Yoga Trumps Relaxation in Caregiver Mental Health

Caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients typically experience greater levels of loneliness, exhaustion, stress, and depression. A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that just 12 minutes of daily yoga practice (Kirtan Kriya meditation) over eight weeks appears to improve mental health and telomerase activity, a marker of cellular aging, among family dementia caregivers.

Alzheimer’s affects some 5.4 million individuals in the US. According to researcher Dr. Heven Lavretsky, caregivers of those afflicted with the debilitating disease experience rates of clinical depression approaching 50 percent. They are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress. Many caregivers are resistant to taking antidepressant medication due to cost and side effects, which prompted this study to assess the effectiveness of a mind-body approach.

The researchers randomly assigned thirty-nine family dementia caregivers aged 45 to 91 to one of two groups: 1) Kirtan Kriya yoga practice or 2) relaxation music. Each practice was assigned daily for 12 minutes at the same time for an eight-week duration. The Kirtan Kriya group was comprised of several elements, including chanting, mudra (finger poses), and visualization, while the relaxation group relaxed quietly with eyes closes listening to instrumental music on a CD.

Results at the end of eight weeks were “striking,” says Lavretsky. Relative to the control group, Kirtan Kriya participants demonstrated significantly lower levels of depression and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning. Measurement of telomerase activity showed a 3.7% increase in the relaxation group, whereas the yoga condition improved a whopping 43% over the course of the study.

Telomerase is an enzyme responsible for telomere length and maintenance, reductions of which have been linked to aging, psychological distress, and other health problems such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Several recent studies have suggested meditation practice may increase telomerase, although this is the first study to link chanting, visualization, and mantra to increases in telomerase activity.

This study is noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, the researchers used a rigorous design (randomized controlled trial) that allows us to infer preliminary causality; because of the active control group, we are able to say that the yoga condition was most likely to cause the observed improvements, rather than other extraneous factors. Secondly, it contributes to our understanding of how yoga and related practices feature benefits that may prove additive to the relaxation response.

Finally, this study renders a unique contribution to our understanding of yoga’s benefits as a whole. Most Western yoga research focuses on yoga asana or meditation, only two limbs of yoga’s eight-limbed path. This study suggests that yogic practices not commonly perceived as yoga or meditation (though Kirtan Kriya represents both) are still highly effective. Kirtan Kriya appears more effective, to boot, than relaxation, an evidence-based and often-utilized therapeutic approach for the over-stressed.

Have you or someone you know benefited from yoga as a caregiver? Share your experience with us.

Comments 1

  1. I have greatly benefited from yoga as a caregiver. My mother has battled cancer three times (breast cancer twice and Rectal Cancer) and has congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, copd and the list goes on and on. I have been my mother”™s caregiver for the past 5 years. Just recently she was rushed to the hospital and was in ICU and on life support. Needless to say, this experience has been very stressful to me. Then add in the fact that I am also a single mother of a beautiful 10 year old (very active) little girl and work full time as a project manager with many deadlines, my stress level was taken over the limit.

    The stress level was to the point that I ended up with shingles on my eye. My doctor was very concerned about my level of stress and wrote me off work for a month and gave me some anxiety pills (which I wasn”™t too happy about taking). Being written off work helped some, but I still had to care for my ailing mother and try and keep my daughter”™s life as normal as possible, the stress wasn”™t going away.

    I tried one of the anxiety pills the doctor gave me and it knocked me out for 10 hours. I”™m sure I needed the sleep but that was not the kind of sleep I wanted and the next day I felt tired all day. So I figured I needed some other way to reduce my level of stress and that is when I found Moksha yoga. I have been going ever since.

    I had tried yoga in the past and I guess I just never really found a passion for it like I have now. Now I live yoga. I work yoga into my schedule at least 3-4 times a week, if not more. I no longer take the anxiety pills and have enjoyed noticing the changes in my body. From here on out, I”™m sure yoga is going to be a part of my life.

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