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Just one hot yoga session a week can significantly improve your mental health

Woman doing hot yoga, sweating. (Getty Images)
Is hot yoga or 'normal' yoga better for you? (Getty Images)

Just one hot yoga session a week can 'beat the blues' and reduce symptoms of depression, a new study suggests.

Hot yoga does what it says on the tin – the form of exercise performed under hot and humid conditions not only gets you moving, but sweating. Some practices seek to replicate the climate of India, where yoga originated.

And it may only take one session a week to provide noticeable health benefits, say scientists, based on findings from a clinical trial involving adults with moderate-to-severe depression.

Those who participated in heated yoga sessions experienced 'significantly greater' reductions in depressive symptoms compared with a control group. The results, published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, indicate that hot yoga could be a "viable treatment option" for depressed patients.

During the eight-week trial, 80 participants were split into two groups: one that received 90-minute sessions of Bikram yoga practiced in a 40.5C (or 105°F) room and a second group that was placed on a waitlist. Participants in the intervention group were prescribed at least two yoga classes per week, but overall, they attended an average of 10.3 classes over eight weeks.

After the two month period, the yoga participants had a significantly greater reduction in depressive symptoms than waitlisted participants.

The team also found that 59.3% of the yoga participants had a 50% or greater decrease in symptoms, compared with 6.3% of the waitlist participants. And 44% in the yoga group achieved such low scores that their depression was considered in remission, compared with 6.3% in the waitlist arm.

The researchers said that depressive symptoms were reduced even in participants who received only half of the prescribed yoga 'dose' – suggesting that hot yoga sessions just once a week could be beneficial.

Young adult woman practicing yoga at the yoga studio doing sun salutation pose. Front view.
Yoga can ease depression, anxiety and stress. (Getty Images)

"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," says study lead author Dr Maren Nyer.

The assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, adds, "We are currently developing new studies with the goal of determining the specific contributions of each element – heat and yoga – to the clinical effects we have observed in depression."

Participants rated the heated yoga sessions positively and reported they experienced no serious adverse effects, according to the study.

"Future research is needed to compare heated to non-heated yoga for depression to explore whether heat has benefits over and above that of yoga for the treatment of depression, especially given the promising evidence for whole body hyperthermia as a treatment for major depressive disorder," acknowledges senior author Dr David Mischoulon, of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Is yoga or hot yoga better for our health?

While more scientific research is needed to understand this definitively, in the meantime, we consulted yoga teacher Aysha Bell on her understanding of this based on her day-to-day expertise. The new study may certainly tempt many of us into taking up yoga if we haven't already, but does it mean we have to do downward dog in extreme heat just to reap the benefits?

"Both hot yoga and yoga practiced at average temperatures have a very positive effect on our mental health, especially someone suffering from depression or anxiety," says Bell. "The benefits of hot yoga are, however, slightly different and sometimes better depending on the individual."

Bell explains that when we practice hot yoga and our body is exposed to excessive heat, the stress hormone cortisol is reduced, giving us the kind of relief we get from being in a hot climate.

"Hot yoga is particularly effective in reducing negative thought patterns and anxiety side effects. As a result, it reduces stress and depression," she adds. But, she reiterates, as well as lowering cortisol, sweat helps release your hormones – including endorphins, serotonin and dopamine – which can be achieved in both practices of yoga.

Man doing yoga at home on mat. (Getty Images)
All types of yoga have their benefits. (Getty Images)

"While both offer anti-stress, the heat in hot yoga does take it up a peg or two. Although we can work up the heat in the body and through sweating, it’s not quite the same as feeling the heat around you in a hot yoga class. I personally prefer a standard heat or being in a hot country but this is not always available," says Bell.

The expert urges anyone interested in hot yoga to first consult their doctor if they have underlying health concerns like heart issues, blood pressure or even pregnancy. And those who don't suit hot yoga, or would rather take up the 'normal' kind, shouldn't be disheartened.

While she admits the heat may add to the health benefits, Bell adds, "Both practices improve mental health and physical wellbeing. This helps not only with mood but also with things like focus, anxiety and depression."

Additional reporting SWNS.

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