Yoga: The Definitive Cure For Distress or Not?

Yoga: The Definitive Cure For Distress or Not?


Feeling anxious? Yoga can help with that. This is what experts have to say about yoga’s effects on psychological distress

You may have heard by now that doing yoga can help improve mental health, apart from physical health. Many personal trainers and yoga instructors say as much on their online platforms, but can researchers prove this? As it turns out, researchers worldwide have been working on conclusively determining yoga’s effectiveness as treatment for mental illness, but the methodologies differ, leading to misconceptions. For those curious and in need, we’ve rounded up some of the most recent and credible meta-analyses and systematic reviews on this topic.

Yoga for Stress

What the science says

Many studies have been conducted over the years to assess the effects of yoga-based interventions on mental illness, with some pointing to positive results such as a 2017 study focused on individuals with Major Depressive Disorder. This led to a 2017 meta-analysis of 23 yoga-based interventions, which concluded that interventions such as these are effective in reducing depression. However, this paper also states that the evidence is limited since many studies utilize a small sample and examine only the short-term effects of yoga to treat depression.

Anxiety is another mental illness that researchers have aimed to treat with yoga-based interventions, with Yoga Nidra deemed the more effective type of yoga in reducing both cognitive and physiological symptoms of anxiety. One 2016 meta-analysis of 17 studies using Hatha Yoga also determined it to be a promising method for treating anxiety, but the evidence is again said to be very limited.

Yoga for Stress

Other more recent meta-analyses also recommend interpreting the positive results of yoga interventions with caution due to present limitations. For example, a 2021 meta-analysis found that yoga-based interventions do improve depression and anxiety symptoms among people with cancer, but cautioned against the potential risk of bias. Notably, regardless of weak methodological quality in some studies, results of yoga interventions do tend to point to the positive, as one 2020 systematic review wrote.

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While some studies would push for yoga as an alternative treatment, others recommend it as complementary medicine. But even if yoga cannot, as of yet, be conclusively accepted as a form of treatment for mental illness, this practice is still highly recommended as a strategy for self-management. A recent study in 2022 conducted on elderly care workers even says that practicing mindful meditation and yoga can reduce burnout and stress.

Yoga for Stress

The takeaway

All in all, research shows that yoga, as a mind-body exercise, can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other forms of psychological distress. However, it’s important to remember that many of these studies are based on people with contexts and lifestyles separate from our own, so what works for them won’t necessarily work for us. There is also more than one school of thought when it comes to yoga, so additional research is needed to determine which approach is best used for treating symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Additionally, the theory that yoga can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression could have more to do with the fact that it is a form of exercise. One 2023 review states that physical activity, including yoga, is “highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress across a wide range of adult populations, including the general population, people with diagnosed mental health disorders, and people with chronic disease.”

Yoga for Stress

Ultimately, it is best left up to you and your doctor to see what works best. For some, doing yoga can add more stress, while other physical activities like swimming could be the more appropriate approach. That said, if you like what the studies say about yoga so far and want to try it out for yourself, go ahead. Just remember to manage your expectations.

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