Yoga is considered one of the most practical and poignant exercises. Not only does yoga do great things for the body, increasing flexibility, adding core strength, improving balance, and improving breathing and mental focus, but it also provides solutions to many other problems in life. These range from the benign to the severe, and by performing just semi-regular yoga sessions, practitioners are able to both prevent and treat these issues.

One such example is how yoga can help relieve and reduce stress and depression. Depression is a serious affliction that affects millions of people every day. But what is it really?

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that characterized by persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest. It’s not just feeling down – it’s a continual cycle and serious illness, marked by hopelessness and disturbances to things like sleep, appetite, and motivation. It affects the person deeply, and includes everything from how to you feel to how you think to how you behave. Resulting complications can lead to variety of emotional physical problems, and in severe cases, even death.
Depression and Yoga
Depression reportedly affects 1 in 10 Americans nationwide, which equates to roughly 35 million cases per year. What’s worse, some 80% of those afflicted have never received any type of treatment for their depression. Unfortunately, depression also correlates with an increased risk of other diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, stroke, and sleep disorders.

But there are tools out there for those suffering from depression, and one such tool is yoga.

How Yoga Helps

Yoga is a holistic practice that is both an exercise and a way of life. And while not everyone needs to fully adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of yoga, they can all benefits from the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being that comes from practicing yoga on a regular basis.

Where this really comes to fruition in two large areas: the stress response and mood and functioning.

The Stress Response

Life is full of stressors. These include external stressors, like other people and the environment, and personal stressors, which include things we do to ourselves, and applies to both physical and mental pains. In all cases, stress deals with a deceptive simplistic mechanism in the body, the stress response system in the body. The stress response system works like this: When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing  stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the body to change its state. The heart pounds faster, the body’s muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises and your  breath quickens.

While the stress response system is a good thing, exaggerated stress responses are at the root of some forms of depression and anxiety. It’s here that the practice of yoga has been show to help manage depression.

First, yoga has been show to modulate the stress response system. That is, yoga helps decrease physiological arousal – that’s the heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration mentioned above.  Specifically, yoga helps increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.

In another case, researchers at the University of Utah correlated stress response to physical pain tolerance. When comparing suffers  of fibromyalgia (a stress-related illness that is characterized by hypersensitivity to pain) to a control group to a group of yoga practitioners, as measured by Functional MRIs on areas in the brain the greatest activity associated with pain response, they found that the yoga practitioners had the highest pain tolerance and lowest pain-related brain activity during the study.

Mood and Functioning

Yoga also helps directly with mood, helping practitioners function normally throughout their day, reducing anxiety and mitigating perceived stress and experienced depression. In one study, “emotionally distress” participants underwent two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Participants in a control group changed nothing about their habits and schedule, nor did they begin any exercise or stress-reduction program for the duration of the study. At the end of the study, the yoga group reported “improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being. Depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%. Initial complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group.”

Another 2005 study demonstrated how yoga may help with even clinical and severe disorders. Participants included participants included patients with bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia, who performed regular yoga classes during the study. Results showed “average levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue [drop] significantly.” What’s more, those patients who opted in to additional classes experienced similar short-term positive effect in relation to mood and functioning.

Yoga and Happiness

Understanding that depression is a real and significant illness also requires an understanding that no one thing is likely to completely solve the issue. Yoga, however, offers a complementary practice that has, in recent studies, been shown to help reduce and help prevent the symptoms associated with these illnesses. In time, that can mean more time spent relaxed and less time tense, anxious, and unhappy.