Some individuals use yoga for fitness, some for relaxation and some for spiritual reasons. Another possible benefit of practicing yoga is improved mental health.
A recent study found that practicing yoga improved the symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients.
The types of yoga that seemed to have the greatest effect on improving depression were meditation-based types.
Meditation-based types of yoga might include hatha yoga, Jivamukti, Kripalu, integral and restorative yoga.
This study, led by Holger Cramer, PhD, of the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, aimed to find out how effective yoga was in treating depression.
The researchers searched five medical research databases through January 2013 for all randomized controlled trials related to yoga and depression.
The researchers identified 12 studies that involved a total of 619 participants, though only three of the studies were considered exceptionally high quality.
In the randomized, controlled trials, depressed participants using yoga were compared to depressed participants doing nothing different (usual care), using aerobic exercise or using relaxation methods.
Six of the studies came from Asia (mostly India), five from the US and one from Europe. They used various "depression scale" assessments to determine participants' depression symptoms.
The results of all the studies together revealed that the short-term effects of yoga appeared to improve the symptoms of patients with depression when compared to patients receiving only usual care.
When compared to depressed patients using relaxation and aerobic exercise, depressed patients using yoga also appeared to have greater improvements in their symptoms, though this evidence was not as strong.
The researchers also found limited evidence that showed yoga helped decrease the symptoms of anxiety in patients when compared to using only relaxation methods.
Patients with a diagnosed depressive disorder or with particularly higher levels of depression were more likely to see the benefits of yoga, based on these studies' findings.
None of the studies reported safety data, so information on the risks of yoga or adverse effects was not able to be discussed in this study.
The researchers concluded that the findings in these studies did lend support to using yoga for treatment of depression, along with standard care.
Even though the studies were very different from one another and some were of lower quality, the evidence still was in favor of these patients practicing yoga.
"Yoga, in particular meditation-based yoga forms seem to be effective for treating depression," the researchers wrote.
Barbara Long, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia, agreed that yoga can be a beneficial activity for those with anxiety or depression.
"Yoga is an ancient practice that has been used for thousands of years in India and more recently has been introduced into American culture as a healthy practice," Dr. Long said. "Clinically, although the neurobiology behind this is not clearly understood, practicing yoga regularly can be helpful for patients with anxiety and depression," she said.
She said the goals of practicing yoga can often be especially appropriate for those with anxiety or depression.
"Part of the practice involves focused attention away from normal cares and concerns, deep breathing, which counteracts the elevated breathing rate experienced in anxiety attacks, and physical exercises, which are helpful for flexibility and overall mobility," Dr. Long said.
"In addition, there can be a spiritual dimension that is concerned with the attainment of peace of mind and detachment from worldly concerns," she said.
Dr. Long also pointed out other benefits of yoga as a type of therapy.
"There are no apparent 'side effects' as seen with medications, and the costs associated with this are minimal," Dr. Long said. "However, it is important that patients first get clearance medically to engage in the practice, especially because of possible risk to the spine."
The study was published August 6 in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
The research was funded by the Rut- and Klaus-Bahlsen Foundation. No disclosures were noted.