Have you ever finished a yoga class and left feeling lighter, with a skip in your step that maybe wasn’t there prior to working out? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone, as many people report that yoga reduces symptoms of depression, including obsessively focusing on negative feelings and emotional eating. In fact, researchers are beginning to think of yoga as an excellent complement to therapy and antidepressant drug treatments.
Meditation is the core of many yoga styles, which might explain the benefits we experience when practicing yoga to exercise and relieve stress. Research has shown that meditation can lead to slower cellular aging and boosted production of insulin. There are also links between inflammation and depression, and since yoga might actually have the ability to dampen down inflammation genes, researchers are getting closer to concrete evidence that yoga helps relieve depression and stress.
There have been several recent studies that focused on the effects of Bikram hot yoga on women with signs of depression, including high levels of stress and emotional eating habits. In both cases, a group of women – with mild to moderate symptoms of depression – attended two Bikram hot yoga classes a week for eight weeks, while another group of women with similar symptoms did no yoga at all. The results of both studies showed a decrease in stress and emotional eating in those who attended classes, compared to those who did not. One of the studies found that the women who participated in the yoga class were three times less depressed than the women who didn’t do any yoga. The group that did yoga also reported being less focused on negative feelings, and more expressive of positive emotions.
Some researchers believe that yoga helps balance the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation and the sympathetic system, which controls arousal and fight-or-flight responses. This would make sense as there is evidence to suggest that stress increases activity in the sympathetic nervous system, sending signals of fight-or-flight to our brains while simultaneously stifling parasympathetic system activity. The benefits of hot yoga don’t only apply to women, as a study by the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that male veterans who took yoga classes twice a week for eight weeks had fewer depression symptoms as well.
In all of these studies a wide range of ages, occupations, and genders were covered, and each time the results pointed to a positive correlation between hot yoga and the easing of feelings of depression. There has not been enough data collected yet, but researchers seem hopeful that with more studies they’ll be able to understand how much yoga a person would need to use the meditation exercise as the sole method of depression treatment. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that including yoga a couple times a week into your routine can have a positive effect on your mood and improve your mental well-being.