is ordinarily associated with the mind to become awakened throughout the whole body.
  • » There is a wide open field for a variety of methods that integrate yoga and psychology to be created, studied, researched, and implemented.

It is exciting to live in a globalized society, even as it is demanding. We have at our fingertips access to much of the knowledge that has ever been available on these subjects, both in the distant past and the immediate present. Yoga and psychology are tremendous complements to each other. If we consider how far psychology has come in the century and a quarter since Freud’s pioneering work came into the world, we can only dream about how far it can go in the next century and into the future. We can stay true to deep science and evidence-based research while partaking of the world’s great wisdom traditions, and discover new possibilities not only to heal but to thrive.

Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, is a psychotherapist, yogi, and the author of six books in the fields of psychology and spirituality, including the award-winning Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path.

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