Yoga shown to alleviate depression

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Yoga is a challenging physical workout, but studies suggest it has a powerful connection with our minds, too. Yoga has been shown to alleviate depression all by itself. Now, a new study proves it works.

Amanda Vigil, for example, had dabbled in yoga just a little bit before she became a research participant. For the study, she went twice a week for 90 minutes each session.

"At the beginning of the study I was really struggling with centering myself. That's how depression is, you get sunk into a feeling or a moment, or a sort of drudgery," she says.

"It's the very first study in the US that's looking at yoga as a sole treatment for diagnosed major depression," says Dr. Sudha Prathikanti, a UCSF psychiatrist.

UCSF's lead researcher studied men and women age 18 to 72 at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Half learned about yoga in lectures and the other half actually "did" yoga in structured classes.

"Sixty percent of the people in the yoga group got remission, which means minimal to zero symptoms of depression, so that is a dramatic decrease. The control group only got 10 percent remission," Dr. Prathikanti says. The study went for eight weeks and no one was on medication or in therapy, so the effect was solely yoga.

None of this comes as a surprise to those who practice.

"Really, it is transformative and a lot of it is about being quiet, have dedicated quiet space," says Maile Sivert, an owner of the second oldest yoga studio in San Francisco. He says people come in with physical ailments the mental benefits often hook them. Many yoga stretches that open the chest for breathing are known as mood-lifting.

"So, when we are depressed, there's the posturing we think of, like this, so opening the opposite way, and breathing and getting some space in," Sivert explains.

By definition, yoga is about calming the mind:

"We don't feel like we're good enough, or we question our choices, and get lost in our mind, so this is about quieting that," Sivert says.

UC's study group was small, just 38 people, and more research is certain to follow. 

Prathikanti says: "But for the general public standpoint if they enjoy yoga and they find mood benefits, they'll keep doing it and that's what's driving the science," says Dr. Prathikanti.

"I can do this anywhere, at any point in my life, as a center myself. That's like tools I learned, I took with me," Vigil says. For the 31-year-old high school arts teacher, the study was a turning point. She now feels self-empowered managing her depression .

The patients in this study suffered depression but it was mild or moderate, not severe. In more serious cases, the doctor says yoga alone isn't likely to work all by itself but it might help mixed with other treatments.