MGH Study: Hot Yoga May Help Ease Depression Symptoms, but Be Mindful of Health Concerns

Researchers will soon explore how heated yoga and traditional yoga compare in relieving depression symptoms.

© Tom Werner | Getty Images Yoga practiced in a heated studio may help reduce depressive symptoms, but there are some caveats. People with cardiovascular disease or other serious health concerns should consult their doctors first.

For adults looking for ways to treat their depression without medications, one possible solution might be found in a Bikram yoga studio. Bikram yoga is heated yoga, with sessions conducted in rooms heated to about 105°F.

In a study involving 80 participants, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that twice-weekly heated yoga sessions, conducted over a period of eight weeks, were associated with reduced depressive symptoms in adults with moderate-to-severe depression. The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, also suggest that once-a-week sessions may be beneficial, too.

The participants were divided into two groups: one that received 90­minute sessions of Bikram yoga and one (the control group) that was placed on a waitlist and completed their yoga sessions after the first group concluded theirs. The individuals in the heated yoga group experienced significantly greater symptom reduction compared with those in the control group. Though the researchers aimed to have volunteers participate in two yoga sessions per week for eight weeks, by the end of the eight-week study, they attended an average of 10.3 classes.

Yoga and heat-based interven­tions could potentially change the course of treatment for patients with depression by providing a non-medi­cation–based approach with addi­tional physical benefits as a bonus,” says lead author Maren Nyer, PhD, director of Yoga Studies at the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH. 

Yoga and Depression

Previous studies suggest that traditional yoga may be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms. The rhythmic breathing practices, along with the meditative/relaxation elements of yoga, are designed to promote calm and reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.

Dr. Nyer says new studies will try to determine specific benefits of heat and yoga in easing depressive symptoms. David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, a senior author of the study and director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH, notes that this research is of particular interest given the encouraging findings of studies of whole-body hyperthermia as a depression treatment. Whole-body hyperthermia involves spending supervised time in a personal sauna­like device. Whole-body heating appears to activate cells in the brain that synthesize the neurochemical serotonin, a substance that plays a key role in depression. The treatment also activates certain regions of the brain that tend to have lower activity levels in people with depression.

“Future research is needed to compare heated to nonheated yoga for depression to explore whether heat has benefits over and above that of yoga for the treatment of depression, especially given the promising evidence for whole-body hyperthermia as a treatment for major depressive disorder,”Dr. Mischoulon says.

Hot Yoga and Seniors

Yoga also supports better physical health by improving joint and muscle flexibility, muscle strength, and circu­lation. It can also help with balance.

The addition of a heated environ­ment can further enhance yoga’s ben­efits. The higher temperatures facili­tate safer stretching, for example. Bikram yoga practitioners sweat out toxins from their glands and skin.

Bikram yoga is also well-suited for many older adults, because it steers clear of some of the more ambitious traditional yoga postures, such as headstands or difficult arm balances. Heated yoga classes for seniors are also usually conducted with safety in mind, meaning that if a posture is too difficult or the heat is a problem you can rest or end your session early.

Heated yoga also comes with some important safety concerns. Individuals with cardiovascular problems, who take dehydrating medications, or are in active cancer treatment should consult their doctors before trying heated yoga, or just about any new exercise program.

Because heat helps loosen muscles, it can be easy to overstretch and strain muscles, tendons or ligaments. The extended time spent perspiring in the heat also raises the risk of becoming overheated or of becoming dehydrated. Consume fluids before, during, and after heated yoga. Dr. Nyer suggests trusting your instincts about your body (what you think youre capable of) and paying close attention to any signs of distress. She adds that older adults may want to start with gentle stretching yoga before trying heated yoga.

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UHN Staff

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