Yoga can treat depression

  • Yoga in conjunction with standard approaches delivered by a licensed therapist is recommended

A series of new studies brings yoga one step closer to becoming a recommended treatment for depression, after finding that the practice can help to reduce symptoms of the condition.

Antidepressants remain the primary treatment for depression, but they may not benefit all patients. It is estimated that around 10 to 30 per cent of patients with depression either fail to respond to antidepressants or experience only mild improvements paired with severe side effects.

With this in mind, researchers are on the hunt for new interventions that can boost current treatments for depression. Could yoga meet this need?

Alleviation of back pain and stress are among the most common reasons cited for practising yoga, but studies have increasingly suggested that it could also be used to help treat depression.

Twice weekly for a total of eight weeks, each participant engaged in a session of hatha yoga, which is a type of yoga that focuses on a combination of physical exercises, meditation, and breathing exercises.

The researchers found that participants who had high scores on a depression scale prior to the eight-week yoga intervention demonstrated a significant reduction in depression scores after the eight weeks.

Sarah Shallit – of Alliant International University in San Francisco, CA – and colleagues randomised more than half of the participants to twice-weekly sessions of Bikram yoga for a total of eight weeks.

Bikram yoga – popularised in the 1970s by Indian yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury – is a type of yoga consisting of 26 postures.

The remaining study participants were wait-listed for the Bikram yoga sessions for eight weeks, and they acted as the controls.

The depression levels of both groups were assessed at four-time points: at study baseline, at weeks three and eight, and at one week after the yoga sessions had ceased.

Compared with the control group, Shallit and colleagues found that the Bikram yoga group experienced significant reductions in symptoms of depression.

Another study presented at the convention revealed that yoga may also be beneficial for chronic depression, as well as stress and anxiety.

Study co-author Nina Vollbehr, of the Center for Integrative Psychiatry in the Netherlands, and colleagues enrolled 12 adults who had been living with depression for an average of 11 years.

The researchers found that levels of depression, anxiety, and stress decreased throughout the course of the yoga programme, and these results remained four months after the programme ceased.

While the participants saw no reduction in rumination and worry during the yoga programme, there was a decrease in these areas four months after the programme ended.

“These studies suggest that yoga-based interventions have promise for depressed mood and that they are feasible for patients with chronic, treatment-resistant depression,” says Vollbehr.

Taken together, the researchers believe that their studies indicate that yoga may be a feasible treatment option for depression, particularly for those with a poor response to current therapies.

“At this time, we can only recommend yoga as a complementary approach, likely most effective in conjunction with standard approaches delivered by a licensed therapist. Clearly, yoga is not a cure-all. However, based on empirical evidence, there seems to be a lot of potential.”