Hot Yoga Could Help Treat Depression, New Study Finds

3 min read
Thirdman/ Pexels

Thirdman/ Pexels

New research from Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry has found that hot yoga can reduce symptoms of depression by 50 percent or more.

Weekly hot yoga over eight weeks helped people reduce their depressive symptoms, allowing 44 percent of people in the study to be considered in remission from their depression.

The randomized clinical trial included 80 participants with moderate to severe depression. Researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group was prescribed at least two 90-minute hot yoga sessions weekly. The other group was put on a waiting list. On average, the yoga participants attended ten yoga classes over the eight weeks.

About two-thirds of the yoga group reported a significant decrease in their depression, compared to 6.3 percent in the waitlist group.

What could cause hot yoga to have such a powerful antidepressant?

Hot yoga combines three potentially therapeutic components: 1) mind-body connection, 2) physical exercise and movement, and 3) heat.

1. Enhancing a mind-body connection through a regular mind-body practice can improve mood. Many styles of yoga, including gentle, non-heated Hatha yoga, have evidence supporting an antidepressant effect. Yoga, a form of moving meditation, is one of many types of mind-body practices that allows people to become more aware and live in their body, enhancing a sense of embodiment. Other mind-body practices include breathwork, tai chi, meditation, and daily mindfulness. The mind-body connection is like a muscle—the more regularly you practice, the stronger it gets.

2. Physical exercise and movement have a powerful antidepressant effect. Physical exercise has been shown to be a powerful treatment for depression in several randomized clinical trials. Exercise can reduce the core symptoms of depression, including depressed mood and inability to enjoy things. Exercise also promotes better sleep and appetite.

3. Heat therapies have promising healing power for mental health. Hot yoga refers to yoga styles typically practiced in a heated studio space with temperatures ranging from 95 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A 2015 study from the American Council of Exercise found that Bikram yoga can raise core temperatures to 103 degrees.

The potential healing power of heat therapies for mental health is a concept that warrants ongoing research. Heat therapies have growing data to suggest they should be considered as part of a complementary approach to depression treatment. Frequent hot sauna bathing has been associated with a reduced risk for depression and, interestingly, a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Passive heat therapies, like Waon therapy, infrared saunas, and whole-body hyperthermia, have been shown to reduce stress and improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

For beginners, safety considerations should be examined before starting hot yoga. Hydration is important, and also knowing that you can lie down, take a resting shape like child’s pose, or leave the room if you are feeling nauseous, lightheaded, or confused in class. Hot yoga and passive heat therapies may be contraindicated with certain medical issues, such as conditions that restrict sweating, hyperextension or hypermobility issues, and pregnancy.

If hot yoga feels like it would be too strenuous to try, there are many other types of gentler, unheated yoga, such as chair yoga, Hatha yoga, restorative yoga, and yin yoga. Other accessible options include mind-body practices that can be done at home, such as meditation, tai chi, yoga breathwork, and mindful walking.

Depression Essential Reads

For more research on the mental health benefits of yoga, read The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © Copyright 2023

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