Yoga has long been a popular form of exercise and meditation, but science is starting to confirm the ancient practice has the power to treat depression and anxiety.

With one in five Canadians dealing with a form of mental illness at some point in their lives, physicians are beginning to look beyond traditional methods of treatment, such as therapy or medication. Some are turning to yoga.

Family doctor Shailla Vaidya says the body has the ability to heal the mind. She has begun “prescribing” yoga for patients struggling with anxiety or depression.

“Most people report a higher quality of life, that they just feel happier, and when they’re happier, they’re better able to do things,” Vaidya said in an interview with CTV News.

One convert is Dr. Arun Ravindran, a psychiatrist who’s tested yoga’s ability to help patients who are already on medication to treat depression.

His study compared the effects of eight weeks of yoga classes to a standard form of counselling therapy. The research, he said, found that it was the yoga that boosted mood, energy and reduced depressive symptoms.

Ravindran, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says he and fellow researchers were “excited” to see that yoga helped.

“But we were even more excited to see that it seemed to be even better than a more established, well-accepted form of treatment,” Ravindran said.

Studies suggest yoga helps lower heart rates and blood pressure. It may also boost brain chemicals that promote a sense of well-being.

Marc van Herk once lived with depression. He said there was a time when he “couldn’t remember what joy felt like.”

Though he was prescribed anti-depressant medication, van Herk says it was attending yoga classes regularly that made him better.

“I’m enjoying things again,” he said. “I feel it has made a substantial impact in my life.”

Van Herk now practices regularly as part of an innovative program called Blu Matter, which offers free yoga classes to anyone diagnosed with mental illness.

The program was set up by Linda Malone after her brother Michael died by suicide.

“When you start to understand that you have more control and power over managing some of the symptoms that come along with mental health issues, it’s motivating,” Malone said.

With a report by CTV News Medical Specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip