Yoga-based interventions show significant promise for treating patients with depression, including those with chronic, treatment-resistant symptoms, according to findings of several studies presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In one of the studies, researcher Lindsey Hopkins, Ph.D., of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, focused on the acceptability and antidepressant effects of hatha yoga, the branch of yoga that emphasizes physical movement, along with meditative and breathing exercises, to enhance well-being.
For eight weeks, 23 male veterans participated in hatha yoga classes twice a week. By the end of the program, veterans with elevated depression scores before the yoga program had a significant reduction in depression symptoms.
In addition, the average enjoyment rating for the yoga classes for these veterans was 9.4 on a scale of one to 10. And every single one of the veterans said they would recommend the program to other veterans.
“Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practicing,” said Hopkins. “But the empirical research on yoga lags behind its popularity as a first-line approach to mental health.”
In another experiment, Hopkins and researcher Sarah Shallit, M.A., of Alliant University in San Francisco, investigated the effects of Bikram yoga (heated yoga), a type of hatha yoga commonly practiced in the West.
Just more than half of the 52 participants aged 25 to 45 were assigned to participate in twice-weekly classes for eight weeks. The rest were told they were wait-listed and used as a control group.
All participants were tested for depression symptoms at the beginning of the study, as well as at weeks three, six, and nine. By the end of the study period, Bikram yoga had significantly reduced symptoms of depression compared with the control group.
During the same APA presentation, Maren Nyer, Ph.D., and Maya Nauphal, B.A., of Massachusetts General Hospital, revealed the findings from a pilot study of 29 adults that also showed eight weeks of at least twice-weekly Bikram yoga significantly reduced symptoms of depression and improved other secondary measures including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning.
“The more the participants attended yoga classes, the lower their depressive symptoms at the end of the study,” said Nyer, who currently has funding from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health to conduct a randomized controlled trial of Bikram yoga for individuals with depression.
In addition, Nina Vollbehr, M.S., of the Center for Integrative Psychiatry in the Netherlands, presented data from two studies on the potential for yoga to help reduce chronic and/or treatment-resistant depression.
In the first study, 12 patients who had experienced depression for an average of 11 years participated in nine weekly yoga sessions of approximately 2.5 hours each. The researchers measured participants’ levels of depression, anxiety, stress, rumination, and worry before the yoga sessions, directly after the nine weeks and four months later.
The findings show that participants’ levels of depression, anxiety, and stress decreased throughout the program, a benefit that persisted four months after the training. Rumination and worry did not change immediately after the treatment, but at follow up rumination and worry were decreased for the participants.
In another study, involving 74 university students with mild depression, Vollbehr and her research team compared yoga to a relaxation technique. Participants received 30 minutes of live instruction on either yoga or relaxation and were asked to perform the same exercises at home for eight days using a 15-minute instructional video.
While scores taken immediately after the treatment showed yoga and relaxation were equally effective at reducing symptoms, two months later, the yoga students had significantly lower scores for depression, anxiety and stress than the relaxation group.
“These studies suggest that yoga-based interventions have promise for depressed mood and that they are feasible for patients with chronic, treatment-resistant depression,” said Vollbehr.
The concept of yoga as complementary or alternative mental health treatment is so promising that the U.S. military is investigating the creation of its own treatment programs.
Hopkins noted that the research on yoga as a treatment for depression is still preliminary. “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,” she said.
“Clearly, yoga is not a cure-all. However, based on empirical evidence, there seems to be a lot of potential.”