More than a decade ago, few Americans used alternative therapies such as yoga and meditation to treat mental health problems. Today, almost a fifth of the population practices yoga.
The term alternative medicine refers to treatments that are not typically part of traditional Western medicine. Alternative medicine emphasizes a holistic, individualized approach to health care and wellness that treats the whole person rather than one area of the body or system.
Alternative therapies for mental health problems include mind and body practices, natural products, manual therapies, energy medicine, and medical systems. These therapies claim to help treat mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and can supplement physical therapy.
Barb Compton of Omaha began seeing Chanell Jaramillo, Ph.D., co-owner at Simplicty Yoga and Wellness Center after suffering a stroke. She specifically started practicing yoga, the ancient Indian system of health care that has been in existence for more than 5,000 years and uses poses, stretching, breathing exercises, and meditation to balance the body and mind.
“There are so many reasons why yoga helps my rehabilitation,” Compton says via email. “Many of the other mainstream physical therapy activities had really plateaued…She pushed my boundaries, which no one else had even tried to do. Initially I worked with Chanell one-on-one. When my circumstances changed, I was able to attend several different types of yoga classes. Prior to having a stroke and attending classes, both private and large class, I had definite opinions about yoga…I thought that yoga couldn’t possibly help me after all, it just seemed like a bunch of different poses that didn’t look all that difficult.”
She kept with it, however, and through a combination of alternative and traditional therapies, Compton is seeing improvements, and has discovered she enjoys practicing yoga.
“I wish I could have experienced yoga when I was younger. I think I would have really enjoyed it,” Compton says. “Since the stroke, I still have some left-side paralysis that prevents me from attending the more aggressive classes.”
Although some people find relief for their mental health problems using alternative treatments, most combine them with professional care. For serious mental health conditions, Jaramillo recommends working with a doctor or a mental health professional first before starting an alternative therapy.
Mind and body practices are performed or taught by a trained practitioner or teacher to strengthen the connection between the mind and body. The philosophy is that the two must be in harmony to be healthy. Practices such as meditation, relaxation techniques, and yoga fall into this category.
Haley Martin, LMT, Certified Hellerwork Structural Integration Practitioner (CHP) at Downtown Omaha Massage, describes her yoga practice as “one of wholeness, of oneness, and of connection.”
Research shows that yoga may be helpful for anxiety issues and depressive symptoms. The yoga practice people in Omaha are most familiar with is hatha yoga, which involves breathing techniques [pranayama], postures [asanas], and meditation [dyana].
Yin yoga, specifically, is a practice done primarily on the floor or with the use of a wall. The room is cool and dim, and poses are held for three to five minutes.
“A big component of yin yoga is teaching people how to slow down and how to be with the mind,” says Jaramillo, also an experienced registered yoga teacher (E-RYT), and transpersonal health therapist. Those who suffer from mental health disorders often are unsettled, restless, or confused. This mental state, according to Buddhist principles, is referred to as the “monkey mind.”
Reaching a deep state of relaxation with a yin yoga practice helps prepare the body and mind for meditation. Meditation covers a wide range of practices, from zen meditation rooted in Buddhism to Vedic mantra-based meditation where practitioners repeat a particular Sanskrit phrase—one of the oldest forms of meditation originating from India.
For people new to meditation, Martin recommends finding a teacher to answer the questions they may have about starting a meditation practice.
“Meditation is just like anything you want to be ‘good’ at, you have to do the practice,” Martin says. “Be gentle with yourself.”
A popular practice is a guided meditation. During a guided meditation, a teacher leads the mediation often using relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, and body scanning to relax the muscles. Apps like Headspace, Calm, and Sounds True make meditation practices accessible like never before.
Manual therapies involve applying human touch to a specific part of the body. They often include manipulating the body with massage as well as joint and spine adjustments.
Another approach to explore is energy medicine, which involves practitioners working with a body’s energy fields to balance or unblock their energy. Different traditions refer to this energy by many names. Carolyn Descoteaux is one person who has used energy therapy to help her mental health, specifically going to Simplicity Yoga and Wellness for a treatment called biopulsar assessment, in which the energy in a person’s body appears as different colors. The colors can tell where someone is experiencing stress, such as the abdomen or shoulders.
“The biopulsar aura analysis seemed foreign to me at first but Chanell was able to use it to pinpoint issues that needed to be addressed,” Descoteaux says. “It has awakened me to a better understanding and acceptance of who and what I am. I am in such a better place than I was just a month ago. I could not have found this type of healing going it on my own.”
Jaramillo also practices Reiki, the Japanese technique for stress reduction that is carried out by laying on of hands. She works on areas of the body where she senses imbalance. “Reiki focuses on how emotions contribute to what we experience and how they show up in our life including illness,” Jaramillo says.
Energy therapies have not yet been able to be measured using conventional scientific methods despite being around for thousands of years.
People may combine several alternative therapies to achieve mental wellness or they may follow a holistic medical system that centers on a philosophy. It could be an Eastern healing system like Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine. It could be naturopathy, a medical system that uses a variety of noninvasive alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture, herbs, and exercise to facilitate the body in healing itself.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.