Yoga as an antidote for depression (plain language summary)

Us yogis know the wonderful effects that yoga can have on our mental wellbeing. We have experienced first-hand improvements to our mood and/or to any challenges we might be facing, like anxiety and depression. But this is based on our own experience or on stories we hear from other yogis – is there actually any evidence that yoga can have a positive impact in mental health conditions?

Yes, there is.

There is a growing body of work to support yoga’s value in mental health – hot off the press is this study, which found that yoga helps to reduce depressive symptoms in a range of mental health conditions:

  • Yoga helped to reduce depressive symptoms in patients with conditions like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia
  • The more you do it, the better; those who practiced more times per week reported greater symptom improvement (so something to thing about when you structure your own practice, it might be that shorter sessions every day are better for you than long sessions twice a week)
  • Those who practiced yoga also reported improved quality of life – this essentially relates to how well people feel they are doing across different parameters (eg physical health, mental health, ability to socialise) and is an important way of evaluating interventions in chronic disease.

This study was a systematic review and meta-analysis, which is one of the most powerful types of study; it looks at all the existing literature, collates their findings and re-analyses them to be able to draw broader conclusions. The researchers analysed 19 randomised controlled trials, or RCTs, which compared a mostly physical style of yoga (eg hatha and vinyasa) with treatment alone or interventions like health education, social support or self-help books.

“Yoga may provide an additional or alternative strategy to engage people experiencing depression in meaningful physical activity”

So, what is it about yoga?

How does it help to improve mental health, and, in this case, depressive symptoms in different conditions? The jury is still out on this one.

There is plenty of evidence that physical exercise can do wonders for mental health, and that mindful practices like meditation and breathing techniques have the same effect. The beauty of yoga is that it combines the two, which might at the crux of its effectiveness. There may be other influencing factors as well, like the community that yoga can create, or spirituality.

It would be really interesting to tease this out further an understand what it is about yoga (or indeed other mindful exercise practices) that makes it an effective intervention for mental health challenges. But for that, we need better studies!

What has your experience been? Have you seen changes in your mental health from practicing yoga?

What kind of study was this?

A systematic review and meta-analysis, one of the most powerful types of studies, as it looks at all the existing literature and collates their findings and re-analyses them to be able to draw broader conclusions.

What did this review evaluate?

The study collated the findings of 19 randomised controlled trials that evaluated the effect of interventions for the treatment of depressive symptoms in a range of mental health conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. A randomised controlled trial, or RCT, is the gold standard for evaluating interventions:

1. it compares an intervention against another (head-to-head) or against a control (ie no intervention or one that is not expected to have an impact and therefore acts as a baseline)

2. it minimises bias by randomly assigning study participants to one intervention or the other

What were the included studies comparing?

The interventions included yoga with at least 50% physical component (eg hatha, vinyasa), treatment as usual and other control interventions like health education, books and social support.


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