Can Yoga Help Depression?

Yoga students may present with a variety of physical health concerns, such as chronic pain or injury. As a yoga instructor, it is important to become familiar with student histories so that the teacher can ensure the yoga studio remains a safe space for students. Overall, engagement in yoga practice has been consistently increasing in frequency across the United States. To accommodate the growing practice, yoga sequences can be specifically adapted to serve various populations, such as older individuals, children, or those with physical ailments. This makes it critical that a yoga teacher learn about students in order to provide them with the safest and most inclusive practice (Stephens, 309).

The practice of yoga can be utilized to address and treat many ailments, such as physical health concerns. While some individuals use yoga to treat physical conditions, some find that yoga is a positive tool in treatment emotional and mental health conditions (Stephens, 324). The physical and mindful components of yoga are thought to be meaningful practices for those experiencing emotional disturbances. Students of yoga can utilize the mind-body connection to address mental health concerns, such as anxiety and stress. Breathing techniques and mindfulness can assist in decreasing anxiety. Most commonly among mental health conditions, Americans utilize yoga practice to manage symptoms of depression.

Depression is one of the most common psychological disorders and involves symptoms such as changes in mood, low energy and motivation, loss of interest in preferred activities, increased irritability, physical aches and pains, and changes in sleep and appetite. These symptoms can be acute and can severely impact one’s ability to manage areas of daily life, such as nutrition and sleep. Though depression is incredibly is incredibly common, the causes of depression vary among an array of environmental, biological, or psychological factors. Traditional, evidence-based treatments for depression include medication management and/or psychotherapy. However, there are some barriers that individuals may face when seeking to participate in traditional mental health treatments. Many individuals never receive formal treatment for depression due to various limitations, such as limited access to resources, stigma associated with mental health treatment, or experiencing unwanted side effects of medication (Bridges & Sharma). Additionally, lack of follow through with treatment may be due to financial stressors or poor connection with treatment teams (Prathikanti, et. al.).

Depression that is left untreated may result in worsening chronic symptoms, such as suicidality or psychosis. These symptoms can impact career, education, family life, or interpersonal life, which can cause an individual intense distress. On average, a depressive episode can last from 6-12 months, with some individuals experiencing symptoms of chronic depression lasting several years. Although patterns of depression vary between each person, most individuals who experience one depressive episode in their lives will eventually experience a recurrent episode (Prathikanti, et. al.). The high relapse rate among those who experience depressive symptoms may also contribute to the lack of follow through with traditional treatments.

It is well known that yoga promotes a variety of physical health benefits. Regular yoga practice can improve flexibility, lower heart rate, decrease stress and anxiety, and reduce aches and pains (Bridges $ Sharma). It can also assist in digestion and other areas of physical wellness. However, yoga can also be beneficial in promoting emotional wellness. Where traditional mental health therapies focus on teaching mindfulness, deep breathing techniques, and relaxation skills, these are also important foundational aspects of yoga (Prathikanti, et. al.). This similarity in techniques means that yoga involves many of the skills taught among traditional therapies that treat depression. For example, mindfulness-based therapy focuses on deep breathing, relaxation skills, and mindfulness toward the present moment. These are also factors that are of focus in yoga practice.

The goal of yoga in minimizing symptoms of depression is to assist students in reaching santosa, or contentment. Traditional yoga views depression as a result of an individual experiencing either a rajastic state or a tamasic state. A rajastic state is one in which an individual experiences anxiety and restlessness. An individual experiencing a rajastic state may benefit from yoga practice that includes a slower flow with long holds. Meditation and calming breaths utilized in these types of sequences can assist in alleivating troublesome feelings of anxiety and restlessness. A tamasic state is one in which an individual experiences low energy and hopelessness, which are symptoms most commonly reported among individuals experiencing a depressive episode. An individual experiencing a tamasic state may benefit from a yoga practice that involves more active and stimulating poses, along with encouragement to keep the eyes open and awake (Stephens, 324). This appears to counteract the low energy experienced by individuals struggling with symptoms of depression.

With the growing rate of public interest in yoga, research related to the efficacy of yoga in promoting health and wellness has dramatically increased. According to Pathikanti, et. al., yoga may be a valuable alternative treatment in addressing depression. During a study of the efficacy of treating clinical depression using yoga, 38 individuals were screened to participate in an 8-week Hatha yoga program. These individuals were those who met the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder and were not currently receiving any treatment for the condition. Individuals were randomly divided into two groups: a yoga practice group and a yoga education group.

Those who participated in the Hatha yoga practive group participated in a 90-minute yoga practice two times per week for eight weeks. This practice group included breathing techniques and poses that promoted relaxation and mindfulness, with the same yoga sequence being used for each session. The yoga sequence used featured chest-opening poses, which are traditionally incorporated into yoga practice to decrease feelings of depression. The group who participated in the education group completed modules related to yoga history and practice for 90 minutes two times per week. Depression was assessed every two weeks throughout the research study using evidence-based depression scales (Prathikanti, et. al.).

Results indicated that depression decreased among the group that participated in yoga practice when compared to those who participated in the education group. However, researchers noted that the differences in rates did not change until the eighth week of practice, suggesting that consistent and prolonged yoga practice is most effective in promoting positive mood changes. The delay in results also suggests that one requires time to adequately learn and practice yoga poses and skills in order for their practice to be effective in alleviating depressive symptoms (Prathikanti, et. al.).

In another study of the efficacy of yoga in treating depression, a literature review was completed to compare outcomes among several research studies that explored the use of yoga in depression treatment. Eighteen published studies, all of which took place in various yoga studios, were assessed. The most common of these schools were ones that primarily taught from the school of Hatha yoga. In this literature review, interventions that were over the course of 6 weeks or more on average were studied, and measuring tools were used to monitor depression over the course of practice.

These schools utilized different structures of practice over the course of the research. Most schools encouraged participants to practice yoga at least once per week for a duration of time ranging from 12 minutes to 90 minutes (Bridges & Sharma). Although numerous differing yoga methods were used in these studies, results showed that all methods, even those in shorter duration, included participants who reported reductions in depression levels. Although, there was no evidence that showed that one method might be more effective than the others in reducing depression symptoms the study could suggest that regular practice of yoga and meditative skills may relate to decreased depressive symptoms. These results indicate a growing need for more research into the efficacy of mind-body interventions in treating clinical depression (Bridges & Sharma).

More specifically, the literature review found that a study by Marafet, et. al., researched an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group participated in three 60-minute yoga sessions, which included breathing exercises, meditation, relaxation, and physical exercise, while the control group participated in assessments only. The results of the study showed that those who participated in the yoga group experienced markedly decreased depressive symptoms. The outcome determined that yoga interventions were effective in decreasing depressive symptoms. Therefore, while traditional therapies and interventions are recommended, mind-body interventions appear to be an effective complementary interventions (Bridges & Sharma).

Depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental health condition. Although many individuals struggle with symptoms of depression, many do not receive traditional evidence-based treatments to assist with alleviating symptoms. However, studies show that regular practice of yoga and meditation may assist in minimizing symptoms of depression. This may broaden access to mental health treatment among those who experience barriers in accessing traditional therapies. Several research studies show that regular yoga practice has been effective in alleviating depressive symptoms.

References:

Bridges, Ledetra and Manoj Sharma. “The Efficacy of Yoga as a Form of Treatment for Depression. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 30 June 2017.

Prathikanti, Sudha, et. al. “Treating Major Depression With Yoga: A Prospective Randomized, Controlled Pilot Trial.” PLoS One, 16 Mar 2017.

Stephens, Mark. Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques. North Atlantic, 2010.

18 thoughts on “Can Yoga Help Depression?

  1. Thanks for the knowledge of the states and such. My daughter was in a Pain Management program this summer. They used yoga as a part of her treatment. Now she does some every day and is much better. She is 14

    Stay well and laugh when you can

    1. Thank you for your question! Of course, yoga isn’t the only thing that helps. There are traditional treatments, coping skills, and medications that are really effective in treating depression.

  2. It doesn’t surprise me yoga helps and yes, it takes time. When I first started doing yoga, it took me 7 weeks to completly relax in class.

    Now, but not often at home, and so I should do it a little more, I do Pilates. I relaxed with it straight away when I first had classes. But I take that due to experience with yoga and learning to relax already.
    I stopped classes after a few years, due to affordability, but confident doing them at home. It’s the doing part.

    But my other thing is Tai Chi. Another that will relax me and that I think helps with mental health. I have dvd’s by the same instructor for it.

    They all have one thing in common. Focus. Concentrating on the moves you do. Being aware of your body as you breathe gently.

  3. Hi dear, due to your awesome blog and outstanding information, I nominated you for the Liebster award for bloggers. Ill be happy if you like to participate. Bellow you’ll find a link to the post with the nomination.

  4. Yoga is my “go-to” practice for stretching my body and my mind. As I focus on the yogic postures, my mind stops yammering, and I breathe in and out and relaxxxxxx. Best practice in the world!

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