New study supports yoga to ease depression symptoms

As reported in this CNN article, a new study shows that yoga may decrease symptoms of depression: 

“The results showed that yoga moderately eased depressive symptoms compared with no or self-help treatment across the mental health spectrum, with some conditions benefiting more than others.”

When asked for commentary on the study, Yoga Therapy Today editor in chief Laurie Hyland Robertson noted,

“Many people with depression don’t get better, or don’t get completely better, with medications or other traditional therapies—or they don’t want to use these treatments for a variety of reasons—so effective options to complement existing methods are urgently needed to help people suffering with depression.”

Important research

The original study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM), adds to the evidence base for therapeutic yoga in several key ways.

The research included a systematic review (which looks at the results of a number of previous studies of similar interventions) and a meta-analysis (which combines those results to create a bigger data set). These are among the most rigorous types of clinical studies, and they enable researchers to establish an unbiased evidence base for a practice like yoga, which doesn’t have access to the same levels of research funding a pharmaceutical treatment would. Combining the results of smaller studies is therefore a good way to demonstrate yoga’s effectiveness and safety as a therapeutic practice.

Depressive symptoms are often a component of other mental health conditions, but no review has previously looked at yoga and depression symptoms that people could be experiencing as part of a range of other diagnoses like anxiety, schizophrenia, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the study says, a number of international treatment guidelines from respected organizations now recommend that psychiatric care should include “physical activity-based interventions”—this work provides evidence that yoga can be an effective way to get that physical component.

Sedentary people have worse symptoms of depression than those who are more active, and many who suffer from depression (65%) also have a physical condition like type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease—which can be helped by exercise. We might think first of a tool like meditation to address a mental health issue, and mindfulness has indeed shown promise to help. The BJSM research, however, looked at yoga practices that were predominantly physical. Although the physical component is a small part of the whole practice of yoga, it can provide a safe and accessible form of movement, especially when properly tailored to the individual.

More is better?

As explained in the CNN article,

“Participants did an average of one to two weekly yoga sessions between 20 and 90 minutes long, in which at least half the session was physical movement….For those that it helped, the more yoga sessions a person did each week, the less depressed they became, according to the analysis. ‘The study’s findings suggest that the more yoga you do, the better the effect. Although we don’t know the exact ‘dose’ you need, those who did more yoga sessions per week had greater reductions in depressive symptoms,’ said [Robertson].”

Whether a person enjoys a behavioral intervention goes a long way toward determining how long they’ll stick with it, so for some with depression, yoga may be an ideal long-term complementary therapy.