It’s official: yoga helps fight depression

Yoga is known for having plenty of physical and mental benefits, but did you know it can also help alleviate symptoms of depression?

Speak to anyone who does yoga, and they’ll inundate you with the benefits: stronger muscles, less stress, overall improvements in physical and mental health. However, for a long time, proof of the latter was more claims made by yogis than scientific fact. Now, a new study has found that a consistent yoga practice helps alleviate symptoms of depression at a physiological level.

Can yoga actually help fight mental illness?

Four studies purveyed a wide demographic, including male veterans, adult women, mildly depressed college students, and chronically depressed people who had found little relief from traditional treatment. While the subjects might have been diverse, the findings weren’t: they all agreed that regularly rolling out the mat helped fight depression.

How can yoga help alleviate depression and anxiety?

One of the main reasons for yoga can help alleviate depression and anxiety is the associated breathing techniques used in yoga can help symptoms of depression. The intense relaxation yoga and its breathing practices offer can even impact you neurobiologically, giving every aspect of your body — from your brain to your cells — some much-needed time off. However, this quality of relaxation is only possible with the mind-body connection yoga affords; it’s much more potent than unwinding with Netflix or a glass of wine.

Scientists have also found that levels of GABA, an amino acid, is much higher in those who do yoga versus those who do not, even if they engage in other physical activity. GABA is associated with lower rates of anxiety and depression as it helps support your brain and central nervous system, allowing your body to feel less stressed.

Reduced stress and anxiety is further attributed to how yoga prioritises the relaxation response over the stress response, training your body to better handle and process any stressors that arise. This can help maintain a healthy resting heart rate, blood pressure, and pain tolerance, even off the mat.

Yoga can even help boost serotonin

When practising yoga, your brain releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that governs mood, memory, and sleep, among many other critical functions. It happens to be inversely related to depression: the higher your levels of serotonin, the better your body is equipped to fight depression.

Yoga also guides you through self-study, presenting a period of intense reflection that you might not otherwise get in your day-to-day schedule. Granted mental clarity, you’ll be able to more calmly process many aspects of your life, from work to relationships to personal goals.

How to find the right style of yoga for you

If you’re just starting to get into yoga, finding the right style might seem a little daunting. Try hatha if you’re a beginner for gentler, slower poses, or, if you’re a little more confident, vinyasa, which marries movement with breath and grows in intensity. For a fully restorative practice, try yin, where you’ll hold poses for long periods of time to stretch your muscles and focus on deep, nourishing breaths.

Of course, yoga is not a substitute for standard approaches towards treating depression. It should instead be seen as a supplement that can help those struggling with depression of varying severity or just needing extra emotional support. However, as antidepressants don’t work for 10 to 30 percent of people with depression, this could be a pivotal intervention and offer a better quality of life.

Namaste to that.

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Published: 23/08/17

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