People with depression turn to yoga as an adjunct to traditional therapies because the practice appears to ease symptoms of the disorder, according to studies presented at the Conference of the125th Annual of the American Psychological Association.
Lindsey Hopkins, PhD “Yoga is becoming increasingly popular in the West, and many yoga practitioners see reducing stress and other mental health problems as their primary reason to practice”.
The Hopkins study focused on the acceptability and antidepressant effects of hatha yoga, the branch of yoga that emphasizes exercise, as well as meditation and breathing exercises, to improve health. In the study, 23 male veterans attended yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks. On a 110-point scale, the average yoga class favorite rating for these veterans is 9.
All participants said they would recommend the program to other veterans. More importantly, participants who had high depression scores before the yoga program experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after eight weeks.
Another, more specific version of hatha yoga commonly practiced in the West is Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga. Sarah Shallit, MA, Alliant University in San Francisco investigated Bikram yoga in 52 women, aged 25. Just over half were assigned to take classes twice a week for eight weeks. The rest were told they were on a waiting list and used as a screening condition. All participants were screened for depression at the beginning of the study, as well as at weeks three, six and nine. Shallit and Hopkins found that eight weeks of Bikram yoga significantly reduced depressive symptoms compared with a control group.
In the same session, Maren Nyer, PhD, and Maya Nauphal, BA, Massachusetts General Hospital, presented data from a study of 29 adults that also showed that 8 weeks of Bikram yoga at least twice a week significantly reduced depressive symptoms and improved other secondary measures including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical function.
“The more yoga classes people attended, the more their depressive symptoms decreased at the end of the study,” says Nyer.
Nina Vollbehr, MS, of the Center for Integrative Psychiatry in the Netherlands presented data from two studies on the potential of yoga in combating chronic depression and / or resistance to treatment. In the first study, 12 patients with depression for an average of 11 years participated in nine weekly yoga sessions of about 2.5 hours each. The researchers measured the participants’ levels of depression, anxiety, stress, thinking, and anxiety before the yoga session, after nine weeks, and four months. Depression, anxiety, and stress scores decreased throughout the program, a benefit that lasted four months after training. Panic and anxiety did not change immediately after treatment, but at follow-up, study participants experienced a reduction in anxiety and worry.
In another study of 7 college students with mild depression, Vollbehr and colleagues compared yoga to a relaxation technique. Individuals received 30 minutes of live yoga or relaxation instruction and were asked to perform the same exercise at home for eight days using a 15-minute instructional video. While results obtained immediately after treatment showed that yoga and relaxation were equally effective in reducing symptoms, two months later participants in the yoga group had low scores for depression, anxiety, and stress.
“These studies suggest that yoga-based interventions hold promise as an intervention for depressed mood and are feasible for patients with treatment-resistant chronic depression,” Vollbehr said.
The concept of yoga as a complementary or alternative mental health treatment holds so much promise that the US military is looking to create its own treatment programs. Jacob Hyde, PsyD, University of Denver, presented a description of a six-week standard yoga treatment for U.S. Army veterans.
Hopkins notes that research on yoga as a treatment for depression is still preliminary. “At this time, we can only recommend yoga as a complementary practice, possibly most effective when combined with standard approaches provided by a licensed therapist,” she said. “Clearly, yoga is not a panacea. However, based on empirical evidence, there seems to be a lot of potential. “