Many people practice yoga to help ease depression symptoms, in addition to its many other potential benefits.
In combination with common treatments like therapy and medication, many people living with depression seek out alternative treatments, such as yoga, to help manage their symptoms.
Yoga can offer numerous physical and mental health benefits to its broad base of more than 300 million practitioners worldwide. And despite what you may see on social media, yoga is for everyone.
It’s an adaptable practice that can be modified to suit bodies of all types, abilities, and backgrounds, and may even be helpful for reducing depressive symptoms.
Yoga has become a popular tool for managing symptoms of depression, sometimes included in depression treatment plans.
According to 2017 research, different styles of yoga may be helpful for treating depression. Of course, the extent of yoga’s benefits for managing depression might vary depending on your specific diagnosis and recommendations from a doctor.
The type of yoga you practice can also come down to your own personal preferences.
Yoga may be helpful for the following types of depression:
It may help depressive symptoms in bipolar disorder, as well.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is just getting started — especially if you’re new to the practice and find it challenging to get moving when depressed.
Diane Malaspina, a psychologist and yoga instructor with Yoga Medicine based in Virginia Beach, says that a common symptom of depression is a lack of energy or motivation to achieve certain goals, like exercise.
“Yoga can be an accessible first step for introducing exercise into a lifestyle regimen because there are different types of practices and intensity levels,” she says. “The practice can be modified to meet the person where they are in terms of energy and motivation.”
Despite the emphasis on physical postures and breath work, yoga is an internal practice.
While not everyone may have access to a yoga studio, anyone can access yoga by turning inward and connecting with their body, mind, and breath.
Restful practices like yoga nidra involve lying on the floor and conducting a body scan to promote sleep.
Regardless of the style, key components of the practice may work together to help manage symptoms of depression.
A large meta-analysis in 2016 supports moderate-intensity exercise as an evidence-based treatment for depression and major depressive disorder, though not all types of yoga fall into this category.
Yoga asana practice
Since movement increases the production of endorphins — also known as the “feel-good chemicals” in the brain — the physical practice of yoga poses, or “asanas,” might be helpful for depression, Malaspina explains.
Yoga asanas also help to increase levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). While low levels of GABA are associated with depression and anxiety, research suggests that GABA levels increase with consistent yoga practice and deep breathing exercises.
When practiced regularly, many yoga asanas can also relieve muscle tension, another common symptom of depression.
The more you practice, the more you’ll experience the benefits. In fact, a 2021 research review suggests that symptoms associated with depression decrease as the frequency of a yoga practice increases.
“Certain poses, like standing poses and back bends, can build strength and balance and might also counter common postural effects of depression, such as tight hip flexors and a collapsed chest,” Malaspina says.
“The asana practice can boost self-confidence as the practitioner becomes more skilled at poses, which in turn can lead to improvements in how one feels,” she adds.
Pranayama breath work
“Pranayama” is a Sanskrit term describing the practice of regulating breath.
“Rapid breathing leads to higher arousal and can contribute to feelings of panic or anxiety,” says Malaspina. “Slow, deep breathing can be relaxing and calming.”
Anxiety can often be present with depression, which means that breathing practices that reduce arousal may help:
- steady your heart rate
- clear your mind
- promote relaxation
Malaspina recommends starting by lengthening your exhales. You can also try alternate nostril breathing (“nadi shodhana pranayama”) or “Ujjayi breath” (ocean’s breath) by breathing deeply in and out through your nose.
Some breathing techniques may be more stimulating and energizing. If you’re low on energy, “kapalabhati” (breath of fire) can get your blood pumping and give you a boost.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice of cultivating awareness of the present moment. Yoga is often described as a moving meditation to achieve the desired state of “oneness” and promote relaxation and contentment.
Negative thought patterns may be associated with a wandering mind and self-related thinking. Rumination is linked to a region of the brain known as the default mode network (DMN), which tends to be more active among individuals with depression.
Research from 2011 suggests that a regular meditation practice can help reduce default mode network activity during meditation and promote more functional activity when the brain is at rest.
“Meditation can anchor the ruminative mind in the present moment, which can alleviate stress associated with negative thinking,” Malaspina says.
The best yoga poses and styles of yoga practice for depression are the ones that feel good in your body and help you feel calm and centered. This might change from one day to the next.
“On some days, a Vinyasa flow class may be helpful for someone feeling agitated,” says Malaspina. “It may help move some of the excess energy and lead to a more calm state.”
But on other days, she says, a more restorative practice might provide a sense of renewal.
Malaspina reminds us that sometimes a slow, quiet practice can also create space for negative thinking. The key to any yoga practice is to check in with yourself using awareness to decide what’s best for you in the moment.
Try this yoga sequence for depression to help manage your symptoms and invite ease into your body and mind.
Finish your practice with a short 2-minute rest in Corpse Pose (“Savasana”), and then sit comfortably. Practice alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama) for 2 minutes, repeating the mantra, “I am peace.”
While many people may practice yoga to relieve symptoms of depression, it may not work for everyone.
In many cases, particularly when an individual has major depressive disorder, yoga may not work well as a replacement for clinical treatments for depression including:
- a combination of both
Yoga is often a good choice as a complementary treatment option, in combination with therapy, medication, and other coping tools that are effective for depression.
While proponents often claim the “yoga high” experienced during practice can provide a boost in mood, it’s important to keep in mind that this emotional state is often fleeting. While yoga can offer a temporary respite from depression symptoms, it’s not a “quick fix.”
“When an activity or a substance is used to escape reality, it can become problematic,” Malaspina says.
“The yoga mat can be a safe space to explore how we feel and what we think in a nonjudgmental way, but if we find ourselves using the practice as a tool to distract us, then that could possibly create additional challenges,” she says.
Research supports yoga as an effective alternative or complementary treatment for managing depression.
But while yoga and meditation can often be helpful for depression, consider checking in with a doctor or therapist before adding these practices to your treatment plan — especially if you have any physical limitations that might make certain yoga poses off-limits.
People with depression will often practice yoga in addition to traditional treatments, like therapy and meds. As with all treatment options, you may have to try several things before you figure out what works best for you.
Talk with a mental health professional to find out if yoga might be a good fit for you.
“Yoga enhances self-efficacy,” Malaspina says. “The practitioner learns the tools for regulating depression symptoms through self-awareness, and can then engage in their practice of choice (asana, pranayama, or meditation) to reduce their symptoms.”
If you’re ready to begin your yoga journey and explore the power of the present moment, the safest and most effective way to learn may be in person with a certified yoga instructor.
If you don’t have access to a yoga studio, many live and on-demand classes are available online, in addition to countless instructional videos on YouTube that can be accessed at no cost. This 20-minute yoga practice for depression from Yoga with Adriene is a great place to start.