How Yoga Can Help Relieve Depression

I struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety in my teens and early 20s. It was in the middle one of those battles, during my junior year of college, that I discovered yoga. A friend saw a flier for an eight-week yoga session at the campus rec center. Since I hated sweating and would only run if I were chased, I thought yoga sounded like a good form of exercise.
The room, usually populated by step aerobics and dance classes, felt cavernous with only a few dozen students in it. The class was 90 minutes long, in the late afternoon. I don't remember much about it now, but I remember that the "nap" I took during final relaxation left me feeling peaceful and calm and offered a rare respite from my roller coaster of emotions.
The class ended, and I continued practicing. I couldn't explain why, but yoga made me feel better. Since 2007, I have practiced yoga regularly, and my depression has been held at bay, along with a lot of my anxiety.
I'm not alone in finding solace in a yoga practice. Today, more than 20 million people practice yoga, according to a 2012 Yoga Journal study, and more people are taking up the practice to improve their health and relieve stress than to get fit.
Yoga was created to help people sit quietly, to tire the body so the mind could rest, and as such can be a useful therapy for those coping with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. The yoga and mental health connection is strong:
  • In January 2013, the journal Psychiatry compiled the findings of 16 surveys on the efficacy of yoga in treating certain psychiatric disorders. Researchers found that yoga can acutely help with mild depression and can work in conjunction with anti-psychotic drugs in people with schizophrenia. It also can be of benefit to adults who suffer from sleep disorders, which tend to piggyback onto depressive issues.
  • A 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing yoga just three times a week increased levels of chemicals in the brain that help combat anxiety and depression.
  • Yoga may also protect against future depression, according to a study published in a 2013 issue of the International Journal of Yoga. Women aged 45 to 80 who practiced yoga found that the longer they had done yoga, the more likely they were to be emotionally healthy and reportedly happy.
If you're interested in starting a yoga practice, talk to your doctor and check out our beginner's guide and find out which type of yoga is right for you.

Tips for Practicing Yoga When You Have Depression

  • Keep coming back. The first step is the hardest, and so is the first practice. Whether you end your practice with a sense of peace or stir up unanticipated emotions, know that you're helping both your mind and body just by showing up and breathing. If your depression symptoms make it hard for you to stay motivated and stick with a consistent yoga schedule, enlist the help of a friend who can encourage you and help keep you accountable.
  •  Go easy on yourself. When I was at the height of my anxiety, I couldn't make it through an entire yoga class. I had panic attacks a couple of times in savasana. I had to leave yoga to catch my breath and calm down (irony duly noted). But I kept coming back. I tried not to beat myself up for leaving class. Going to class at all was a huge step for me, and I focused on that. While it can be difficult to not compare yourself to others, remember that yoga is not a competition. People at all levels and abilities can practice yoga. Try to find what works for YOU and don't try to compare or compete with others.
  •  Emotional releases are considered normal. Many students and practitioners, whether they're new or have been practicing yoga for years, can experience "emotional releases" (including laughter or tears) during yoga. It can often be uncontrollable and isn't necessarily brought on by any particular thought at all—it's simply a release of emotion triggered by the physical and mental practice of yoga. How you choose to handle an emotional release during class is personal. You can continue to practice, assuming that you are able to and aren't being very disruptive to others; you can rest in child's pose until the release passes; or you can choose to leave the room until you feel ready to return. You don't need to explain yourself or justify your release to anyone else; a good yoga teacher will not pry or draw attention to you, but will simply offer support and an ear or shoulder if you need it.
  • Find poses that make you feel good. When you're in the midst of depression, it can be hard to find anything that feels genuinely good. If you discover any poses that make you feel good, either physically or emotionally, stick with them. (Some people find that "heart openers" such as backbends, bridge and camel pose, feel really good when they're feeling blue, as do inversions, which can increase blood flow and circulation to the brain.) If something doesn't feel good, don't do it. Take a resting pose and breathe.
  •  Focus on the breath. When you're suffering from depression and anxiety, it's easy to get caught up in a cycle of negative thoughts, or "samskaras." The various breathing techniques taught in yoga can help you calm down, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part that helps you slow down), and allow you to find a respite from the emotions that can overwhelm your thoughts. When your emotions feel like they're getting the best of you, try to focus on your breath. You may also ask your yoga instructor for additional breathing techniques or meditations you can try during or outside of class.  
To get started with a simple yoga practice here are some helpful videos and poses to try:

8 Beginner Yoga Poses
Yoga 101: Poses for Beginners
8 Seated Yoga Poses You Can Do from a Chair
5 Yoga Poses to Help You Rest Better
14-Minute Basic Yoga Workout Video
10-Minute Yoga Fusion Workout Video
20-Minute Yogilates Routine Video
How to Use Yoga Straps Video
Intro to Yoga Blocks Video
The 13 Best Yoga Poses for Runners
10 Yoga Poses to Strengthen and Stretch
5 Minutes to Less Stress

Balasubramaniam M, Telles S and Doraiswamy PM (2013) "Yoga on our minds: a systematic review of yoga for neuropsychiatric disorders." Front. Psychiatry 3:117. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00117

Chris C. Streeter, MD, Theodore H. Whitfield, ScD, and J. Eric Jensen, PhD, "Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study," Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2010 November; 16(11): 1145-1152.
 Moliver N., Mika E., Chartrand M., Huassmann R., Khalsa S. "Yoga Experience as a Predictor of Psychological Wellness in Women over 45 Years." International Journal of Yoga. 2013 Jan:6(1):11-9.
Yoga Journal, "Yoga in America,", accessed on July 15, 2013.
This article has been reviewed and approved by Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer.