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August 17, 2017

Studies show yoga has ‘a lot of potential’ to treat depression, but questions remain

Health studies both in the U.S. and abroad have found a clear relationship between the practice of yoga and helping people treat clinical depression.

If yoga is to be considered as a depression treatment, however, numerous logistical questions remain that could better regulate it for the most effective results.

The Center for Integrative Psychiatry in the Netherlands released two studies earlier this month concluding that people with depression should seek yoga as a complement to other traditional therapy treatments.

In those studies, researchers studied 11 participants who had depression for a median range of 11 years as they underwent usual depression treatments like therapy and antidepressants. Subjects took weekly yoga classes for nine weeks and all yielded lessened scores of depression and anxiety at the end of the treatment period and four months later in a post-treatment follow-up.

The Netherlands team then tested yoga treatment on college students, half of whom received yoga instruction. After a two-month follow-up period following treatment, the group treated with yoga had a more significant decrease in depression and stress symptoms.

Similarly, the American Psychological Association, published out of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, set out to quantify the effect yoga does or doesn’t have in treating depression.

“Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practicing,” Lindsey Hopkins, Ph.D., of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said in a statement.

“But the empirical research on yoga lags behind its popularity as a first-line approach to mental health.”

The Veterans Medical Center tested yoga treatment on several different groups, including 23 male veterans who underwent twice-weekly yoga classes for eight weeks. Veterans averaged their enjoyment, on a 1-10 scale, at a 9.4 and had a notable significant reduction in depression symptoms by the end of the eight-week treatment.

Though the studies offer hopeful alternatives to standard treatments for depression, they give rise to a few questions about how those are to be prescribed and practiced by severely depressed people. For example, as Forbes notes, how would proper “doses” be determined? Additionally, should it be therapy-trained yoga teachers or psychologists who "administer" the yoga treatment? 

With these questions in mind, health professionals still say yoga treatment should be prescribed in conjunction with other treatments.

“At this time, we can only recommend yoga as a complementary approach, likely most effective in conjunction with standard approaches delivered by a licensed therapist,” said Nina Vollbehr, who worked on the Netherlands study.

“Clearly, yoga is not a cure-all. However, based on empirical evidence, there seems to be a lot of potential.”

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