The results of a recent study on the benefits and risks of Hatha yoga for individuals with bipolar disorder were interesting to me, but not surprising. The study (which was originally published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice) evaluated the survey responses of more than seventy people with bipolar disorder who also practice yoga. The researchers’ goal was to find out if yoga was, at least on the surface, safe and effective for individuals suffering from this disorder.
I’ve only worked therapeutically with a handful of clients with bipolar disorder, but designing appropriate yoga practices for them is tricky, because it involves managing energy that can fluctuate rapidly and severely between two opposite states: rajasic (agitated, stressed, and hyper-aroused) and tamasic (dull, lethargic, and depressed). The yoga tools used to balance those energy states are significantly different.
An energizing, nourishing practice (which is typically what we teach to clients with unipolar depression) may well send a client with bipolar disorder into a manic state. A relaxing practice (which is what we typically teach to clients suffering from anxiety) might send them into a depressive one. Therefore, I often make my practices for bipolar clients more balanced energetically or very slightly sedating.
The results of the study mirrored what I’ve seen in my teaching. The vast majority of respondents said yoga helped them; some even went so far as to say it saved their lives. Five of the seventy, however, said that energizing practices did, indeed, agitate them. Another five individuals said that yoga practices increased their depression. One said a relaxing practice sent him into an almost catatonic state. As the Viniyoga teachings indicate, effective teaching is all about adapting the yoga practice to the individual.
Obviously, there is more to learn. These surveys were the first step of a pilot clinical trial that will compare the effects of yoga practice to using a well-regarded workbook for bipolar disorder. That trial will hopefully set the stage for a larger study. I firmly believe that yoga, particularly Viniyoga, can be extremely useful when appropriately applied for this condition. The results of these studies may help us understand how.
Those of you who have experienced depression, anxiety, or suffer from bipolar disorder, what have your experiences been with yoga? I’d love to hear from you.
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