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Yoga is an ancient Indian practice that engages the mind and body through physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation. Robust scientific evidence has demonstrated that yoga benefits both mental and physical health. A new study suggests that yoga decreases symptoms of depression by increasing brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid.

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by profound sadness, altered sleep patterns, and feelings of guilt or low self-worth. It is the most common mental health disorder worldwide, affecting more than 265 million people.

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that inhibits neural activity. Low levels of GABA are associated with increased symptoms of depression.

The study involved 28 people between the ages of 18 and 65 years old who had depression. A variety of diagnostic tools and self-reports assessed the participants' mental health, depressive symptoms, and suicide risk. Prior to being randomized to either a low-dose or high-dose Iyengar yoga intervention group, the participants underwent magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) scanning to assess GABA levels.

The low-dose group engaged in two 90-minute yoga sessions and three 30-minute homework sessions per week. The high-dose group engaged in three 90-minute yoga sessions and four 30-minute homework sessions per week. At the end of the 12-week intervention, the participants underwent a second scan, engaged in a 90-minute yoga session, and then underwent a third scan.

The participants in both the low-dose and high-dose groups reported that their depression symptoms improved. The MRS data revealed that participants who engaged in the low-dose yoga intervention exhibited significant increases in GABA levels between the first and third scans and between the second and third scans. The increased GABA levels were short-lived, however (lasting less than eight days after completing a yoga session), suggesting that yoga sessions should be regular and often to prevent symptoms of depression.

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