A new form of therapy that combines yoga with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has shown promise in reducing anxiety and boosting self-compassion among older adults attending community centres, according to a new study.
Researchers found that after six 90-minute sessions, participants reported significant decreases in anxiety levels. Although not statistically significant, depression levels also dropped. The findings were published in the journal Activities, Adaptation & Aging.
“Yoga-cognitive behavioural therapy (Y-CBT) is an innovative approach that simultaneously targets the cognitive and physical symptoms of anxiety,” explains Manjit Khalsa, EdD, lead author of the study and a psychologist. “Combining these modalities was interesting to us because, as therapists, we had noticed how intertwined the experiences of people who struggle with anxiety impact both the mind and body, but there wasn’t a psychological approach available that explored this relationship.”
As people age, they often face difficulties like bereavement, illness, and isolation that can trigger anxiety and depression. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 18% of over-65s in the US suffered from depression before the pandemic.
“By combining concepts of CBT and simple yogic practices of movement and breath management, we sought to target both problematic thought processes and the physical experiences of anxiety,” Khalsa continues.
“We had worked with this approach with excellent success in a clinical population for over 10 years, and we wanted to expand our research to see if Y-CBT would be applicable to other populations. Older adults seemed like a natural fit because people in this age range often experience loss of partnership, illness, and declining health, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. As senior centres play an important role in providing support and community, we felt they would be a good place to begin our search. We approached several senior centres, and they were eager to participate.”
Timely treatment is crucial to prevent further decline in older people. Both anxiety and depression raise the risks of physical disability, loneliness, a lower quality of life, and early death.
“Although this study had several limitations,” Khalsa acknowledges, “this research indicates that Y-CBT may be useful for the reduction of the symptoms of anxiety and depression for older adults and may give older adults useful tools as they manage the issues of ageing.”
Y-CBT aims to tackle both the mental and physical aspects of anxiety. “It combines CBT techniques to challenge negative thought patterns with breathing exercises, meditation, and gentle chair yoga adapted for older bodies,” notes Khalsa. “Participants also share their experiences in a supportive group setting.”
Participants completed three questionnaires measuring anxiety, depression, and self-compassion before and after the programme.
“After the Y-CBT intervention,” Khalsa adds, “anxiety significantly improved and though not significant, many participants reported reduced levels of depression after the Y-CBT experience. These results indicate that Y-CBT may be a promising approach for reducing the symptoms of anxiety and co-occurring depression which older adults experience.”
Although depression did not significantly decline overall, many individuals shifted from moderate or severe into minimal or non-clinical ranges.
“But there were limitations,” Khalsa points out. “The study lacked a control group, so it is unclear if Y-CBT outperformed CBT alone. The sample size was also small and lacked diversity. Dropout rates were quite high, at 35%.”
Nevertheless, the researchers said the findings justify further research with a control group and more participants. They also hoping to test Y-CBT in a clinical trial against CBT without yoga. Future studies could also examine which elements of Y-CBT drive benefits.
“Our next online training will be scheduled for the spring,” Khalsa mentions. “Please see Y-CBT.com for more information or Facebook Y-CBT. Our training programs are tailored to therapists who are either trained as both behavioral health psychotherapists and yoga teachers or who are part of a team of a psychotherapist and yoga teacher.”