Flexibility, general fitness and stress relief are some of the reasons more than 36 million people practiced yoga in the U.S. in 2016.
Now, there’s data suggesting the practice may offer even more benefits. Five separate studies presented recently at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) showed yoga was also effective at reducing depression symptoms.
Five Studies, One Promising Result
Research showed that participants who practiced yoga twice a week experienced a reduction in depression symptoms after eight weeks. In one of the studies, 23 male military veterans practiced hatha yoga, which focuses on physical and breathing exercises. Bikram yoga – a 26-posture sequence practiced in a heated studio – proved beneficial for 52 women in a second study. In a third, adults who practiced Bikram reported improvements in optimism, cognition and physical functioning.
Yoga may also help those suffering from chronic or treatment-resistant depression. In one study, 12 patients who had depression for an average of 11 years took part in nine weekly yoga sessions lasting approximately 2.5 hours each. After nine weeks, depression, anxiety and stress scores decreased. After four months, in addition to decreased depression symptoms, participants also reported less rumination and worry.
In the fifth study, 74 university students with mild depression used either yoga or a relaxation technique for eight days. Both methods effectively reduced depression symptoms immediately after treatment, but the yoga group continued to experience benefits after two months.
Mona Johany, a Colorado-based 17-year yoga practitioner and instructor since 2010, said she isn’t surprised by the findings.
“Anyone who practices yoga consistently will describe the effects on and off the mat,” she said. “Unlike many other physical disciplines, yoga emphasizes a seemingly contradictory concept: Exert more efforts to master increasingly challenging postures, while maintaining deep, calm, consistent breathing. Unlike running, for example, the goal here is to keep the heart rate low while increasing the physical load. I believe this is where the calming, quieting, anti-depressive aspects of yoga stem from.”
The 8- and 9-week studies prove you’ll need to commit to yoga to really reap the benefits. If you’re a beginner, Johany advises sticking with it for at least 10 days (ideally 30) to determine whether it’s effective.
Physical Accomplishments Translate to Mental Victories
It can be tough to resist depression’s voice when it tells us we aren’t capable or that we don’t have the energy to complete a task. But yoga has the potential to quiet the noise and prove that voice wrong.
“There is something profound about gently challenging the body, and committing to something,” Johany said. “I have seen it many times: The surprise and subsequent joy that accomplishing a new physical challenge brings. This has translated into my students standing taller with better posture, making more eye contact and conveying a sense of calm.”
With calmness comes clarity. Yoga may be effective at breaking both cognitive distortions and negative thought patterns, two hallmarks of depression.
“Personally, I find that yoga helps me constantly separate from negative fearful tendencies and realize I can constantly start again and hit the refresh button,” Johany said. “That we can exist with the negative but that it is only temporary, and that positive will inevitably follow. “
Based on APA’s findings, it appears a full yoga session provides relief. But if you notice a particular jolt of happiness during a backbend or plow pose, it might not be a coincidence.
“There is some anecdotal evidence that backbends and inversions stimulate the nerves along the spine, producing happiness and an invigorating effect,” Johany said.
Getting Started with Yoga
If you’re ready to give yoga a try, you could probably throw a rock and hit a studio in your city or town. So how do you choose what’s best for you?
“I advise anyone looking to start to research classes that are taught in the area, and not be shy about calling or going online to inquire about the teacher’s training,” Johany said. “Look specifically for someone who is interested in teaching beginners and has completed a RYT 200 teacher training.”
Yoga may be intimidating at first, but this newfound empirical evidence linking the ancient practice to mental health benefits in addition to its physical advantages should convince you to at least give it a try. Feeling awkward as a new yoga student is a small price to pay for the potential of better mental health. Besides, no one is there to judge; every other student is facing challenges, too.
“Don’t ever be fooled by seemingly perfect, flexible bodies practicing yoga,” Johany said. “Everybody started with physical limitations, and probably loads of emotional baggage. What you are probably seeing is someone taking pride in committing to dealing with their physical and emotional issues on an ongoing, probably daily, basis.”
Still not ready to face the masses? Get acquainted with yoga in your own home by tapping into YouTube and yoga websites. Johany’s favorites include YogaGlo and Yoga U because “they provide qualified instruction that is aimed at beginner levels.”
And remembering the tenets of yoga – no matter if you physically practice at a studio, in your home or on the beach – can benefit you throughout the day.
“In the end, the physical practice of yoga is only designed to help us sit comfortably in a meditative state, one in which we allow our minds to be calm and clear of all the thoughts, including those associated with anxiety, sadness and fear,” Johany said. “This does not have to happen in a perfect lotus pose, it can take place in real life situations: While sitting on the bus listening to a favorite song, or even while walking in the middle of a bustling city. It is the effort to clear our minds that is the yoga.”