A mind-body therapy for mind-body illness

One aspect of an illness usually takes center stage in our awareness, so it can be easy to forget that physical conditions have mental/emotional components and vice versa. (Here’s a great explanation of how yoga therapists work with the panchamaya model, the yogic conception of our multidimensional human systems.)

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) provides a rich example of how physical suffering has mental and emotional effects. RA is an autoimmune inflammatory condition known for causing joint pain and swelling in the physical body, but sufferers also often experience “mental” problems like depression, which can in turn make physical symptoms worse or even result in new ones. Those with arthritis may have depression at rates up to 10 times greater than the general population.

This study* examined yoga’s effect on both physical indicators of RA (disease biomarkers found in the blood and a questionnaire that assessed functional status) and on depressive symptoms. Just 2 months of yoga practice was enough to make a significant difference in patients’ depression, something the standard prescription drug therapy didn’t do by itself. (This article offers a plain-language discussion of the findings.)

Because we typically identify a condition with a particular physical problem or an emotional pattern, we may gravitate to treatments that address this single pain point, for example, seeking physical therapy for a torn rotator cuff or psychotherapy for depression. These treatments have tremendous value, of course, but as healthcare providers of all kinds increasingly recognize the value of working with a biopsychosocial-spiritual model, we can see how a mind-body modality like yoga therapy fits into a holistic approach to help address all aspects of suffering.

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