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Yoga is known as a mind-body exercise with physical health benefits that also relieves stress, boosts mood and protects against mental illness, but will it enhance mood and well-being amongst people already suffering from depression?

The answer, according to initial research, is probably yes. Brain imaging studies show that yoga practice results in enduring positive changes to neurochemistry, improved mood and reduced depression and anxiety symptoms.

Yoga as a Treatment for Depression

Anecdotal studies of emotionally distressed and depressed people demonstrate that as little as a single training and practice session on yoga exercises yields a pay-off in improved mood and lowered anxiety and tension.1 But why is this so?

The answer to this seems to be that sustained yoga practice results in lasting changes to our neurochemistry.

Low levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain are associated with depression and anxiety whereas higher levels of GABA work as an endogenous antidepressant. To see how yoga practice might result in changes to GABA levels in the brain researchers at Boston University School of Medicine took a sample of study subjects and had half of these randomly assigned to a group that did yoga practice three times a week for an hour per session and the other half of the subjects randomly assigned to a group that did an hour of walking exercise, three times per week for an hour per session.

Each study subject submitted to brain scanning for GABA before and after the 12 week experiment and each study subject also responded to well-being and anxiety/depression questionnaires at several points throughout the 12 week study.

The Results

  • Participants who did yoga for 12 weeks showed greater improvements on self reports of mood and greater reductions in anxiety and depression symptoms than did subjects in the walking exercise group.
  • Brain imaging done on the yoga participants revealed increases in GABA in the thalamus of the brain after a session of yoga.2


Experts say the promising findings back strong anecdotal evidence that yoga works well as a treatment for depression and call for further studies investigating yoga as a promising non-drug intervention against a devastating mood disorder.3

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Page last updated Jun 23, 2012

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