Yoga and Bipolar Disorder—How and Why It Helps:

“Anger is an energy…” (Repeat) –Johnny Rotten, Public Image Ltd.
People who suffer from mental illness more and more are approaching yoga as way to manage their illness. Here’s some insight as to why yoga can be so helpful.
My personal experience is with using yoga to manage symptoms of bipolar disorder. Bipolar is characterized by severe mood swings, from manic highs to depressive lows. An older name for bipolar is manic depressive, which actually more accurately describes the illness. The prevailing feeling of having untreated bipolar is lack of balance. And that is where yoga comes in.
Yoga, literally translated as “yoke,” is the union of the mind and body. So yoga presents balance in a physical and mental practice that provides structure, direction and a result. When you go to your mat, you bring what’s in your head as well as what’s in your body—racing thoughts, tight hips, anxiety, tight shoulders, anger, tight back, etc…Having a regular yoga practice can be compared to being “in the zone” in sports. It’s your time to perform and reach a level of consciousness that enables a release from physical and mental limitations.
To manage the anxiety of racing thoughts in pranayama or asana, one can focus on the breath. When the breath is a focus you can slow your heart rate, thus reducing your pulse and blood pressure, essentially calming you down. This tool is invaluable when faced with the mentally debilitating and sometimes physically painful effects of bipolar anxiety and/or panic attacks. Once you get your breath under control you give your body the opportunity to perform in the asanas. Breathing into challenging postures results in stability, and hence, success. Being successful in getting into the posture puts you in the zone physically and mentally. This brings tremendous relief to the bipolar mind, which subsists on either hyper-positive or hyper-negative energy. Yoga allows us to access a balanced energy, a healthy expression of energy.
For the depressive side of bipolar, a regular yoga practice may provide structure to get them out of bed, out of the house and around healthy people—which is what they would tend to avoid in their depressive state. For these practitioners, applaud them for getting in the door! Even if they feel they cannot perform to their normal level, encourage them to stay on their mat and feel the good energy around them. Keep them connected to the practice even if they are unable to perform. As they move into breathing and asanas, they may feel more energized. As they are able to perform asanas they benefit from completing a task, as in “yes, I did the warrior series, I accomplished something today.” Remind them that completing each asana is a positive thing. Accentuate the positive and invite them to build on that, and remind them to take it home with them. This is where the positive effects of yoga come in—when the practitioner can put it into effect in an everyday-life situation.
Bipolar mania (tumultuous upswing in mood) produces strong feelings of anger, frustration and irritability. Without management, these feelings can lead to serious consequences, whether it is in the form of interpersonal chaos, in which you can’t get along with other people at work or in personal relationships, or even suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Sadly, 15% of people who suffer from untreated bipolar disorder commit suicide every year (often in a manic state) in the United States because they cannot stand to go on living with the mental anguish associated with the illness. Managing anger through yoga is a very functional tool to avoid these consequences.
As Johnny Rotten sings, “anger is an energy,” and it’s a very powerful and destructive one. Some yogic theory suggests that we hold anger or other strong emotions (guilt, fear) in our hips. You may have experienced or witnessed from others very strong emotional releases with hip openers such as pigeon pose. Some people have been known to burst out crying in class in such poses. At any rate, safely releasing anger (or fear or guilt) while in an asana on a yoga mat is far healthier than allowing it to build up unchecked at your job or in your relationships. Maintaining a regular yoga practice gives your body and your mind the opportunity to safely release these negative emotions before they can do any lasting damage. Moving your body through vinyasa, in and out of yoga asanas, moves energy and releases negativity. Ask your participants to feel it release. This is a learned practice. If you can let these negative and destructive feelings go within your practice, you can create a pathway for healing/change (re:Master Paulu’s lecture) and hopefully make room for new and more positive feelings.
Despite yoga’s many benefits for managing symptoms of bipolar disorder, it is not a cure in itself. Those who suffer from bipolar should be encouraged to follow a well-rounded treatment plan from a medical doctor, which may include medication, therapy and other modifications, such as diet, sleep hygiene and a structuring of life activities.
As you begin to teach and look to meet the needs of your students, you may learn along the way of their mental issues. It is acceptable to offer hope in easing symptoms by providing a positive, steady yoga practice. But do not go out of your scope to diagnose or prescribe solutions beyond the yoga mat. Having said that, it’s great to provide a supportive environment in your yoga class. Be positive and encouraging. Sometimes all someone who is troubled needs is a kind word of support.
–respectfully submitted by Andrea McKenna Brankin July 2013
–references, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga For Depression by Amy Weintraub