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Namaste for Your Neurons: Psychiatric patients have opportunity to take part in yoga

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

Angela Dossett sits cross-legged on a yoga mat in the front of the small room. The lights are switched off, save the soft glow of a small lamp beside her. Gentle, relaxing music begins to play.

“We’re going to use our brain and body together,” Dossett says to the five people seated in front of her on purple and blue mats, and to another sitting in a chair.

A mix of men and women, young and old, sit straight up, legs crossed, focusing on their breathing.  

However, Dossett is calm and patient. Most of the participants in this class have never done yoga before, but the activity is meant to help alleviate the stress they might be feeling while staying at the inpatient psychiatric units at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.

An adapted approach

Dossett, a behavioral health nurse, started teaching yoga to people with psychiatric illness in 2017.

“I watched patients pacing the hall or the opposite, lying in bed and just listless,” she says. “I knew that I could lower stress for patients through yoga practice because I’ve been instructing for 20 years.”

Dossett says she got permission to use the activity rooms on the units so the patients could have a peaceful, quiet setting to practice yoga for about an hour, three days a week.

“This is not a typical yoga practice where you go and sweat and burn 500 calories,” she says. “It’s specifically structured and designed to relieve stress: simple stretches, modified to patients’ conditions.”

Dossett says she’s adapted the practice to patients who can’t lie down on the floor, or have limited mobility.

“I’ve done yoga with patients in bed who are paraplegic,” she says.

But if she has a room of healthier patients, Dossett says she will throw in some more active poses.

“I think the greatest thing is that whether you’re at the mat or you’re in the chair or you’re in the hospital bed, patients report the same effects.”

Another type of yoga

Dossett isn’t the only one offering yoga in the psychiatric units. Jon Mitchell, a recreational therapist, has been helping patients do a different type of yoga.

“I used to call it stretching and relaxation,” Mitchell says. “We would do 45 minutes of just gentle stretches, and then 15 minutes of relaxation at the end.”

Many of the patients that Mitchell works with at UI Hospitals & Clinics are being treated for eating disorders.

“I’m a big advocate for doing exercise in a healthy way and teaching them all about exercise for wellness, and how exercise can really build your body up, it’s not just to lose weight,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell says a lot of patients report after doing yoga, they weren’t focused so much on comparing their bodies to others.

“When they’re doing the focusing on poses and breathing techniques, they lose the rumination over the food they just ate, guilty feelings, rumination on calories,” Mitchell says. “It’s distraction from thinking about what was on the label.”

Mitchell says one of his favorite testimonials came from a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“I did quite a few sessions with him, and he really seemed to brighten during yoga. After the third yoga session he approached me and said, ‘Jon, I really feel good about myself when I’m in your groups.’”

Mitchell says when he gets good, qualitative testimonials like that, it’s reassuring to him, and reminds him of a Maya Angelou saying: “People will forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”

“It’s those moments that remind you of why you do what you do, and that it might actually be helping.”

Evidence of effectiveness

And there is proof that yoga helps people with mental illness.

About a year and a half ago, Dossett was asked by her nurse manager, Marsha Gingerich, to gather evidence about the effectiveness of yoga in reducing stress.

Among other things, the research found patients slept better after doing yoga, which Dossett says is very important for mental and physical health.

“They report that when they wake up, they just feel great,” Dossett says. “They socialize more. It seems to clear their thinking because they’re able to make more rational decisions, and they’re more in control of their thinking.”

Patients also reported they felt more calm, relaxed, less worried, less agitated, less annoyed, less angry and less sad.

Notably, Dossett says she was happy to hear patients diagnosed with schizophrenia express their satisfaction, “to the most extreme of a patient saying the noise in his head went away.”

Dossett plans to publish a manuscript of her findings.

Friday, May 1, 2020