4 Reasons Yoga Is Beneficial Medicine for Depression

4 Reasons Yoga Is Beneficial Medicine for Depression
You may feel sad sometimes. You may have had dark days. But if you have felt this way for a long time, then you may be experiencing depression. But the story can be changed because there are many ways to find relief from symptoms of depression—including practicing yoga.

What Is Depression?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think, and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn't worth living. More than just a bout of the blues, depression isn't a weakness and you can't simply ‘snap out’ of it. Depression may require long-term treatment.”

Symptoms of Depression

Depression arouses feelings of not being in control, anger, and frustration. Many people experience depressive episodes—a few hours or even days of feeling down. Some experience the symptoms of an extended period of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

Causes of Depression

Depression can be caused by trauma, challenging life situations, loss, grief, addiction, physical ailments, and/or chemical imbalance in the brain. Author Louise Hay, known worldwide for her positive-mindset approach to healing, explains in her book, You Can Heal Your Life, that the probable cause for depression is “anger you feel you do not have the right to have” and “hopelessness.” Hay encourages creating a new thought pattern to shift depression: “I now go beyond other people’s fears and limitations. I create my life.” Although sometimes debilitating, there are many options for finding relief from depression.

Treatments/Aids for Depression

As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states: “No two people are affected the same way by depression and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for treatment. It may take some trial and error to find the treatment that works best for you.”

Some common treatments for depression include:

Yoga in depression might be considered one element in an integrative treatment approach. Depression is a serious and sometimes deadly disease; no claims are being made here that yoga is a cure for depression.

More mental health professionals, wellness practitioners, and doctors are encouraging patients dealing with depression to try yoga. According to the Cleveland Clinic: “Yoga ‘meets you where you are,’ even when you are depressed. Practicing yoga teaches you breathing techniques that can help to energize you when you are feeling down or to help calm you at the times you may be feeling anxiety. The breath is the link between your mind and your body. Changing your breath can help you feel better mentally and physically. The postures and movements in yoga teach you how to hold your body in a way that can make you feel stronger, better able to breathe and function, and to create an improved sense of overall well-being.”

Taking yoga classes for depression and anxiety relief can be beneficial because yoga is exercise, gives you useful language, is a mindful practice, and is often practiced in community.

1. Yoga Is Exercise

Regular exercise is one of the most effective (and inexpensive) ways to improve not only your physical health but your overall mood as well. Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, releases mood-elevating chemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, and can decrease stress hormones, such as cortisol. Whether you take a vinyasa yoga class or a restorative yoga class, stretching and strengthening the body is beneficial. Getting your heart pumping and your muscles working helps to get you out of your head and can create a positive connection with the body. Reintegrating the mind-body connection can be significant, especially for someone suffering from depression. For an extra mood boost, try an outdoor yoga practice.

2. Yoga Gives You Language

Yoga uses the “language of inquiry” to help you get in touch with your emotions body. In Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, authors David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper explain that the language of inquiry, “using words like ‘notice,’ ‘investigate,’ ‘experiment,’ and ‘curious’ is an important element in healing.”

They continue, “one important element of developing tolerance for experiencing sensation is to cultivate identification, labeling, and communication of internal states and sensations that may arise in a yoga practice. Creating a language about our internal experience can help us to understand and contextualize our responses, often making overwhelming experience seem more manageable. Being able to communicate about our internal experiences allows us to take care of ourselves by seeking help in managing our responses and by clearly expressing our wants and needs to other people.” When you can speak with clarity of your emotions and experience, you can ask for help as needed and begin to release your identification with negativity.

3. Yoga Is a Mindful Practice

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can have an extraordinary effect on depression. Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman explains, “The combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy is what makes MBCT so potent, as mindfulness helps you notice your feelings and cognitive therapy helps you work through them.”

Mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them.” In yoga classes, the teacher often encourages you to focus on your breathing, observe sensations in the body, and become aware of your thoughts or emotions. Practicing mindfulness on the yoga mat can provide you with tools to incorporate into your daily lives.

4. Yoga Is Communal

Social connection is shown to be one of the most important paths to maintaining happiness, which could be considered the opposite of depression. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, studies show, “what seems true across cultures is that social connections are key to well-being. For example, very happy people are highly social and tend to have strong relationships; kids with a richer network of connections grow up to be happier adults; and socializing is one of the most positive everyday activities.” Although the benefits of yoga are tremendous if practiced solo or at home, getting yourself to a yoga session in the community can boost your mood even more.

Asana Sequence for Depression

Considering the benefits of yoga for depression relief, the following asana sequence is designed specifically to help alleviate depression or symptoms of it. Think of this as a form of meditation and be mindful of your breathing while doing it. Give this a try whether you are feeling a bit blue or if you have been struggling for a while. If possible, practice with a buddy to take advantage of the community-based benefits!

This sequence includes the yoga postures Child’s Pose, a grounding neck stretch, a variation of Happy Baby Pose, and finishes with a standing forward fold.

  • Child’s Pose keeps you close to the earth while getting you out of bed (exercise!).
  • The demon of depression can sometimes make you feel as though you are not worthy (even though you are) and that you would rather be anywhere else than where you are. Getting physically close to the earth and curling into yourself can potentially be very comforting.
  • The grounding neck stretch is also practiced close to the ground and can be comforting as it calms the nervous system. Being on your belly allows you to feel your heartbeat, your breath, and your whole body rise and fall as you breathe. This pose allows you to stretch your neck passively. This means you are still getting a neck stretch (exercise!), but without any effort required.
  • The Happy Baby variation involves bringing your feet above your head and heart (exercise!), which helps improve circulation and release pent-up tension or stagnant energy.
  • The standing forward fold is a partial inversion since your head is below your heart and, therefore, offers a change of perspective. Looking at the world from a different angle can help shift depressive symptoms and feelings, even if only for a little while.
Each of these gentle postures is an opportunity to check in to see how you are feeling without judging yourself for whatever comes up (mindfulness!) and to get curious about how you are feeling (the language of inquiry!).

1. Child’s Pose

  • Begin in Child’s Pose.
  • Roll out your yoga mat and come to your hands and knees.
  • Bring your big toes together and widen your knees as much as is comfortable for you.
  • Sit your hips back toward your heels and stretch your arms forward.
  • Rest your forehead and the space between your eyes onto the yoga mat, a yoga block, or your stacked hands.
  • Rock your hips from side to side.
  • Extend your arms and hands forward and long.
  • Rock your head slowly left and right.
  • Settle into stillness and breathe long inhales and exhales.
  • Stay for one to five minutes.
  • Slide forward onto your belly for the next pose.
Helpful Hint: If you are only able to manage one pose due to lethargy, pain, or low energy, do this one. Child’s Pose is grounding and comforting.

2. Grounding Neck Stretch

  • Come down onto your belly.
  • Extend your arms down alongside your legs with your thumbs inward toward your legs.
  • Allow your shoulders to round in and relax completely.
  • Turn your head to one side and rest your cheek and the side of your head on the earth.
  • Bring your big toes slightly closer together and allow your heels to drop out to the sides.
  • Be still and breathe for one minute.
  • Then turn your head to the other side.
  • Roll over onto your back for the next pose.
Helpful Hint: Place a folded blanket or your palms under your head for some extra cushioning or bring your arms up like a goal post around your head for more comfort. If getting out of bed is challenging today, you can do this one right there in bed!

3. Happy Baby Variation

  • Come down onto your back.
  • Hug your knees into your chest.
  • Widen your knees and lift your feet and hands toward the ceiling.
  • Begin to shake out your hands and feet in this variation of Happy Baby Pose.
  • Shake everything out for one to two minutes.
  • Rest in stillness and notice the vibration within you.
  • Rock yourself up to standing for the next pose.
Helpful Hint: Bubble your lips or trill your lips while you practice this. Might as well get out any tension from your face, jaw, and mouth while you are releasing tension elsewhere!

4. Standing Forward Fold

  • Bring your feet a few inches wider than your hips and bend your knees.
  • Drape your torso over your legs and round your back.
  • Rock side to side and allow your arms to relax and sway.
  • Gently shake your head and hair to relax your neck.
  • Stay in the fold for one to three minutes.
  • Bend your knees and roll up to standing.
  • Conclude your practice standing and move forward with your day.
Helpful Hint: Try this pose with a block or two (or three) placed under your head. Keep your head and neck passive and relaxed, allow the blocks to hold you up, and stimulate the energy centers at the top of your head.

Although there isn’t one antidepressant strategy that will work for everyone, yoga can be a helpful addition to an integrated approach to healing from depression and a step towards positive health and well-being. Yoga is a healthy form of low-impact exercise that is often practiced in community; exercise and social connection are both considered important elements in dealing with depression. Also, yoga offers mindfulness and a language of inquiry to help you be curious about and speak directly to your experiences. May the practice of yoga help bring you peace in your body, mind, heart, and spirit.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.