Taking any form of exercise regularly is as good for our minds as it is for our bodies, proven to produce happy hormones, like dopamine and serotonin, and help to stave off illness. But could it also be the ticket to conquering—or at least easing—more severe mental health issues, like depression?
Potentially, yes. A new study by Massachusetts General Hospital found that adults who participated in at least two hot yoga classes per week experienced a remarkable 50 per cent (or higher) reduction in depressive symptoms. Even more marked: the depression suffered by 44 per cent of these new yogis was considered to be in remission after the eight week study had concluded.
The research saw 80 participants randomly allocated into two groups, with one of the groups doing at least two 90-minute hot yoga sessions (practised at 40°C) per week. The second group was put on a waitlist, so didn’t do any yoga during the study. Participants’ depression levels were assessed via a clinician-approved scale, called the Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology (IDS-CR).
With such impressive results—even those who had half of the prescribed hot yoga “dose” found their symptoms of depression were reduced—Maren Nyer, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the study, says that yoga and other “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”.
With more science to uncover around whether non-heated yoga could glean similar results, studies like these are reminders of the power of both movement and heat therapy in helping to balance mind, body and soul. The use of a sauna—whether via an infrared blanket at home, or at your local gym—has been linked with lower stress levels, improved sleep, immunity, metabolism and circulation, and can help to rid the body of unwanted toxins.
Meanwhile, yoga is often recommended as a complementary activity to talking therapies, with many mental health professionals considering movement like this (and other forms, such as trauma release exercise and tapping) to be a useful means of releasing trapped or stagnant emotion. If you’ve ever tried doing hip opening poses during yoga, you might have experienced an emotional effect response—possibly anger or even tears. That’s because the hips are said to be one area of the body where many of us store emotion, and yoga makes it possible to release it.
Of course, this isn’t all backed by science, but anecdotally—and from my own personal perspective, having tried movement like this alongside talking therapy in the past—it can be hugely beneficial. Not to mention the fact that yoga—hot or not—teaches you to work alongside the breath, to find your power within, and to build up physical strength at a slow and steady pace. An excellent antidote to the fast and frantic lives many of us lead now, if you are struggling with your mental health in some way, it’s well worth giving yoga a try.