Yoga, Meditation & Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation - the skill of paying attention without judgement – has been a feature of some religious and cultural traditions for centuries. Over the last 30 years psychology has been interested in how this ancient practice might have beneficial effects on our modern lives. Mindfulness mediation really came to public attention in 2011 when a study at Harvard University showed that eight weeks of mindfulness practice was able to reshape the brain’s structure, improving function in the areas associated with memory, empathy and stress. More recently, a study published in the journal Neural Plasticity used functional MRI to demonstrate the nature of meditation-induced brain changes and showed that meditation was able to significantly reduce the participants’ depression scores; participants who at the start of the study were identified as depressed had scores below the cut-off for diagnosis by the end of the intervention, a near 50% reduction in symptoms in eight weeks. Earlier, researchers at the University of Bologna compared the efficacy of mindfulness-based therapy to a matched psychoeducation programme. The mindfulness-based intervention yielded significantly greater improvement in depression scores.
The practice of yoga has a strong mindfulness component, requiring practitioners to focus on the position of their bodies, their breathing as well as any thoughts or emotions they become aware of during the practice. The case for yoga and meditation as a useful tool in tackling depression is strong and growing. A randomised control trial comparing yoga to walking found that yoga was more effective at improving mood (and decreasing anxiety). A recent study published in Depression and Anxiety found that yoga had a significantly beneficial effect on depression scores compared to standard treatment alone, and that it also improved overall wellbeing. In another recent trial a consistent yoga practice was associated with better outcomes and recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
Both yoga and mindfulness/meditation have health benefits beyond a sense of calm. As well as reducing the severity of depressive symptoms they can increase levels of brain chemicals that promote the growth of new brain cells, reduce levels of stress hormones, increase concentration and reduce anxiety. Yoga also comes with the added physical advantages of increased strength, balance and flexibility, all of which are important in slowing the process of aging. Both yoga and mindfulness are practices whose benefits are accumulative, requiring regular application for the best results. As with physical exercise, it is best to start with shorter, manageable efforts and build up to a longer regular practice. When introducing my own clients to mindfulness I recommend starting with just one minute a day first thing in the morning, before they can get distracted. Mindfulness practice is also helpful before bed as it can help to ease you into a restful sleep. There are free apps, such as Headspace, and online tutorials and guided meditations that can be useful to get you started as well a number of taught courses and books. Those interested in giving it a try might find this video from Martin Boroson an easy introduction.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36–43. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
Yang, C.-C., Barrós-Loscertales, A., Pinazo, D., Ventura-Campos, N., Borchardt, V., Bustamante, J.-C., … Walter, M. (2016). State and Training Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Brain Networks Reflect Neuronal Mechanisms of Its Antidepressant Effect. Neural Plasticity, 2016, 9504642. http://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9504642
Streeter, C. C., Whitfield, T. H., Owen, L., Rein, T., Karri, S. K., Yakhkind, A., … Jensen, J. E. (2010). Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11), 1145–1152. http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2010.0007
de Manincor, M., Bensoussan, A., Smith, C. A., Barr, K., Schweickle, M., Donoghoe, L.-L., Bourchier, S. and Fahey, P. (2016). Individualized yoga for reducing depression and anxiey, and improving well-being: A randomized controlled trial. Depression and Anxiety. doi: 10.1002/da.22502
Rhodes, A., Spinazzola, J. & van der Kolk, B. (2016). Yoga for adult women with chronic PTSD: A long-term follow—up study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 22, 189-196. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0407.
Chiesa, A., Castagner, V., Andrisano, C., Serretti, A., Mandelli, L., Porcelli, S. & Giommi, F. (2015). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy vs. psycho-education for patients with major depression who did not achieve remission following antidepressant treatment. Psychiatry Research, 226, 474 – 483.
This information is provided for information purposes only and should not be taken as advice or instruction. This information does not replace the advice of your doctor. Please consult an appropriate health professional if you believe you are experiencing a mental or physical health concern. Speak to your GP or a trainer before making any significant changes to your exercise routine