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New York - The calming poses and meditation of yoga may be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to beating depression, new research suggests.

Researchers found that weekly sessions of yoga and deep breathing exercises helped ease symptoms of the common condition. They believe the practice may be an alternative or complementary therapy for tough-to-treat cases of depression.

The intervention seemed helpful for “people who are not on antidepressants and in those who have been on a stable dose of antidepressants [but] have not achieved a resolution of their symptoms”, study lead author Dr Chris Streeter said in a news release from Boston Medical Centre. He is a psychiatrist at the hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University.

Up to 40% of people taking medication for this form of depression won’t see their depression go away, according to the researchers. However, prior studies have shown that the ancient practice of yoga may be of help.

“The mechanism of action is similar to other exercise techniques that activate the release of 'feel good’ brain chemicals,” explained Dr Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who reviewed the new findings.

He added that exercise, especially yoga, may also “reduce immune system chemicals that can worsen depression”.

“It has been demonstrated that 'mindful’ movement - conscious awareness - has a much more beneficial impact on the central nervous system,” he said. But would this bear out in a rigorous study? To find out Streeter’s team tracked outcomes for 30 people with major depressive disorder. The participants practised Ilyengar yoga, a method that focuses on detail, precision and alignment in posture and breath control.

Those who took three weekly yoga classes had fewer depressive symptoms than those in the “low-dose” group, but Streeter’s team said even two classes a week was still very effective in improving people’s mood.

Dr. Victor Fornari, a psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, agreed that the new study “supports the use of yoga for the treatment of depression".

"Yoga, like regular exercise, is good for most people for health maintenance as well as to treat what ails them.”

The study was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.