Illustrations, Science & Research

Study examines yoga as depression therapy during, after pregnancy

U. researchers look to yoga as potential alternative intervention for pregnant women with depression

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2015

Results from an open trial studying the effect yoga has on pregnant women with depression indicates that yoga could serve as therapy to reduce the symptoms of the illness. The nonrandomized pilot study, led by a team of University researchers, was detailed in a paper published in the March-April issue of the journal Women’s Health Issues.

“The main motivation behind the current study, focused on prenatal yoga, was ultimately a desire to develop a wider range of acceptable treatment options for women with depression during pregnancy,” wrote Cynthia Battle, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and a co-author of the paper, in an email to The Herald. “We learned from our prior studies that a central factor leading some women to not seek care is lack of comfort with existing depression treatments,” she wrote, adding that many women do not want to take antidepressant medication or pursue psychotherapy.

“I was really interested in studying how yoga might be helpful for people with depression,” said Lisa Uebelacker, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and a co-author of the paper. Uebelacker and Battle merged their interests in yoga research and depression during pregnancy and submitted a grant to fund the research.

Depression is common among women during and after pregnancy, Uebelacker said, adding that the illness is overall more prevalent among women than men.

Yoga can help pregnant women struggling with depression practice mindful attention to the present moment, Uebelacker said. Mindfulness involves “learning and practicing, not judging, your experiences in the present moment — observing them without judging them,” Uebelacker said. “So when you observe sad moods or various feelings that go along with depression, you’ll also notice that they wax and wane over time. You’ll learn how to not be so worried about the past, to decrease self-criticism and decrease worry about the future.”

Learning this type of mindfulness can be beneficial to other facets of mental health as well, Uebelacker said. For example, yoga is also very relaxing, so it can help to reduce anxiety, she said. A community-based prenatal yoga program also allows participants to feel supported by their teacher and the other women in the class, she added.

The classes are designed to be gentle for the pregnant participants, Uebelacker said. Instructors are trained to adapt the practices for different women’s bodies and trimesters of pregnancy, she said.

Participants in the initial prenatal yoga program indicated that their depression decreased over time, but it is still uncertain if the yoga caused this decrease because the trial was not randomized, Uebelacker said. The researchers plan to include randomized trials in the next phase of the research, she said.

“We didn’t have any problems with the yoga class, and when we asked (participants) about it, a number of women told us that they experienced it as very helpful,” Uebelacker said.

B. Grace Bullock, contributing editor for science and research at Yoga U Online and former editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, agreed that future studies using randomized controlled trials are necessary for better understanding of how yoga interventions can best serve this population.

“In any studies of this nature it would be interesting to investigate the effects of yoga practice on mothers’ depressive symptoms over time,” Bullock said.

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