As mindfulness has exploded into a range of clinical and research settings across the world, its close relative, yoga, has followed suit. Across a range of settings, from community mental health to psychology labs at some of the top research universities, yoga is being incorporated and investigated for effectiveness as both a complementary therapy and a standalone treatment.
One particularly interesting clinical application of yoga, called Yoga-Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (Y-CBT) has emerged to provide a targeted mind/body approach to symptom management among people struggling with anxiety disorders in Massachusetts.
The results of preliminary research have been promising; although the program was initially developed for people with anxiety, participants with depression and PTSD also experienced significant reduction in symptoms after completing the six-week program.
The Y-CBT program was developed by psychologist Manjit Khalsa, Ed.D, and clinical social worker Julie Greiner-Ferris. Both are clinicians at Riverside Community Care Outpatient Center in Upton, Massachusetts, where Greiner-Ferris serves as the program director of outpatient services.
All answers in the following interview were a collaboration between both Khalsa and Greiner-Ferris.
How did you arrive to the point of wanting to use yoga to address mental health issues? What were some of your early experiences with the therapeutic power of yoga in clinical settings?
We developed the Y-CBT model in response to a need identified by one of our psychiatrists who asked if we could create a group program for her clients with anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder).
Her concern was that the primary coping strategy for many of her clients was to treat their symptoms with medications. She hoped that a group could potentially offer them additional strategies to manage their symptoms.
Dr. Khalsa is a long time practitioner and teacher of Kundalini Yoga. We discussed whether it would be possible to put together a group that used yoga techniques adapted to the clinic setting.
As we talked about the concept we agreed that pairing simple yoga techniques, selected specifically with Manjit’s knowledge of their effectiveness in managing the symptoms of anxiety, with techniques used in our traditional psychotherapy practice (cognitive behavioral therapy, psycho-education, etc.) could potentially have merit.
Our rationale/theory was that combining the two techniques could potentially have significant impact on both the cognitive and physical symptoms of anxiety.
We further agreed that a group model would offer the additional benefit derived from therapeutic camaraderie, shared experiences, and reduced isolation.
What does the Y-CBT intervention look like, in terms of the balance of asana practice, talk therapy, other exercises?
The group treatment model consists of six 1.5 hour sessions. Each session weaves together the three elements of group process; didactic material, cognitive restructuring strategies and Kundalini yoga/meditation and breath techniques.
Our interest was to make the model accessible to all people, regardless of their physical ability, and so, all of the yoga is done in chairs and requires relatively low physical exertion.
Each group has a unique topical focus. Topics include understanding symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder; managing the physical symptoms of anxiety; managing the cognitive symptoms of anxiety; how anxiety impacts self value/self concept; and how anxiety can impact communication and relationships.
Is Kundalini the only style of yoga that will be used in this approach? Could someone make the assumption that utilizing another style of yoga (ex. ashtanga yoga or bikram yoga) in the same capacity would produce similarly positive outcomes?
Kundalini yoga is the style of yoga that is used in Y-CBT, but many poses and breaths are common to a variety of the styles of yoga. There is much in common between the different styles of yoga and the research shows that various styles of yoga work well to produce positive physical and emotional outcomes.
We chose Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan® in part because of Manjit’s training and in part because the yoga sets are said to have specific effects, such as reducing anxiety. Certain sets in the Kundalini Yoga tradition, for example, are said to strengthen the nervous and glandular systems while having a relaxing and invigorating effect.
Practiced every day, like other styles of yoga, Kundalini Yoga can be very effective at calming the mind and reducing anxiety and depression. Kundalini Yoga is also called the yoga of awareness and its goal is to help you to achieve your highest potential.