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The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

Researchers at Butler Hospital recently conducted a study of how group yoga programs could help teens who had elevated levels of stress and who are depressed.

Dr. Lisa Uebelacker is a clinical psychologist at Butler Hospital and Brown University was the lead on the study. It’s not the first time she’s researched the impact hatha yoga can have on people suffering from depression or chronic pain.


In various ongoing and completed clinical trials, Uebelacker has focused on people with a partial response to antidepressant treatments, people with chronic pain enrolled in medication-assisted treatment for opioid disorder, people in prison, and pregnant depressed women.

Q: What is the study about?

Uebelacker: We are piloting a group of teens that had elevated levels of depression or stress and comparing the yoga program to a group cognitive behavioral therapy treatment, which is an evidence-based treatment for depression. With the pilot study, we’re really looking at, can we do this? Are kids interested? Will they come to class and how can we make the classes accessible for them?

We took the feedback from the pilot to prepare to be able to do a larger-scale study where we want to ultimately compare a yoga class to a group CBT and whether they both are helpful for teens with depression, whether the yoga is not inferior to the group CBT, and then that will allow us to look at for whom will a yoga class be better or for whom will a group CBT be better?

(The pilot study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Shirley Yen was the director of the study)


Q: Why yoga?

Uebelacker: Yoga really incorporates aspects of meditation, of breath awareness and breath control, as well as movement. What I also really like about yoga is that for both adults and kids with depression, if you think about meditation, it may be hard for some people to start a sitting-meditation practice. They are just sitting there with all of these negative thoughts constantly. In yoga, though, it incorporates all of those things that you need: focusing on their breathing, focusing on their movement, it teaches mindfulness but in the context where it might be easier to access for some people with depression.

Plus, if you think about people who are depressed, who are sort of lethargic, it really helps to get them to move in gentle ways.

Q: And when you say “elevated levels of depression,” what does that mean?

Uebelacker: It varies quite a bit. Some of the teens in our program absolutely did have individual therapy that they were engaged in, have a psychiatrist, and might be receiving some kind of medication.

Q: When did this program begin and how many participants did you have?

Uebelacker: It was a three-year study that we’re just at the tail-end of now. In the beginning, we did focus groups with teens and parents. We looked at their needs and ideas about how yoga for teens and stress might look like. Then we enrolled 11 kids in the yoga program.


In our third phase, we randomly assigned more than 40 kids in either the yoga program or the group CBT program.

Q: How did COVID-19 impact the program?

Uebelacker: Partway through the study, COVID-19 hit and we had to transition everything from in-person to online. But, the silver-lining was that all the kids continued to attend, so they clearly liked it. If kids and parents don’t think something is working for them or they don’t like it, they just won’t return and waste their time. So it seems like the program has been acceptable to these teens, and even doing it online.

Q: The study is nearly over. What have you found so far?

Uebelacker: Many of the teens have said they found it relaxing and helped them get through the stresses of everyday life, especially during the last year. Now they can go to school and if there’s a stressful moment where their heart starts beating hard, they have techniques that they can use (like breathing exercises) to cope in the moment. And that’s exactly what they are reporting to us.

Q: You’ve looked at how yoga has helped other populations as well. What do you see with that data?

Uebelacker: I’m currently wrapping up a study that looks at how health education and yoga compare for depressed, pregnant women. We don’t have results yet, but there’s also preliminary data that shows that yoga can help with chronic pain that could help people with opioid use disorders who were prescribed medication to help with their pain. We want to give them an alternative. So we’re getting read to start a study in both Providence and in Boston of yoga for chronic pain in that population.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.