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Heated Yoga Might Be a Natural Antidepressant
  • Posted October 24, 2023

Heated Yoga Might Be a Natural Antidepressant

Heated yoga classes can help some people with depression feel a lot better within a couple months -- even if they practice just once a week, a small clinical trial suggests.

The study, of 65 people with moderate-to-severe depression, found that those randomly assigned to heated yoga classes saw a greater symptom improvement over eight weeks than those assigned to a waitlist.

Overall, 16 patients, or 59%, "responded" to the yoga classes -- meaning the severity of their depression symptoms dropped by at least half. Only two patients on the waitlist (6%) saw their symptoms improve that much.

Beyond that, 12 patients in the yoga group, or 44%, saw their depression go into remission.

The findings, published Oct. 23 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, add to evidence that yoga can help people deal with mental health conditions. The twist was the heat.

Study participants took class in a room heated to 105 degrees and followed a traditional Bikram yoga sequence -- a set of 26 postures that is the same each class.

It's not clear, though, whether the heat was the key ingredient, said lead researcher Maren Nyer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of yoga studies at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Because the comparison was a waitlist, she said, the benefits could have come from the yoga, the heat or both. Nor is it clear whether performing yoga postures is any better than other forms of physical exercise.

"We have no idea which component of this was helpful," Nyer said.

But, she added, a whole body of exercise research does make one thing clear: "If you don't like it, you won't do it."

So, if heated yoga appeals to you and it's available, try it. If yoga without the heat is more your speed, try that.

Nyer said that standard therapy for depression is often effective, but many people need additional tools.

"I'm all for whatever people can use to help themselves," she said.

At the same time, Nyer noted, there's good reason to put yoga to the test in clinical trials: If there's scientific proof that it can ease depression symptoms, it might become more of a mainstream recommendation -- and possibly even covered by health insurance.

A number of previous studies have suggested that non-heated yoga can help people with depression. Yoga "styles" vary, but in general they combine physical postures with breathing practices and, often, meditation.

For the latest trial, Nyer's team initially recruited 80 people with moderate-to-severe depression -- mostly women with an average age of 32. They randomly assigned half to heated yoga classes and half to a waitlist.

The yoga classes were one hour and 40 minutes and involved a standard Bikram sequence of 26 poses, with a breathing exercise before and afterward. Study participants who were already on an antidepressant or in "talk therapy" were told to stick with it.

Not everyone completed the eight-week study, with more people dropping out of yoga than the waitlist. In the end, the researchers had enough data on 65 participants for the final analysis.

Overall, they found, people who stuck with yoga were much more likely to see their depression symptoms ease or go away. And it did not take a big yoga dose: On average, participants took 10 classes over eight weeks -- barely more than once per week.

"I think this study is encouraging and adds to a growing body of research indicating that movement, including yoga, may help alleviate depressive symptoms," said Dr. Gregory Scott Brown, director of the Center for Green Psychiatry in Austin, Texas.

Brown, who was not involved in the trial, said that in the real world, people will generally start at the place where they're comfortable. Someone who is new to yoga, he said, may not feel comfortable jumping right into a heated version of it.

"In my view," Brown said, "one of the unique qualities of yoga that can help improve mental health is the combining of breath with movement. There are several types of yoga that allow us to do that."

Nyer first became interested in heated yoga through her personal experience with it. She said she'd tried non-heated yoga, but found her mind continually wandered during class.

The "intensity" of heated yoga, Nyer said, seemed to help her stay present in her body.

According to Nyer, it may be that heated yoga is a "more potent" intervention, but that doesn't mean it's for everybody.

There's also the "access issue," Nyer said. Yoga classes, in general, are often expensive. With standard yoga, livestream classes or videos can help make the practice more accessible. But heated yoga is tougher to replicate in your living room.

More Information

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more on exercise and mental health.

SOURCES: Maren Nyer, PhD, director, yoga studies, Depression Clinical and Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, and assistant professor, psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Gregory Scott Brown, MD, psychiatrist and director, Center for Green Psychiatry, Austin, Texas; Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Oct. 23, 2023, online

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