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Does Yoga Really Help with Depression?

Dealing with Depression? Maybe give yoga a try to relieve the effects of depression and to allow your mind to heal.

Despite the stigma surrounding it, depression is a remarkably common mental health issue around the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression, including nearly 20 percent of adults in England. It often strikes during and after pregnancy, even affecting women who’ve never experienced any depressive symptoms before. Shockingly, within a year of childbirth, 1 in 10 British women will experience postnatal depression.

Treating depression is challenging regardless of the patient’s life circumstances. Despite the wide variety of medications on the market, some just aren’t effective for certain people, and others have interactions that prevent patients on other medicines from using them. Even when patients find a combination and dosage of medication that alleviates their depression, side effects like insomnia, weight gain, and decreased libido can make it impractical in the long run. In addition to medication, or in place of it, many patients see a therapist or counselor to help manage their depression.

A third approach to treating depression, often used in combination with medication and therapy, has to do with lifestyle changes. Most notably, many people find relief from depression through working out regularly or developing a meditation practice. In fact, rigorous scientific studies have examined the effects of exercise and meditation, finding evidence that both can help reduce symptoms of depression.

While the connection between exercise or meditation and experiences of depression might not seem immediately clear, both activities affect brain chemistry. Physical exercise boosts both serotonin and endorphin levels, improving overall mood. Meanwhile, meditation increases the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain that regulate self-awareness, compassion, and introspection, and reduces it in the areas that deal with stress and anxiety.

Yoga and Depression

If exercise and meditation can help with depression, what about yoga? The increasingly popular activity, which many people take up more to “get a yoga body” than to improve their mental state, is widely touted as another way to reduce depression. Though styles of yoga vary dramatically, most encompass physical exercise and meditation practices. As scientific studies have shown that both activities reduce depression on their own, it follows that practicing yoga should have similar benefits.

Unfortunately, the scientific literature on the effects of yoga is much less robust, and many existing studies are of poor quality. But the results of some research do point to the possibility that yoga can help with depression.

For example, research conducted by German scientists back in 2004 found that, among women who reported feeling emotional distress, practicing yoga reduced depression symptoms by half. A Boston University study from earlier this year examined patients with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, and also found a 50 percent reduction in depression symptoms. Interestingly, a study from the Netherlands compared yoga classes with a relaxation treatment and found that yoga was more effective at reducing depression, suggesting that the multiple physical and mental components of yoga work together to create benefits.

Tips for Practicing Yoga for Depression

Yoga does not appeal to everyone, and it doesn’t always help improve depression symptoms. But to make it more likely that yoga will affect you, follow these tips in your practice:

Be Consistent

While even one yoga session per week can help to increase mood and bring about other benefits, more consistent practitioners see a bigger effect. In fact, in the Boston University study, patients who did yoga every day saw larger reductions in depression symptoms than those who practiced five times per week. Further, most yoga experts agree that a short daily practice is more beneficial than infrequent longer classes. Even if you can only squeeze in 10 minutes of yoga, it will make a difference if done consistently.

Don’t be Afraid to Practice at Home

For those who feel intimidated by going into a yoga studio, practicing at home is a great alternative. It takes the pressure off, allows people to practice in the way that best suits them, and it’s free. It also makes it possible to squeeze in 10- or 20-minute sessions when you don’t have time to get to class. If you don’t know where to start, try practicing along with YouTube videos.

Come with an Open Mind

To people who’ve never practiced yoga before, it can seem esoteric and strange, maybe overly spiritual or too serious. But if you’re not open to the practice or don’t take it seriously, it’s unlikely to make a difference for you. Try to keep an open mind as you start to experiment with yoga, and be curious about the practice and how it makes you feel.

Find the Right Style

There are innumerable styles of yoga, each with their own approach and focus. Whether it’s the relaxation of restorative yoga, the alignment of Iyengar, or the sweaty flow of vinyasa, try different styles of yoga until you find one that works well for you. For mothers, some studios even offer pre- and post-natal yoga, as well as Mommy and Me classes. If you force yourself to do a type of yoga you don’t enjoy, it will be harder to stick with it, and you probably won’t reap the mood-related benefits.

Make it More than Exercise

Though any exercise can help reduce depressive symptoms, and some yoga classes in the West treat it primarily as a workout, yoga is about more than that, and that’s what sets it apart. A more holistic approach to yoga includes not only exercise but also stretching, relaxation, breathing, and meditation, all of which are beneficial on their own. By including every aspect in your practice, yoga will be much more likely to make a real impact on symptoms of depression and have a bigger effect than other types of exercise.

So, can yoga cure depression? Honestly, it’s probably not going to be a complete and total cure for many people. But for those who practice consistently and incorporate both physical and meditative elements, it can definitely be a key part of a treatment regimen for depression.

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