Each year more than 25 million Americans are treated with antidepressants. Effective? Yes, but the added stress of side effects, such as weight gain, lethargy, and sexual dysfunction, have brought into question whether medication is the only solution. It may not be. Recent studies have shown evidence that the practice of yoga—postures, breathing techniques, meditation—has beneficial effects on the emotional well-being and mental acuity of depression sufferers. And, best of all, without the side effects.
A recent, yet small, Scandinavian study conducted by Eric Hoffman, Ph.D., that measured brain waves before and after a two-hour Kriya Yoga class found that alpha waves (relaxation) and theta waves (unconscious memory, dreams, emotions) increased by 40 percent. This means the brain is more deeply relaxed after yoga and the subjects have better contact with their subconscious and emotions. The Scandinavian study is significant for depression sufferers because after the yoga session, alpha waves increased in the right temporal lobe.
Previous research has shown that depressed, introverted people typically have more alpha activity in the left frontal-temporal region, while optimistic, extroverted people have more alpha activity on the right. That theta waves also increased supports the notion that yoga works to alleviate depression not only by increasing brain chemicals that contribute to a feel-good response—such as endorphins, enkephalins, and serotonin—but also by providing greater access to feelings.
Another study, conducted jointly by the Philadelphia-based Jefferson Medical College and Yoga Research Society, found that practitioners experienced a significant drop in cortisol levels after a single yoga class. High cortisol levels are characteristics of stress and serious depression. A marked decrease in cortisol and increase in the hormone prolactin—which is believed by many professionals to be the key in producing the anti-depressant effect of electroshock therapy—was also demonstrated in tests conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in India, using the breathing technique Sudharshan Kriya (SKY). In several major controlled studies involving adults with major depressive disorder, SKY produced dramatic relief from depression accompanied by beneficial changes in brain and hormone function.
But what about long-term effects? So far, most of the longer studies have been done in the area of mindfulness-based training; the most recent one was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (vol. 68, 2000). Here, mindfulness-based stress reduction was combined with group cognitive therapy as an eight-week treatment in the prevention of recurrence of major depression. In follow-up testing a year later, the treatment group had a significantly lower relapse rate than did the control group.
More long-term, well-funded studies may be needed before doctors are ready to prescribe yoga for depressed patients. Until then sufferers might do well to mix yoga with their medication and embrace chicken soup ideology: It definitely won’t hurt and could possibly even help.