Can Yoga Help with Depression? (7 tips to cope)

This blog post will answer the question, “Can yoga help with depression?” and cover topics like what research says, the benefits of yoga for depression, and which yoga poses are ideal for depression.  

Can Yoga Help with Depression?

Yes, yoga can help with depression. Yoga is a form of exercise that involves bodily movements, regulated and conscious breathing, and even meditation. Yoga typically has the following uses:

  • Improves energy;
  • Improves concentration;
  • Increases the threshold for stress tolerance; 
  • Helps with relaxation the same way as meditation and exercise;
  • Helps with various difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems and chronic pain;
  • Relieves ongoing pain in specific areas, like prolonged lower backache;
  • Improves overall mental and physical health  

People use yoga as an adjunct to conventional therapy as the latter is limited in its therapeutic effects. Yoga is appealing to most individuals as it is easily accessible, inexpensive, can be self-administered, develops a holistic sense of well-being, and can be incorporated into your daily routine easily.  

What Does Research Say?

Various scientific studies back the positive impact of yoga on treating depression as an adjunct treatment. Let us outline these studies for multiple populations, including:

  • Women
  • People with Major Depression
  • People Recovering from Addiction 
  • High-Risk Pregnant Women  

Women

It is common knowledge that simple exercises like walking can help ease depressive symptoms. Schuver and Lewis conducted a study in 2016, wherein they investigated the efficacy of mindfulness-based yoga as an adjunct treatment and how it compared to walking.

One group of women with depression engaged in mindfulness-based yoga while another walked. The follow-up on the 12th week suggested that women practicing yoga experienced improved results than women who walked. 

Both the groups showed progress, but the yoga group experienced much better outcomes through a considerable decrease in ruminations at the time of the study’s termination. Such findings suggest that decreasing repetitive depressive thoughts in women through yoga can help maintain their remission.  

People with Major Depression

Scott and colleagues found that yoga can be an excellent adjunct to conventional treatment for people with major depressive disorder. They reported that patients reported substantial progress in their sleep quality, and their depressive symptoms decreased. The researchers also gathered that the calmness and positivity of yoga helped with exhaustion and fatigue.  

Although a study with a small number of participants, it has profound clinical implications. It has provided a direction for research in the future with larger sample sizes. This study sought to understand the required amount of yoga for improving depressive symptoms. 

Both of these groups practiced yoga, with each session lasting for an hour and a half for three months. However, one group engaged in yoga thrice a week, while the other did it twice a week. Both the groups showed identical amounts of improvement. 

People Recovering from Addiction 

People recovering from addiction typically suffer from depression or anxiety, or both. A study in 2011 by Marefat and others showed that yoga had considerable effects on improving the symptoms of depression and anxiety in individuals in a rehabilitation facility. These participants engaged in yoga thrice a week for an hour each for five weeks. 

The study reported that the benefits of yoga were seen in physical aspects and improved the nervous system and hormonal balance, which helped decrease depressive symptoms. 

These findings suggest that people recovering from substance use disorders could benefit from yoga as a complementary treatment. It can increase the effectiveness of medication and psychotherapy. 

High-Risk Pregnant Women  

Many women with high-risk pregnancies are bedridden and susceptible to developing depression. Various factors contribute to their increased risk of depression, including isolation, boredom, preoccupation with their pregnancy, physical health difficulties, and inactivity. 

As many medications are not advised for pregnant women, pharmacological treatment of depression may be challenging. Further, because of their bedrest, they may not be able to attend therapy sessions. 

A study conducted by Gallagher and colleagues in 2020 reported that high-risk pregnant women could notice an improvement in depressive symptoms within three yoga sessions. They can also make use of online therapy apart from yoga. 

Benefits of Yoga for Depression

As we have noted, yoga can help with depression. Let us now understand the specific benefits of yoga for depression.

  • Decrease in Cortisol
  • Decreased Suicidal Ideations
  • Increase in GABA Levels
  • Safe Space to Exercise 

Decrease in Cortisol

When you are depressed, you produce higher cortisol levels, a stress hormone associated with changes in brain regions, including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. 

Specifically, it leads to a decrease in the hippocampus and PFC volume, while it enlarges the amygdala. The former two cortical regions are responsible for decision-making, memory-related functions, and emotional regulation. The amygdala regulates your response to stress and fear.  

Research has shown that people with depression who practice yoga showed decreased cortisol levels. The breathing techniques are integral in yoga and help in relaxation. Mindful meditation can also help lower the levels of cortisol and reduce the enlargement of the amygdala. 

Decreased Suicidal Ideations

A study in 2018 conducted by Nyer and colleagues showed that people with depression who practiced yoga experienced decreased suicidal ideations after three months. This finding suggests that yoga can be a complementary treatment for individuals with suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Increase in GABA Levels

Low levels of specific GABA neurotransmitters are implicated in depression and anxiety. One study conducted by Streeter and others showed increased GABA levels after three months of engaging in yoga. This study reported that yoga had better results than walking.

Safe Space to Exercise

Research has shown how regular physical activity like exercise provides an array of physical and mental benefits. Yoga allows people to exercise in space spaces as it is a non-judgmental practice. Places that offer yoga classes are typically open for everyone regardless of their physical fitness or skill, and these classes foster a sense of belongingness and community.

Such a sense of belongingness is essential for people with depression as you may feel intense feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. Moreover, exercising may seem challenging for people with depression as negative and depressive thoughts and feelings bog them down. Additionally, they experience physical symptoms like fatigue and sleep difficulties.

Therefore, yoga can be useful for addressing issues related to self-esteem and engaging in physical activity.  

Which Yoga Poses Help the Most with Depression?

The following yoga poses help the most with depression.

  • Backbends
  • Inversions
  • Breathing Techniques

Backbends

people who slouch tend to worsen their depression as poor posture has many physical and mental hazards. Some of these adverse effects include fatigue, deterioration in the mood, arthritis, breathing difficulties, and headaches. 

Backbends tend to open your chest and ribcage, which improves posture and spinal health. Therefore, poses involving backbends are excellent for people with depression. Some example of backbends in yoga include:

  • Dhanurasana or Bow Pose;
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or Bridge Pose;
  • Ustrasana or Camel Pose;
  • Bhujangasana or Cobra Pose;
  • Bitilasana or Cow Pose
  • Salabhasana or Locust pose;
  • Kapotasana or Pigeon Pose 

Inversions

Inversions, even with wall support, can help people with depression as it requires intense focus, which prevents you from ruminating or being preoccupied with negative thoughts and feelings. Inversions can also feel empowering as it fosters a sense of accomplishment. However, ensure you do not attempt inversions without appropriate supervision.

Here are some examples of inversions in yoga.

  • Adho Mukha Vrksasana or Handstand;
  • Halasana or Plow Pose;
  • Salamba Sirsasana or Supported Headstand;
  • Pincha Mayurasana or Feathered Peacock Pose;
  • Salamba Sarvangasana or Supported Shoulderstand  

Breathing Techniques 

Specific breathing techniques can help with depression and even anxiety. Pranayama or Coherent Breathing exercises involve controlled breathing, which extends the duration of inhalation and exhalation. 

Doing so helps decrease depressive and anxiety symptoms and even posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It also is beneficial for insomnia, concentration, immunity, and alertness. 

Controlled breathing can help increase the neurotransmitter GABA’s levels, the low levels of which are implicated in anxiety. It also decreases the levels of cytokines, which are involved in stress and inflammation.  

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Conclusion 

This blog post addressed the question, “Can yoga help with depression?” We understood that yoga could be beneficial for depression for various reasons, including physical and mental advantages. The article outlined these advantages in detail and scientific studies and specific yoga poses that help with depression. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Can Yoga Help with Depression?

Can yoga help with symptoms of anxiety and depression?

Yes, many studies show that yoga can help with depression and anxiety. It can help cope with stress as it involves self-soothing techniques like exercise, meditation, relaxation, and even being around close ones.

How does yoga improve psychological wellness?

Yoga improves psychological wellness by increasing self-awareness, concentration, attention, and relaxation. It also benefits the nervous system. Moreover, yoga helps decrease muscle tension, stiffness, and inflammation. Yoga is now commonly used to supplement psychotherapy and medication for various disorders due to these benefits.

Which asanas in yoga are beneficial for mental health?

The following yoga asanas are beneficial for mental health.
Shavasana – corpse pose;
Viparita Karani – legs against the wall; and
Uttanasana – standing and bending to touch the knees with your forehead.

Why do some people cry when doing yoga?

Your body is likely to remember everything and so, tenses. When you engage in bodily movements and regulate your breathing, you work on this tension. When your body releases the tension and relaxes, your emotional stress is also expended. 

While doing yoga, you pay attention and release all the emotions, including rage, anxiety, worry, fear, and sadness. It is a time when you are not preoccupied with other life demands. 

What are some of the benefits of yoga?

Here are some of the benefits of yoga.

Improves metabolism;
Improves immunity;
Increases flexibility;
Improves sleep quality;
Increases self-esteem;
Increases blood circulation;
Lowers blood sugar levels;
Improves lung capacity and functioning;
Strengthens muscle; and
Improves posture  

What are the drawbacks of yoga?

There are some drawbacks of yoga, including:

There is a risk of injury as improper form can lead to a neck injury, physical weakness, loss of muscle strength, and even brain injury;
Sometimes people get carried away and overdo some yoga poses, which can increase the risk of injury. People recovering from bodily injuries need to exercise more caution while performing yoga by ensuring moderation;
People with osteoporosis can worsen their condition and hence, need to be cautious while doing some yoga poses;   
Learning yoga from untrained individuals can increase the risks of injury or inability to reap the benefits that yoga typically offers; and
Hot yoga can lead to severe conditions like dehydration, heatstroke, increased respiration, and even injury to the brain, lungs, and heart. 

What we recommend for depression

Professional counselling

If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.

References 

Gallagher, A., Kring, D., & Whitley, T. (2020). Effects of yoga on anxiety and depression for high risk mothers on hospital bedrest. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 38. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2019.101079. 

Marefat, M., Peymanzad, H., & Alikhajeh, Y. (2011). The Study of the Effects of Yoga Exercises on Addicts’ Depression and Anxiety in Rehabilitation Period. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 1494-1498. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.289. 

Morin, A. (2020, June 28). How Yoga Can Help Your Depression. Verwellmind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-yoga-can-help-depression-4797182

Nyer, M., Gerbarg, P. L., Silveri, M. M., Johnston, J., Scott, T. M., Nauphal, M., Owen, L., Nieslen, G. H., Mischoulon, D., Brown, R. P., Fava, M., & Streeter, C. C. (2018). A randomized controlled dosing study of Iyengar yoga and coherent breathing for the treatment of major depressive disorder: Impact on suicidal ideation and safety findings. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 37, 136–142. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2018.02.006.

Panasevich, J. (2019, February 22). Can Yoga Treat Depression? U.S. News. Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/conditions/depression/can-yoga-treat-depression

Schuver, K. J., & Lewis, B. A. (2016). Mindfulness-based yoga intervention for women with depression. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 26, 85–91. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2016.03.003.

Scott, T. M., Gerbarg, P. L., Silveri, M. M., et al. (2019). Psychological Function, Iyengar Yoga, and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 25(6), 437-450. doi:10.1097/pra.0000000000000435

The Minded Institue. (n.d.). Yoga for Depression. Retrieved from https://themindedinstitute.com/yoga-for-depression/

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Sara Quitlag is an Applied Psychologist, with a deep interest in psychopathology and neuropsychology and how psychology impacts and permeates every aspect of our environment. She has worked in Clinical settings (as Special Ed. Counselor, CBT Therapist) and has contributed at local Universities as a Faculty member from time to time. She has a graduate degree in English Literature and feels very connected to how literature and psychology interact. She feels accountable and passionate about making a "QUALITY" contribution to the overall global reform and well-being. She actively seeks out opportunities where she can spread awareness and make a positive difference across the globe for the welfare of our global society.