Scientists have discovered what many already know: Yoga helps fight depression. We’ve known for a while that exercise is a fantastic way to help with stress and increases endorphin levels but the effects of yoga are even more profound when it comes to mental health. In a small study, practicing yoga produced higher levels of “mood improvement” in participants than other types of exercise. Researchers say it’s because yoga seems to increase levels of GABA, a brain chemical that helps reduce depression.
Scientists have cited evidence that the practice of yoga may affect the human body in ways similar to antidepressants and psychotherapy. One study of biomarkers, for example, found that yoga influences brain chemicals by boosting serotonin levels, lowers inflammation, reduces oxidative stress and exerts a positive influence on other key elements of the human body that play a role in mental health.
Diagnosed with severe depression, Cesar Castillo was put on Paxil. “The medicine turned me into a totally different person,” he remembers,” and yet I still couldn’t relax.” Castillo’s cancer returned for a second time and he fell apart. “I had to go through a rigorous chemo and radiation therapy and a stem cell transplant,” he said. “I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t relax. I was really anxious and depressed. All I kept thinking was: ‘Here I am, not even 30, being poisoned and fighting for my life.”
A year later, with the help of a yoga class for cancer survivors at his gym, Castillo was feeling like his old self again. By then he had given up on the medication.
“I went back to what had worked for me the first time. I upped the Bikram yoga and I channeled my energy into getting stronger and more relaxed again,” he said. “Yoga became my saving grace.”
Castillo’s success with yoga would not surprise Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University Medical Center. Doraiswamy is one of three authors of a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
“We all know the myth of yoga,” says Doraiswamy. But he and his colleagues wanted to know whether there was evidence to match this theory. They went through more than 100 studies on the effects of yoga on a variety of complicated psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia and ADHD.
There are some 30 to 50 million Americans taking psychiatric drugs. Some are benefiting , and some are not.
So is it time to exchange your medications for a yoga mat?
In one study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, only one-third of patients achieved remission of depressive symptoms, defined as becoming symptom-free.
As a culture, we are becoming more and more dependent on pills, but pills don’t prevent any of the psychiatric illnesses. They don’t build resilience. They don’t teach coping strategies , and they don’t in general engender wellness.