New Studies Spur Military To Consider Yoga As Mental Health Treatment For Veterans

WASHINGTON — “Have you tried yoga?”

It’s a common question many have likely heard in response to complaints of back pain, anxiety, or even depression. And while the anecdotal evidence of yoga’s ability to help with these ailments is plentiful, researchers say the number of studies gathering hard data on this have been lacking.

Woman practicing yoga
New studies showing the positive effect of yoga on a person’s mental health has spurred the military to consider implementing courses to help treat veterans.

Dr. Lindsey Hopkins of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, recently chaired a session highlighting new research on yoga’s influence in fighting depression. In a series of studies seeking to find hard data on the question of its efficacy, she found the answer to be an unequivocal yes — so much so that the U.S. military is now looking into incorporating it into its treatment regimes.

“Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practicing,” Hopkins says in a press release. “But the empirical research on yoga (so far) lags behind its popularity as a first-line approach to mental health.”

In one of Hopkins’ studies seeking to add to the data on yoga, 23 male military veterans were enrolled in eight weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes at a private yoga studio. At the end of the program the veterans suffering depression reported experiencing significant improvements. Not only that, 100% of the participants said they would recommend the program to other veterans.

Hopkins’s study was just one among many presented on the growing body of evidence on yoga’s ability to help soldiers. Other researchers, such as Jacob Hyde of the University of Denver, also outlined the possibility at the 2017 American Psychological Association convention.

Drawing a road map of a six-week yoga treatment for U.S. military veterans enrolled in behavioral health services at his university’s clinic, Hyde said the program could be expanded for use by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the paper describing the program, Hyde pointed to several earlier studies which showed yoga was effective at reducing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and “improving overall mental health and quality of life.” He also noted the program was designed by a clinical psychologist and a yoga instructor who are both U.S. military veterans themselves.

Another yoga and mental health study presented during the convention featured researcher Sarah Shallit’s findings. Working out of Alliant University in San Francisco, Shallit investigated Bikram yoga in 52 women, age 25-45, over an 8-week period. The results of this study were likewise strongly in favor of yoga as a treatment for depression, with the participants who did yoga showing statistically significant improvements over a control group.

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Yet another 8-week Bikram study by Dr. Maren Nyer and Maya Nauphal of Massachusetts General Hospital showed “significantly reduced symptoms of depression and improved other secondary measures including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning.”

And still more studies presented at the meeting showed impressive results. One involving 74 mildly depressed university students compared yoga to a different relaxation technique. While both the yoga group and the relaxation group had immediate benefits, the yoga group showed “significantly lower scores for depression, anxiety and stress” when compared to the relaxation group two months later.

“At this time, we can only recommend yoga as a complementary approach, likely most effective in conjunction with standard approaches delivered by a licensed therapist,” Hopkins said. “Clearly, yoga is not a cure-all. However, based on empirical evidence, there seems to be a lot of potential.”

The various studies were presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

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