I have been depressed and anxious for as long as I can remember. My mom passed away when I was six and my father raised me on his own from there. He was fifty-five when he had me and struggled to connect with a young daughter. Whether it is chemical or simply the longing for deeper nurture, my mood has suffered. I have participated in many sports from a young age and I think that was the only time I felt high enough to get through that week or month. As I got older I became interested in running, always needing to have the fastest mile in school. That turned into long distance running, which I recovered from with hot baths or saunas. I was never necessarily interested in yoga from a young age, but when I heard about hot yoga, I knew that was for me. Any time I step into a sauna, or sit and bake out in the sun until I’m sweating, or practice any sort of exercise in a hot setting, I feel somewhat euphoric. I strive for these euphoric states. I have lived in the high highs and the low lows. I struggle with living in the middle, the everyday.
A recent study has found that increasing your body temperature through spending time in a hyperthermic chamber, has benefited depressed patients, in noticeable numbers. A University of Arizona associate professor of psychiatry, Dr. Charles Raison, became interested in the relationship between body temperature and mood. This emerged from his study of Tibetan Buddhist monks living in the Himalayas. He was intrigued by the monks' tummo meditation practice, in which they use specialized breathing techniques to increase their body temperature. This gave Dr. Raison the idea of utilizing a hyperthermic chamber to test depressed patients’ moods.
To take us back for a moment; the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to an Austrian doctor with an unusual obsession. Julius Wagner-Jauregg had been treating bouts of dementia in people with advanced syphilis by injecting them with blood from a malaria patient. The induced malarial fevers, he reported in 1917, curbed their dementia.
The new hyperthermia study included 30 people with mild depression. About half the group went through a body-warming treatment that elevated their body temperature to about 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit for a little over an hour using infrared lights and heating coils placed a few feet away. The other group went through a procedure that was staged to look similar, but didn’t heat their bodies as much.
After that single session, the volunteers returned to the lab for weekly psychiatric evaluations for six weeks. Both groups saw improvement in their depression symptoms. But only those who had the full hyperthermia saw their improved moods last through that period.
The Body to the Brain
Dr. Raison has always been interested in the impact that the body has on the brain. "I was very interested in studying [the Tibetan Buddhist monks living in the Himalayas], and because of that interest I discovered that the pathways involved in how the body regulates heat – or thermoregulation, the ability of the brain and the body to maintain a normal body temperature – are the same pathways involved in depression," Raison said. "Serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine – all these chemicals that we think of as depression chemicals are also thermoregulatory chemicals."
His general hypothesis: Heating up the whole body would send an electrical impulse up the spinal cord into specific brain regions like the dorsal raphe nucleus, which releases serotonin, a neurochemical also stimulated by traditional antidepressants.
Having this insight, I decided to reach out to a yoga teacher that I work with, and have been following on Instagram. Through social media, she has spoken of her history of depression, trying different medications, and how regular and heated yoga had brought her to her center.
“I've always had a love for the heat, growing up in Florida. So it's not surprising that I fell in love with hot yoga. I’ve also struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my life, and it’s in yoga that I’ve found peace, solace, and healing. Yoga has been a literal life-saver for me.” says Mackenzie Morrin, a Yoga teacher in Los Angeles.
Exposure to the heat, or exercising in the heat, are not going to be the whole answer. For those like Morrin, myself, and the 16 million American adults who struggle with depression, just one thing may not be enough. I see the heat or practicing yoga in the heat, as an assistor. I still take my medicine, and feel that I truly do need it, but I would be lost without the addition of hot yoga. I also spend regular time in saunas, run when it’s hot out, and am looking into infrared saunas.
Turning the Mind Off
I am not saying that practicing hot yoga daily is easy. It requires a mental and physical focus that you have to be dedicated to, and most likely have to feel the results strong enough to continue. “In that hour, the main thing I focus on is the heat. My mind is not wandering, chattering about what I need to do later, or that I'll never be good enough. I am present in that hour. I feel surges of energy from the endorphins; I am a goddess-rockstar yogi. I am not only surviving, I am THRIVING in the heat in my sacred vessel, my body.” says Morrin.
To be able to block out that chatter, even just for an hour a day, is one of the most mood-lifting and calming things I’ve been able to experience. My partner (and many others in my life) don’t necessarily understand how I look forward to the practice of hot yoga so much. I don’t look forward to forcing myself to shut off the anxious chatter or feel hotter that I can handle in a room. I look forward to the break-through I experience in that room. And to the time I can spend after that seeps into days after where I feel more fulfilled, more relieved, and in a deeper sense of self.
“Hot yoga, practiced by a growing number of people, appears to be a promising treatment for depression,” says Maren Nyer, PhD, director of Yoga Research in the Massachusetts General Hospital Depression Clinical and Research Program, and principal investigator. “Regular practice of hot yoga may regulate certain physiological functions that could contribute to the reversal of a depressed state.”
Yoga is a physical practice, but it lives in the mind. When we combine the studied benefits of the heat and the ancient practice of yoga, we find that the benefits can only complement each other. Especially as we are reaching the winter months, the body craves the heat, to lift the mood, and be able to loosen up the muscles and allow deep stretching. If you find yourself low in energy or mood, or simple want to energize your body and mind, try stepping into an infrared sauna, taking a long bath or practicing yoga in a heated environment. Allow your mood to lift.