Many people under stay-at-home orders have turned to online yoga as a way to manage the stress. And a new research review suggests they're onto something.
The review, of 19 clinical trials, focused on the benefits of yoga for people with clinical mental health conditions ranging from anxiety disorders to alcohol dependence to schizophrenia. Overall, it found yoga classes helped ease those patients' depression symptoms.
And while the trials focused on in-person classes for people with formal diagnoses, there are broader implications, the researchers said.
"Definitely, if you've thought about trying yoga, now is a great time to take the opportunity," said Jacinta Brinsley, lead author on the review and a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia School of Health Sciences in Adelaide.
With yoga teachers worldwide now offering live-stream classes, she noted, people have a chance to find something that is right for them in their own homes.
"Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right type [of yoga]," Brinsley said. "Enjoyment is a really great indicator that it's a good fit."
In general, physical activity is a recommended part of managing mental health disorders, according to Brinsley. Yoga – which combines physical movement with breathing exercises, meditation and other "mindfulness" practices – has been the subject of many studies.
Some have found it can ease depression. That said, there are questions.
Yoga comes in many styles. Brinsley said it's not clear whether particular ones are more or less beneficial for depression symptoms: How much depends on specifics of the physical movement: Is it vigorous or gentle? Does the practice need to include breathing exercises or meditation?
But in general, Brinsley said, there is evidence that both exercise alone, and mindfulness practices alone, can help ease depression.
"So we infer that these practices combined, as yoga, are effective," she said.
Reduction in depression symptoms
The review, published in May online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, covered 19 clinical trials from six countries. All tested the effects of yoga among people diagnosed with psychiatric conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol use disorders and schizophrenia.
The specifics varied, but each yoga programme was at least 50% physical movement. Participants were randomly assigned to either add yoga to their usual treatment, go on a waiting list for yoga or to stick with standard care alone.
Overall, Brinsley's team found, people practising yoga showed a greater reduction in depression symptoms than those in the comparison groups.
Researchers said the average effect was "moderate", not dramatic. And the studies were short-term, generally lasting a couple of months. So it's not clear how long the benefits last, according to Brinsley.
But, she said, like other therapies, yoga is not a quick fix.
"Often, we don't take a course of medication for 12 weeks and are cured, so we need to think about exercise and yoga and mindfulness in the same way," Brinsley said. "It's not necessarily a cure. To get the benefits, you're going to have to keep doing it."
Terri Miles is a registered yoga teacher in Culpeper, Viginia, who specialises in working with cancer patients and trauma survivors.
She agreed that consistency is crucial and stressed that yoga practice need not involve the "acrobatics" characteristic of some styles.
"Just the simple act of breathing properly can bring a change. You see it in people's faces," said Miles, a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Even a series of simple poses, she said, can be powerful, partly because it "distracts the mind from whatever was bothering it", and also because of the movement itself.
"If I cue someone to 'feel the stability of your feet', and they feel it, that sends a message to the brain, 'Hey, you're OK. You're grounded,'" Miles said.
She agreed that now could be a good time to find online opportunities for yoga – with some classes being offered for free. Miles urged prospective students to check out teachers' credentials and find out if their yoga style is what you're looking for.
She also encouraged people to keep an open mind.
"If you try a class and it works for you, fantastic," Miles said. "If it doesn't, it might be the style, or the teacher. Or you might not have been ready that day because you didn't get enough sleep the night before. So try again tomorrow."
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