Yoga has certainly come far in the Western world in the last few decades, owing in no small part to the plethora of scientific studies proving its effectiveness at ameliorating the symptoms of a host of conditions, including anxiety, chronic lower back pain, migraines, and depression. A recent study by researchers at the Boston University Medical Center has found that those who suffer from depression can enjoy a significant reduction in their symptoms by attending yoga classes just twice a day, in addition to practicing its techniques at home.
The Prevalence Of Depression In The United States
Depression affects over 15 million adults in America, making it one of the most common mental disorders. Between three and five per cent of adults have major depression, which involves displaying at least five of a list of symptoms, over a two-week period. Symptoms include a persistent sad mood, pessimism, guilt, loss of motivation or of interest in activities and hobbies, insomnia, weight loss or gain, irritability, etc. The lifetime risk of major depression is around 17 per cent. Depression affects teens and children as well; in fact, around eight per cent of teens (and two per cent of children) may suffer from serious depression.
The Nature Of Iyengar Yoga
The above-mentioned study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, elicited the effect that Iyengar yoga (a type of Hatha yoga) has on depression. This type of yoga is known for its emphasis on precision and alignment, as well as the correct performance of postures, and deep breathing techniques. During sessions, practitioners aim to hold postures for long periods of time, in an aim to cultivate greater strength, stability and self-awareness.
Important Findings On Yoga’s Benefits
The study was randomized, with some individuals with major depressive disorder being assigned to three 90-minute yoga classes a week alongside home practice, and others being assigned to two 90-minute classes a week in addition to home practice. Both groups showed excellent results in terms of the reduction of depressive symptoms.
Twice A Week is Ideal
The three-class-a-week group did show greater improvement, yet the researchers noted that attending classes just twice a week (and practicing at home) may be a less cumbersome yet effective way to improve mood in those with depression. They stated that their findings applied as much to those who were not taking medication, as to those who were taking medication but not noting an improvement in their symptoms. They also noted that yoga enables those with depression to avoid the side-effects produced by many medications and possible interactions with other medication.
The Secrets To Yoga’s Success
The reasons yoga has such powerful healing benefits include pranayama breathing. By controlling the depth and rhythm of our breath, we are able to aid in the regulation of our ‘parasympathetic nervous system’. This means that our heart rate, breathing rate, and stress hormone levels return to normal. The opposite occurs when we are in the middle of an anxiety attack and our ‘sympathetic nervous system’ kicks in. The latter is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ response; it is activated either when we are faced with real, or perceived danger. Our heart rate begins to rise, we take in many, short breaths and our brain prepares for the need to either face the enemy (fight) or flee from the situation of danger (flight). When we perform controlled breathing exercises, it is practically impossible for our heart rate to continue at an accelerated pace. Once stress hormones are reduced to normal levels, it becomes easier to perceive problematic situations in a more controlled, rational manner.
Yoga and Mindfulness
Yoga also has a powerful mindfulness component. In depression, the mind tends to work in a cyclical fashion, with affected individuals often thinking repeatedly about problematic issues, often feeling overburdened and powerless. Yoga is very much a ‘here and now’ activity; it requires great concentration to perform and hold postures. For this reason, it is recommended in many settings in which keeping stress and depression at bay, is vital. These include rehabilitation centers for those facing substance abuse issues, centers for eating disorders, and clinics attending to cancer patients who have just undergone treatments such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
In many yoga classes, mindfulness meditation is an important part of reaching a greater state of inner awareness. This practice encourages individuals to accept and recognize the emotions they are facing (including sadness, anger, and frustration) without pushing them away, or allowing them to lead us to make self-destructive decisions.
Ultimately, yoga is an activity that can bestow its benefits on anyone, young or old. Classes can be adapted to all levels and even the elderly can take part in classes such as chair yoga, using a chair to lend greater support and confidence. The study shows that daily sessions are not necessary, either; just two classes a week should do the trick when it comes to enhancing mood and vitality, and keeping the blues at bay.
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