In my experience, the lack of research was often explained away by the fact that yoga is an ancient practice that has only recently been integrated into Western culture. The healing power of yoga was thus often verified by the teachings and experiences of practitioners, rather than randomized control studies at national medical institutes.
Having just reviewed the most recent research on yoga and mental health for this post, I am happy to report that the tides appear to be shifting! I was floored by the number of studies and meta-analyses that have been conducted in the last ten years on the effects of yoga (side note: I was also floored that it had apparently been 10 years since I'd done a lit review on this topic).
Given the recent flood of research on yoga, I decided to share some of the more consistent findings here. I should note that I limited my review to articles published in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.
1. Depression: Well over 100 studies have examined the effects of yoga on depression including several randomized control trials. Results suggest that yoga is not only effective at alleviating symptoms of depression, but that even a short trial of yoga (2 months of Vinyasa yoga in one study) can significantly reduce symptoms.
2. Schizophrenia: Medications are typically the gold standard for treating schizophrenia. Studies now suggest that individuals who practice yoga in addition to taking their standard meds show significant improvements in symptoms of schizophrenia compared to those only on medication.
3. Sleep: Several studies now suggest that yoga leads to improvements in various indicators of sleep quality including sleep efficiency, total sleep time, sleep onset latency, number of awakenings, and self-reported sleep quality.
4. Lower back pain: Studies have shown that sufferers of lower back pain who participate in several weeks of yoga show significant reductions in lower back pain intensity, functional impairment, and the use of pain medications compared to those who do not take a multi-week yoga class.
Although not as substantive, there is also growing research suggesting positive effects of yoga on conditions such as anxiety, eating disorders, and ADHD.
One notable findings across the vast majority of mental health studies is that yoga did not result in significant negative effects for study participants. In my opinion, this gives yoga a huge advantage over some of the treatments for the various conditions discussed. I see many clients who, for example, are unwilling to take antidepressants or anxiolytics because of the side-effects. Depending on the condition, yoga may be a very safe alternative to consider.
For those who do rely on medications or other treatments to manage these conditions, it appears that yoga may further enhance functioning; again, it is at the very least not likely to result in significant negative side effects when used in combination with other treatments.
So, where can you get your yoga on?
Because of schedule times and their awesome prenatal classes (I was pregnant when we first moved to the area), I've been pretty loyal to Breathe in Los Gatos. I'd also highly recommend Dragonfly Yoga and Wellness in Livermore. Yoga is Youthfulness has consistently made the "Best of Mountain View" list, but I haven't personally had the pleasure of attending classes there yet. If any readers have recommendations for excellent studios in the area, do share!