Managing mental health with yoga: review shows moving your body helps

People living with mental disorders benefit from regular, movement-based yoga, a review of 19 studies has found.
UNSW Media / University of SA | UNSW Newsroom

Movement-based yoga can significantly reduce depressive symptoms in people living with a range of mental disorders, new research led by University of South Australia and involving a UNSW medical researcher has shown.

The systematic review and meta-analysis found that movement-based yoga improves the mental health of people living with depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, anxiety, alcohol dependence and bipolar, with the benefits increasing the more yoga they practiced.

The researchers defined movement-based yoga as any form of yoga where participants are physically active at least 50% of the time, that is forms of yoga that emphasise holding poses and flowing through sequences of poses. 

Lead researcher, UniSA PhD candidate Jacinta Brinsley, says it’s a welcome and timely finding given current strict social distancing measures.

“As more and more people find themselves working from home and unable to physically catch up with their friends and family, we’re likely to see more people feel lonely and disconnected,” Brinsley says.

“Exercise has always been a great strategy for people struggling with these feelings as it boosts both mood and health. But as gyms and exercise classes of all kinds are now closed, people are looking for alternatives, and this is where yoga can help.

“Our review of available evidence shows that movement-based yoga improves symptoms of depression in people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. So, it’s very good news for people struggling in times of uncertainty.”

The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine today, analysed 19 studies with 1080 participants for the review part, across six countries (US, India, Japan, China, Germany and Sweden), and included 13 studies in the meta-analysis (632 participants). In all studies, individuals had a formal diagnosis of a mental disorder, including depression and anxiety.

“We found that across these studies, yoga showed greater reductions in depressive symptoms than other control groups, which included people on a waitlist for treatment, treatment as usual and attention control,” co-author Associate Professor Simon Rosenbaum from UNSW Medicine says.

“The more sessions per week people engaged in, the greater the benefit was.”

Co-author Dr Joseph Firth form from the University of Manchester, UK says that rather than just seeing yoga as a pastime or hobby, the research is increasingly showing we can 'take seriously' the real benefits it seems to confer for mental health. 

“Also, the potential for yoga to be conducted in the home makes this an attractive option for people looking for ways to preserve their mental well-being during periods of prolonged social isolation,” he says.

Co-author Prof Felipe Schuch from the Federal University of Santa Maria, Brazil says people experiencing poor mental health can experience physical and mental health benefits from yoga practice. 

“It is likely that other aspects of yoga including meditation may play an important role in overall management and recovery,” he says.

Supporting people living with mental illness

A/Prof Rosenbaum says while the results are promising, challenges remain.

“Importantly, the most vulnerable in our community are often the least likely to have access to exercise or yoga programs despite the potential benefits,” A/Prof Rosenbaum says. 

The researchers also say their review has gaps that future studies will need to address.

“To understand the mechanism by which yoga has an effect on mental and physical health,  we need more and better data on the intervention variables such as type of yoga, intensity, environment, instructor qualification, specific postures, cueing, philosophical focuses, mindfulness techniques and breathing techniques,” A/Prof Rosenbaum says. 

“But our results have significant implications and demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need to go for a jog to benefit from movement.”

Globally, around 450 million people suffer from mental health issues, with the World Health Organization reporting that one in four people will be affected by a mental health condition or a neurological disorder at some point in their lives. In Australia, almost half of adults (aged 18-85 years) will experience mental illness

The study was conducted in partnership with the Federal University of Santa MariaKings College London and Western Sydney University and is available online.