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Yoga can be effective in relieving symptoms associated with clinical depression such as anxiety and stress. Evidence suggests that yoga can have a high success rate in treating depression symptoms. Through the physical postures and the breathing techniques associated with yoga practice, you can create a deep sense of well-being. Yoga can be helpful alone or in compliment to other traditional treatments for depression.
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Effect of Yoga on Depression
Yoga is a set of postures along with deep breathing that facilitates relaxation and the release of blockages in the body that can lead to negative emotions commonly associated with depression. Yoga works to resolve these symptoms at the body level so that they can be worked out and not contribute to a depressive state. The blocked feelings of anger and grief are released very quickly during yoga practice.
Yoga can raise levels of seratonin and other neurotransmitters that has been shown to contribute to a sense of well-being and countering depression. Many of the medications prescribed for depression operate on similar principles of altering neurotransmitter actions so that depression symptoms can be relieved.
The individual practicing yoga is additionally able to observe themselves objectively and without judgment, as is done in Cognitive therapy. This can be an important first step in curing depression symptoms.
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Research Evidence on Yoga
In a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in India, it was shown that yoga breathing techniques, known as pranayama, can have a high success rate in treating clinical depression symptoms. In another, a form of yoga called Iyengar yoga, participats showed psychological improvement (as was shown through the use of many personality tests) and physiological improvement (as shown through lowered blood pressure and heart rate variability).4
In another study, two groups of people at risk of relapsing into depression were studied. In one case, the participants had cognitive therapy alone and in the other, the group had both cognitive therapy and yoga. After eight weeks of treatment, those participants that received both types of treatments were much less likely to relapse into clinical depression.
The LifeForce Yoga Program includes Yogic breating exercises, (pranayama and kirya), visualization (bhavana), intention (sankalpa), hand gestures (mudra), chanting (mantra), postures (asanas) and relaxation (Yoga nidra) or meditation. A study conducted at the University of California Los Angeles foudn that there was a significant decrease in reported depression symptoms from before to after the LifeForce yoga program was implemented.5
In yet another study all mildly depressed yoga program participants demonstrated decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and trait anxiety.1
How to Use Yoga
An overall yoga practice can be very beneficial in treating depression. However, specific yoga postures may be useful in addressing the anxiety and inertia that may be part of the depressed state.
- Sun Salutation: This a common sequence within Hatha yoga. It consists of a sequence of twelve postures which alternately stretch the spine backwards and forwards, along with inhalations and exhalations that raise the centerdness associated with this sequence.
- Backbends: There exist a variety of postures that fall in the area of backbends such as Bridge Pose, Camel Pose and full backbends. These postures range from restorative to active. They encourage movement both in the body and the breath.
- Extensions or Expansions: Helpful in many parts of the body, extending and expanding the chest specifically has been shown to help induce deep breathing and circulation thus contributing to the reduction of depression symptoms.4
- Head and Neck Stands
Hatha yoga is generally at least as safe as any other stretching-based exercise program. However there are a few hatha yoga positions, such as the headstand, that can cause injury when they are performed by a person who isn’t yet sufficiently advanced in yoga, or who has certain health problems, such as a detached retina. A properly qualified instructor can help you avoid injury, taking your own individual health status into account.
- Woolery, A., Myers, H., Sternlieb, B., Loonie, Z. (2004). A Yoga Intervention for Young Adults with Elevated Symptoms of Depression. Alternative Therapies 10(2).
- Yoga Journal, Yoga can help you beat depression, 2007
- Yoga Journal, Personalizing the Yogic Prescription
- Shapiro, D., Cook, I., Davydov, D., Ottaviani, C., Leuchter, A., & Abrams, Michelle.(2007) Yoga as a Complementary Treatment of Depression: Effects of Traits and Moods on Treatment Outcome. eCAM 4(4) 493-502. coi:10.1093/ecam/nel114
- Bennett, S.M., Weintraub, A., Khalsa, S.B.S. (2008). Initial Evaluation of the LifeForce Yoga Program as a Therapeutic Intervention for Depression. International Journal of Yoga Therapy 18.
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