Hot yoga classes reduce emotional eating and negative thoughts

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LONDON: Yoga seems to reduce symptoms of depression, including focusing on negative feelings and emotional eating, suggesting the practice may be a useful complement to talking therapies and antidepressant drugs.

As yoga has become a popular way for people to exercise and relieve stress, researchers have tried to understand the ways in which it might benefit our health. So far there seems to be a link between meditation, which is at the core of many yoga styles, and boosted insulin production and slower cellular ageing. Yoga may also dampen down inflammation genes.

Other studies have found links between inflammation and depression, and researchers are now finding concrete evidence for what many feel: that yoga helps relieve stress and depression.

In a study of 52 women with signs of depression, including high stress levels and unhealthy dieting patterns, Lindsey Hopkins at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Sarah Shallit at the Alliant International University in San Francisco found that those who tried Bikram hot yoga experienced significant improvements. For the study 27 women attended two classes a week for eight weeks, while a control group of 25 did no yoga at all. By the end of the study, the average decrease in stress and emotional eating in those who attended classes was almost three times that of the women who’d done no yoga at all.

Based on how the participants described their experience, the team found that the yoga group also focused less on negative feelings and their causes, and were better at not suppressing positive emotions.

Maren Nyer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and colleagues found similar results in a study involving 29 adults – most of them women – with mild to moderate symptoms of depression. The participants all attended an average of eight weekly classes of Bikram hot yoga, and showed a significant improvement afterwards. Both studies were presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association today in Washington DC.

Restoring balance?
“We live in these constantly stressed states,” says Nyer. “Yoga helps us return to homeostasis.”

She thinks yoga may work by rebalancing two parts of our nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and relaxation, while the sympathetic nervous system controls arousal and fight-or-flight responses. There’s some evidence that stress, which can induce depression, increases activity in the sympathetic nervous system, and reduces activity in the parasympathetic system.

“Sometimes therapists working with people can get stuck just on the head and don’t think about what’s below the neck in the body,” says Irene Skowronek, who runs a private clinical psychology practice in Durham, North Carolina. “These researchers have further confirmed that yoga is an effective adjunct method of treating depression.”

Skrowrenek would like to see yoga tested against other methods for treating depression in randomised controlled trials, to see if it can be used not just as a complement to medication, but as a stand-alone treatment.

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