Over the past decade, there has been a rapid growth of investigation into the role of yoga in the treatment of depression. Between 2005 to 2015, 24 randomized control trials investigated yoga as a means to help treat depression—close to five times the number of studies in this area before 2005. Studies of yoga and depression have mostly been limited by small sample sizes and have focused on specific groups, such as pregnant women or older adults, making results more difficult to generalize. Yoga has up until now primarily been studied in combination with traditional treatments for depression, including medication and psychotherapy.
In this new study, researchers intentionally focused on people who were not already participating in other forms of treatment for depression, such as medication, talk therapy, or herbal remedies. In the experimental condition, a certified yoga teacher taught hatha yoga sessions. Hatha yoga is a general term for yoga that includes poses, breathing and deep relaxation techniques (and sometimes refers to a more specific style that offers a gentle, slow pace of poses). The yoga group did poses and breathing techniques twice weekly while the control group learned about yoga history and philosophy in an educational course.
Yoga sessions in the study lasted for 90 minutes and were broken down into a 5-minute introduction, 20 minutes of yoga breathing exercises, 50 minutes of poses and movement, and 15 minutes of final deep relaxation. In contrast to the majority of other yoga studies, researchers reported the detailed yoga sequence and exercises, which is particularly useful.
The yoga session for depression included:
1. Yoga breathing (Pranayama) (20 minutes):
2. Yoga poses (50 minutes) specifically focused on chest-opening poses, which are thought to help relieve depression. These include Cobra Pose, Bow Pose, Fish Pose, Bridge Pose, Camel Pose, and Child's Pose.
3. The final resting pose was Corpse Pose (15 minutes)—lying down on the ground supine.
It is still an open question how long or frequent yoga sessions need to be in order to improve depression. Previous studies have found that yoga can help in as little as four weeks, particularly when it's done each day. Even with this study, it is too early to know whether yoga alone could be used to treat milder forms of depression. But yoga, including yoga breathing and meditation practices, is an important resource to consider in the treatment of depression on a case-by-case basis.
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Prathikanti S, Rivera R, Cochran A, Tungol JG, Fayazmanesh N, & Weinmann E. (2017). Treating major depression with yoga: A prospective, randomized, controlled pilot trial. PLoS One. 2017 Mar 16;12(3):e0173869. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173869.