Bitten by seasonal blues? Taking yoga class boosts positivity, reduces depression symptoms

BOSTON — Millions of Americans battle symptoms of depression, affecting about one in seven adults at some point in their lives. Many often feel especially blue as temperatures grow colder and winter arrives. A new study shows that joining a regular yoga class could have the power to reduce those symptoms in both the short and long term.

Previous research has suggested that yoga could be an effective treatment for people suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD). It’s been unclear, however, how much yoga one needs to perform in order to reduce symptoms of depression. Researchers now say that a regimen involving Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing exercises could be an effective strategy against MDD, and the improvements were seen whether an individual practiced very frequently or just occasionally each week.

Iyengar yoga is a commonly-practiced yoga style that emphasizes precise yoga postures, often using props such as blocks, blankets, and belts to help. Coherent breathing has been shown to reduce stress in the body. People practice coherent breathing by taking about four long, deep breaths per minute.

Researchers wanted to pinpoint the exact “dosage” of yoga and controlled breathing one needs to reduce MDD symptoms.

“Think of it this way, we give medications in different doses in order to enact their effects on the body to varying degrees. Here, we explored the same concept, but used yoga. We call that a dosing study,” explains corresponding author Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, in a statement. “Past yoga and depression studies have not really delved deeply into this.”

The researchers split 30 participants, all diagnosed with MDD and between the ages of 18 and 65, into two groups, a high-dose group and a low-dose group. Each group participated in regular Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing sessions for 12 weeks. Individuals in the high-dose took three 90-minute yoga classes and four 30-minute coherent breathing exercise sessions at home per week. The low-dose group took two 90-minute yoga classes and three 30-minute coherent breathing sessions per week.

The study authors tested all participants for signs of MDD symptoms before they started their high or low doses of yoga and coherent breathing, then again after four weeks, eight weeks, and 12 weeks. They found significant improvement in all indications of MDD symptoms and mental health for both groups. After a month, participants in both groups reported significant improvements in sleep quality and physical exhaustion. They also reported higher levels of tranquility and positivity, while general symptoms of depression of anxiety were reduced.

“Providing evidence-based data is helpful in getting more individuals to try yoga as a strategy for improving their health and well-being. These data are crucial for accompanying investigations of underlying neurobiology that will help elucidate ‘how’ yoga works,” says study collaborator and co-author Marisa M. Silveri, a neuroscientist at McLean Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The study is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice.

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