Study Finds Yoga Significantly Reduces Depression in Male Veterans

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A new study presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association found that male veterans who had elevated depression scores before a twice weekly hatha yoga program had a significant reduction in depression symptoms after the eight-week program.

How Yoga Benefits Veterans with Depression

“Yoga is unique in that it combines several things that empirical research has shown to be very helpful for improving depression and other mental health concerns: exercise, mindfulness, and breathing practices, to name a few,” says study information co-investigator Lindsey B. Hopkins, Ph.D., a research fellow at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Health Care Center. “All of these things likely played a role in the benefits that these veterans experienced.”

The study, which featured 21 male veterans, also found that improvements in depression were significantly correlated with increases in mindfulness and decreases in experiential avoidance—defined as engaging in a particular behavior in order to change or avoid unwanted negative thoughts, emotions, or sensations, even when doing so produces harm. This is consistent with other research, Hopkins says. The social aspect of yoga may also play a role: in interviews, many of the veterans said they derived a great deal of benefit (in terms of mental health and well-being) from having the opportunity to connect with other veterans, she adds.

The Most Significant Study Finding

Not only did the veterans see a reduction in their depression symptoms after participating in the hatha yoga program, they also simply enjoyed it. On a 1–10 scale, the veterans gave the yoga classes an average enjoyment rating of 9.4, and all participants said they would recommend the program to other veterans.

“The most unique aspect of our study is that it focused on male veterans with an average age of 61, whereas most other research has focused on younger and predominantly female populations,” Hopkins says. “From my view, our most meaningful finding was how much these men—almost all of whom were practicing yoga for the first time—enjoyed the practice, believed it had improved their physical and/or mental health, and viewed it as a promising treatment option, suggesting that yoga could be a highly acceptable complementary approach for male veterans. I think this is important given that people in the U.S. often think of yoga as a woman’s activity … and, more specifically, a privileged young white woman’s activity. This study lends support that this isn’t the case, given the diversity of these male veterans in terms age, race, and economic status.”

More Evidence That Yoga May Help Reduce Symptoms of Depression

While this was a small study, others presented at the APA convention also highlighted the role that yoga may play in reducing symptoms of depression.

  • In one study, co-authored by Hopkins, eight weeks of hot yoga significantly reduced symptoms of depression compared with the control group for 52 women, ages 25–45.
  • Another pilot study of 29 adults showed that eight weeks of at least twice weekly hot yoga significantly reduced symptoms of depression.
  • In another study, 12 patients who had experienced depression for an average of 11 years participated in nine weekly yoga sessions. Scores for depression, anxiety, and stress decreased.
  • And in another study, 74 mildly depressed university students were asked to perform a yoga or relaxation exercise at home for eight days. Two months later, participants in the yoga group had significantly lower scores for depression, anxiety, and stress than the relaxation group.