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Heated or "hot" yoga might help lessen symptoms of moderate-to-severe depression in adults.
New research shows some people who participated in 90-minute heated yoga classes at least one a week noticed a 50% or greater reduction in depressive symptoms.
Though not yet an approved treatment, people who are physically capable of doing heated yoga may see mental health benefits from the practice.
Heated yoga may help reduce depressive symptoms in adults—so much so that researchers suggest the combination of heat and yoga should be considered as a potential treatment for moderate-to-severe depression.
The news comes from research published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Though it was a small, randomized clinical trial with only 80 participants, the findings showed serious promise for the effects of Bikram yoga (one type of heated or hot yoga) on symptoms of depression.
“Yoga and heat-based interventions could potentially change the course for treatment for patients with depression by providing a non-medication–based approach with additional physical benefits as a bonus,” lead study author Maren Nyer, PhD, director of Yoga Studies at the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a news release.
Here’s what you need to know about the new research, how heat and yoga may work together to help relieve depressive symptoms, and who might benefit most from trying a heated yoga practice.
Heated Yoga Shown to Reduce Symptoms of Depression
For the study, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital recruited 80 patients with depression and split them into two groups: One group received 90-minute sessions of Bikram yoga practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees, while one group was assigned to a waitlist and did not get to participate in the yoga practice during the trial.
Researchers followed the groups for eight weeks. The Bikram yoga group was instructed to attend at least two yoga classes each week—overall, those participants averaged 10.3 classes over the eight-week period.
“People who received the heated yoga intervention experienced a significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms, compared to the patients who were assigned to the waiting list,” senior study author David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Health. “They received these benefits by attending only approximately one class per week.”
At the end of the trial, researchers observed that more than half of the yoga participants had a 50% or greater reduction in their depressive symptoms, compared to just 6.3% of the waitlisted participants. Additionally, 44% of the yoga participants saw such a large reduction in their depressive symptoms they were considered in remission.
“We were surprised it was so potent at a once-a-week dose,” Nyer, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Health.
Although the trial shows promise for heated yoga as a potential treatment for depression, researchers say the current findings may not be applicable to everyone, and that additional studies need to be conducted.
“The study tended to recruit college-educated women primarily, and as such, the findings may be limited in generalizability,” said Mischoulon. “We recruited a larger proportion of minority women compared to other studies of ours, which was encouraging and suggested interest in this intervention in minority communities.”
Additionally, the trial only looked at one specific type of heated yoga, though there are numerous types and temperatures for heated yoga practices.
“There are many different types of heated yoga, though [Bikram] is the hottest form of heated yoga that we know about,” said Mischoulon.
“Studies need to be done to compare the different temperatures of heated yoga for depression,” added Nyer. “For example, would some people benefit from a ‘gentler’ temperature or is the full heat of 105 degrees Fahrenheit needed to target depression? We just don’t know in terms of the evidence. This is a relatively new area of study.”
Why Might Heated Yoga Alleviate Depression Symptoms?
Though regular heatless yoga has been studied for many years as a potential treatment for depression, authors have several theories as to why heated yoga specifically may also help with depressive symptoms.
“Heat exposure interacts with inflammatory mechanisms in [humans]. Inflammation is thought to be a potential cause of depression,” said Mischoulon. “We think the exposure to heat may carry out some chemical changes in the body that counteract inflammation and may in turn reduce depressive symptoms.”
According to Nyer, there is also evidence to suggest that people with depression may have a harder time regulating their body temperature—known as thermoregulation—and could both run a higher temperature and not sweat as easily.
“The idea behind heat, or whole-body hyperthermia treatment for depression, is that it resets the thermoregulatory system and can actually lower core body temperature from the slight elevation seen in depression,” said Nyer.
What to Consider Before Trying Heated Yoga
As with any form of exercise, Mischoulon said it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before getting started with heated yoga.
“Some people find the heat of the intervention very uncomfortable,” said Mischoulon. In fact, for the present study, researchers prepared participants for the discomfort that can often come with heated yoga and how to manage it.
“We prepared people to enter the heated yoga with a 45-minute education session held by the [principal investigator] of the study to make sure they knew hydration requirements, not to eat a big meal, what to expect, how to manage their first time at the studio, and what to wear, etc.,” said Nyer.
There are also some people who may want to skip the heated aspect of hot yoga and try regular yoga on for size instead.
“People with certain medical conditions, such as heart or kidney disease or diabetes, should check with their doctor about participating in heated yoga,” said Mischoulon. “Nonheated yoga may be a good alternative for these individuals, since the experience is less physically demanding.”
It’s also important to note that heated yoga is not yet a “treatment” that can be prescribed for depression—but researchers say there likely isn’t any harm in trying it if you are working with a healthcare team.
“We usually caution people about self-treating depression without supervision from a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist,” said Mischoulon. “Certainly, people who are interested in trying hot yoga and are in good general health should do so, and would likely obtain general health benefits, but if the goal is to treat a particular illness, it is best to pursue this with supervision and advice from a doctor.”
And when you’re in the practice, it’s wise to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard—and recognize that showing up to class is half the challenge.
“This form of yoga is challenging, and depression comes with motivational and energetic challenges, so it takes a lot to get into that hot room. Just the act of getting to a hot yoga class is really a radical act of self-care,” said Nyer. “Showing up is a great start and something to feel proud of.”
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