New Research Shows Yoga Helps Alleviate Depression

A number of studies presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association verify yoga's role in curbing depression.

When a practice alleviates symptoms of distress in your life, you’re likely to believe it has therapeutic powers. Anecdotal evidence might not be data, but for individuals suffering from depression, anything uplifting should be considered beneficial—taking side effects into consideration, of course.

Treating depression with a pill might help a person sustain and even thrive in an environment they perceive as negative. If the positive benefits outweigh long-term side effects then it’s a valuable course of action. 

Then there’s movement, which in general has less room for damaging side effects. Cardiovascular exercise has numerous benefits on both physical and mental health. This we know. Then there are slower movements, such as Feldenkrais, myofascial release techniques, and yoga. 

The latter is particularly close to me, given that I’ve taught it for fourteen years and have practiced it for twenty. It has certainly helped me deal with a range of problems, including anxiety disorder, divorce, cancer, and general feelings of dis-ease. I don’t believe I’ve ever left a class feeling worse than when I entered. Usually I feel better, existential crisis or not. 

Yet I’ve remained skeptical of many health benefits assigned to yoga over the decades given how rampant pseudoscience is in that community. A temporary balm is not always a solution. That said, the more research conducted on treating depression with yoga, the more positive the results have been, as is the case with recent studies presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. 

Lindsey Hopkins, a doctor at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, conducted a study on twenty-three male veterans, a particularly vulnerable group for mental health problems. Each veteran practiced hatha yoga (nearly all asana (postural) classes are based on hatha yoga) twice a week for eight weeks. Their self-reported satisfaction score at the end of the study was 9.4 (from 1 to 10), which measured how much their depression had lessened during that time.

Bikram yoga is an offshoot of hatha yoga performed in a heated room. While I have particular reservations about this style both in terms of excessive heat and some of the twenty-six poses performed in this sequence, I also understand how good you can feel emerging from a ninety-minute sauna session. (I also got strep throat after practicing in one such bacterial breeding ground earlier in my career.) 

Researchers at San Francisco’s Alliant University chose fifty-two women between the ages of 24-45 to either take Bikram twice a week for eight weeks or to wait in a control group (they were wait-listed). Self-reported depression scores decreased significantly in the group that practiced yoga.

Another group from Massachusetts General Hospital discovered that the same course of Bikram yoga “significantly reduced symptoms of depression and improved other secondary measures including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning.”

Bikram yoga founder, Bikram Choudhury, is currently running from the law after an arrest warrant was issued due to charges of sexual assault. He was fined $6.8 million, of which he has paid exactly zero dollars. Incredibly, he’s currently running teacher trainings out of an Acapulco hotel, charging between $12,500-$16,600 per student (average trainings in the US are $2,500). So while the effects of Bikram might alleviate depression, it’s also good to know where your money is going. 

Fortunately that’s not the only style showing positive results. Nine weekly yoga sessions, each lasting 2.5 hours, were conducted on twelve students in the Netherlands with similar results as the above, with scores for anxiety, depression, and stress all decreasing during the trial as well as four months later. 

Finally, a study of 74 university students suffering from mild depression either practiced yoga or another relaxation technique for eight days. During the study both techniques scored similarly in helping depression, but a follow-up two months later showed that the yoga group had significantly lower rates of depression and anxiety.

Physiologically anxiety and depression are similar; the two often go hand-in-hand. For many it is a chicken-or-egg scenario. For me, anxiety disorder sometimes made me depressed, but in general it was panic attacks I suffered through. For others, being constantly depressed brings about a state of anxiety. That yoga alleviates both should not be surprising; it makes sense they’d be studied together. 

Lindsey Hopkins takes the results of her study with a grain of salt. While yoga certainly helps alleviate mental health issues, she’s not sure if it’s the only therapy necessary for dealing with long-term depression. 

Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practicing. But the empirical research on yoga lags behind its popularity as a first-line approach to mental health.

That said, whether used as a remedy or as a complement to other remedies, yoga is certainly helping, and that’s a good sign for all of us. 


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
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