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Yoga Helps Mentally Ill Improve Their Lives

  • Deborah Block

Millions of Americans take classes to learn the poses and breathing of the ancient Indian practice of yoga. In recent years, yoga organizations have been reaching out to people who may not normally have the opportunity to take yoga classes, such as the homeless, trauma survivors, and people with drug and alcohol addictions.Green Door is a small mental health center in Washington where yoga is helping change people’s lives for the better.

Ericpaul Clark has been taking yoga classes for several months. He’s been in jail and a psychiatric facility after abusing drugs. Today, he says he’s clean and looking forward to a better life. Yoga helps keep him calm.

“I have rather a bad temper, and I’m afraid that if I really get angry I might do something dumb that will cause me to go back to jail. When I do the stretches and poses it relaxes my muscles and just makes me feel more comfortable," said Clark.

The free, weekly yoga classes are offered as a part of Green Door’s program to help people who are mentally ill cope with their problems and become more independent. Most are poor and many are homeless or in temporary housing. Social worker Miranda White says a lot of them don’t exercise, but yoga is a good way to get them moving, even if it’s from a chair.

“Their patience for doing any type of exercise is minimal at first, but once they’ve gotten involved in yoga, I’ve seen this love for it," said White.

This is Clarence Marble’s first yoga class and he’s finding it challenging.

“I had to pull both my legs up with both my hands," said Marble.

He hopes yoga will help him lose weight and alleviate his depression.

“If it relieves me of some stress, I’ll really enjoy that, and if I can go do some yoga to get out of my depression that would be even better," he said.

Studies have shown the positive effect of yoga on a range of mental illnesses. They indicate the practice helps reduce stress, ease chronic depression and lessen the symptoms of schizophrenia - a brain disorder characterized by hallucinations and delusions.

Earnestine Jackson, who takes medication to control schizophrenia, says yoga benefits her in several ways.

“It helps you get your self-esteem together, and most of all, it helps me with peace of mind," said Jackson.

Miranda White says that’s something these people really need.

“It’s a moment for their bodies to just relax because if you’re homeless, or if you’re struggling with symptoms of hearing voices or depression, it’s hard to find a calm place within yourself and your environment, and with a lot of them you can see it in their faces," she said.

Instructor Megan Davis, a specialist in yoga therapy, says learning the proper way to breathe while doing yoga helps her students feel more in control.

“Especially the breathing techniques, [they] really invite people not to be reactive, so it comes up when you’re having a craving for drugs, for a drink," said Davis.

That’s beneficial for Charles Bradley, who had a mental breakdown due to drug abuse, and has been clean for a year.

“You don’t always have to go running back to substances to make you feel good. You can make yourself feel good just by doing something as simple as breathing," said Bradley.

Bradley started taking yoga because he was curious - but now considers it a vital part of turning his life around.
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