Science-Based Guide to Yoga and Depression (Plus Yoga Poses To Try)


Yoga is increasingly used by people to help treat depression. The two main reasons it is a promising intervention are that it combines exercise and meditation, as both have been found to help with depression. There is a growing number of studies suggesting yoga be used to help treat depression.

There was even a Time magazine article published a couple of years ago titled: It’s Official: Yoga Helps Depression. In this article, a recent study was mentioned that did indeed find that yoga was able to help improve the depression in the participants of the study.

The study mentioned in the Time article above, as well as a few others, are going to be further discussed below.

To be more specific, this article is intended to be a complete guide to yoga and depression:

  • I will discuss depression specifically and present some statistics.
  • I will discuss some of the studies that have done research on how yoga can help treat depression and report their findings.
  • I will list the reasons why yoga is indeed promising for helping treat depression.
  • I will present a science-based yoga sequence that is intended to help those with struggling with depression.

What Is Depression?

According to WebMD: “Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that makes you feel constant sadness or lack of interest in life.”

They continue by pointing out that: “Most people feel sad or depressed at times. But when intense sadness — including feeling helpless, hopeless, and worthless — lasts for many days to weeks and keeps you from living your life, it may be something more than sadness.” They state that this could be a sign of clinical depression, which as they point out, is treatable.

If these feelings dont’s seem unfamiliar, it is probably because depresison is actually more common that you think.

Below are some statistics related to depression:

  • According to Statista, depression is one of the most common forms of mental illness in the US.
  • According to Healthline, around 16 million adults in the US have had at least one major depressive episode in a given year.
  • According to the National Center for Health Statistics, between 2011 and 2014, around 13% of people aged 12 plus took antidepressants in the past month.
  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are more likely to have a major depressive episode (at 8.7%) when compared to men (5.3%).
  • And finally, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, young adults aged 18-25 are more likely to have a major depressive episode (13.1%).

There is a very helpful article by Helpline titled: Signs of Depression. There, the authors go over the 8 signs of depression (e.g. Helpless outlook, Uncontrollable emotions, Loss of interest). What makes this article even more helpful, is that for each topic, they have a quote from someone experiencing that very feeling.

This alone may be able to make it easier for someone who is suffering from depression, or for a loved one to be able to understand whether the signs do indeed point to depression and thus whether medical advice is needed.

How does yoga affect depression?

For anyone who has has ever practiced yoga with an experienced yoga teacher, you may have noticed that it is much more than stretching, and also but more than just breathing.

The main reason yoga has so many benefits and has so many dedicated practioners around the workd is that is is actually made up of four components:

  • Postures
  • Breathing exercises
  • Relaxation
  • Meditation

Each yoga class offers a combination of these components. Some yoga teachers may place more emphasis on one or on some of these, generally depending on the style of yoga practiced.

There is a growing number of studies looking into how yoga can help those with depression. The Harvard Mental Health Letter mentioned that the key health benefits yoga has are:

  • Yoga can help reduce the impact of stress
  • Yoga can help with depression
  • Yoga can help improve energy

In an article titled How Might Yoga Help Depression? A Neurobiological Perspective the authors explained how yoga may help depression and anxiety:

“The slow rhythmic breathing practices and meditative/relaxation practices of yoga are designed to induce a sense of calm, well-being, stress tolerance, and mental focus, all of which may minimize depression, anxiety, stress, and rumination.

As a form of mindful, low-impact exercise, the physical movements in yoga may have antidepressant and anxiolytic effects.”

So lets now have a look at some key scientific studies that found how yoga can help with depression.

Study 1 (Iyengar yoga and depression)

A small study from the University of California found that taking yoga classes only twice a week may help ease depression, thanks in part to particular asanas practiced that may be effective for alleviating depression.

The study included 28 people, all aged less than 30 18 to 64 experiencing mild levels of depression. Half of the participants were assigned to a yoga group and took a 1-hour Iyengar yoga class once per week. People in the other group were the control group and received no intervention.

The Iyengar yoga classes were taught in the morning and emphasized postures supposed to alleviate depression:

  • Backbends
  • Standing poses
  • Inversions

Each class then ended with chest opening relaxation postures.

After five weeks, those in the yoga group significantly reduced their depression and anxiety levels and had improved mood. Interestingly, these effects appeared halfway throughout the study and remained till the end.

Study 2 (Ashtanga yoga and depression)

A study from Iran found that taking yoga classes only twice a week for two months may help ease depression for women specifically.

The study included 34 women, with an average age of 31, all experiencing some form of depression. Half of the participants were assigned to a yoga group and took a 90-minute Ashtanga yoga class twice per week. The participants in the other group were the control group and received no intervention.

The authors went on to mention that:

“Yoga classes encourage individuals to become aware of their bodies, and thus tension through specific body postures (Asana). By raising awareness of body tension and in learning a method by which this can be reduced, may serve to increase self-confidence by promoting a personal sense of control.”

After two months, the women in the yoga group significantly reduced their nxiety levels. This led the authors to conclude that: “This study has shown that yoga could be an effective treatment of anxiety in women and that it has the potential to play an important therapeutic role in addition to or indeed, instead of medication.”

Study 3 (Hatha yoga and depression)

A recent study that took part in San Fransisco found that taking a 90-minute Hatha yoga class twice a week was able to significantly reduce depression.

The study included 38 people, all aged on average 43 years old, with mild-to-moderate major depression. Half of the participants were assigned to a yoga group and those in the other group were the control group and received no intervention.

The Hatha yoga classes taught included classical yoga breathing techniques, mindful body postures, and final deep relaxation There were also several postures that encouraged a chest-opening element, considered to help alleviate depression.

After eight weeks, those in the yoga group significantly reduced their depression levels.

The authors mentioned that the reason Hatha yoga may be able to improve depression levels is that it has certain therapeutic elements, such as:

“the basic physical activity in assuming yoga poses, the mindful way of approaching exercises with a non-judgmental attitude of observing and working with one’s limitations, the regulation of breath in specific patterns to promote alert calmness, and the deep relaxation and detachment from mental and physical activity in the final resting pose.”

Study 4 (Savasana and depression)

A study that took place in India found that savasana alone was able to help significantly reduce depression.

The study included 50 University students who were randonmly assigned to the yoga group or the contol group. The yoga group practiced savasana evry day for 30 days, while the control group received no intervention.

After 30 days, those in the yoga group significantly reduced their depression levels when compared to those in the control group.

Is yoga good for depression?

More and more studies are finding that yoga is good for depression. The reason for this may be because yoga is a form of exercise and exercise is known to help treat depression. Additionally, yoga is practiced in a community so it is a shared experience and it is also a mind-body experience.

Lets have a better look at why yoga is good for depression.

1. Yoga is a form of exercise

Exercise is commonly prescribed to people with depression. And it comes to no surprise to see more and more studies pointing to this. For example, a well-cited article titled: Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders mentioned that:

“There is a general belief that physical activity and exercise have positive effects on mood and anxiety and a great number of studies describe an association of physical activity and general well-being, mood and anxiety.”

“Recent well-controlled studies suggest that exercise training may be clinically effective, at least in major depression and panic disorder. ” 

And so given that there is a physical side to most yoga practices, this alone may be able to help people suffering from depression.

One of the key reasons exercise is good for depression, is because when we exercise our body releases chemicals called endorphins.

According to WebMD, endorphins reduce your perception of pain and also trigger a positive feeling in the body. And so next time you exercise or go to a yoga class, notice how much better you feel afterward. And remember that feeling and hold on to it, as that is the feeling that will help you go back to class again and again.

2. Yoga can be tailored to your needs

There are many types of yoga to choose form and each has their benefits. One type of yoga may be gentler than the next and one may focus on meditation more then he next.

This emans that they van be tailored to suits one’s needs and desires.

The studies mentioned above discussed three different types of yoga. One is more physically demanding than the other. And yet, they were all found to have helped those with depression.

3. Yoga involves mindfulness

Yoga asks us to stay in the present and maintaing an awarenss fo our thougghs, feeling sand sensations in those moments they are occuring. Adding a non-judgmental lense to this experience is the essence of mindfulness.

According to Merriam Webster, mindfulness can be defined as: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”

And so it comes to no surprise to find that mindfulness therapy has become a popular treatment for depression. A study titled The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression goes on to explain why:

“The basic premise underlying mindfulness practices is that experiencing the present moment nonjudgmentally and openly can effectively counter the effects of stressors, because excessive orientation toward the past
or future when dealing with stressors can be related to feelings of
depression and anxiety”.

In yoga classes, the teacher generally starts the class asking the students to focus on their breath. This alone is a great way to anchor our thoughts and bring them to the present. And so these mindfulness practices may be able to help us deal with our stressful situations off the mat.

4. Yoga classes help you be part of a group

Being part of a group may help those with depression feel they belong. And interestingly, this may extend to all of us.

There was an article I read in Psychology Today which went to back this up. It diescussed two studies carried out which found that people tend to feel motivated and may work for longer on a project when they are part of a group.

For example, one study mentioned divided people into two groups based on the color sticker they were given. When those with the same color sticker were placed together, they found that they spend more time trying to solve a math problem they were given.

This led the author of the article in Psychology Today to conclude that:

“Putting these studies together, this work shows that even a simple relationship between people based on arbitrary reasons like sharing a birthday or being randomly assigned to a group) is enough to increase feelings of warmth and motivation. 

Ultimately, people seem wired to adopt the goals of the people around with, particularly when they feel close to those others.”

There was a study carried out that found clear evidence that joining groups, and identifying with them can help alleviate depression.

The researchers concluded that:

“It appears that, whatever its source, membership of groups typically confers benefits to mental health and that the more of these sources there are, the merrier (or the less depressed) the individual is.”

“Given that the majority of depressed patients prefer non-drug treatments and find therapy stigmatizing, this study is valuable in that it bolsters the evidence for alternative, social interventions that are likely to prove significantly more appealing for many patients.”

And so if we were to see yoga classes and yoga studios as groups, then this research makes the work of a yoga teacher all the more important.

Not only to guide students along a sequence of poses and through a flow of peaceful breaths but more importantly, to help create a safe nurturing space for our students to feel part of.

Asana Poses and Sequence for Depression

The following set of yoga poses was used in the Hatha yoga study mentioned above. This practice should take 50 minutes to do.

Half waist wheel pose

This can be done seated or standing. If you are sitting, find a comfortable seat and raise the left arm and bend sideways to the right for a nice stretch of the left side. Return to neutral and repeat on the other side.

On every inhale notice if you can feel the stretch deepen.

Stay for several breaths are repeat as many times as you feel you would like.

Benefits

This is a lovely side body stretch, perfect to release any build up tension in the side body.

Half wheel pose

Now stand up or sit on your heels. Bring your hands to your lower back. Then gently bend backwards, allowing the neck to also bend backwards.

This can be a beautiful chest opener. If you have any lower back pain try to not arch your back too much.

if you are feeling ok in the pose then aim to bend backward by trying to bring your chest to the ceiling. This way you help open the chest more efficiently, rather than tilting from the lower back.

Benefits

This is a wonderful chest opener, perfect for opening up the chest, especially if we find ourselves slightly hunching or shoulders forward.

Hands to feet pose

Uttanasa is very commonly found in most types of yoga. It has several variations, all of which help to stretch out the lower back and calm the mind.

If you have never done this pose before, here are a few instuctions:

  • Stand with your feet hip-distance apart.
  • Bend your knees slightly and fold over.
  • If you have lower back pain (such as a herniated disc) always keep your knees bent.
  • When in the pose, bend your knees as much as you like.
  • Allow your head and neck to relax.
  • Allow your fingers to touch the floor (or hold on to either elbow).

Benefits

This pose really does help lengthen all the muscles along the spine, something that comes a s a welcome stretch after a long day sitting or standing.

By folding forward, this pose helps release stress, calms the mind, and reduces anxiety.

Cobra pose

Cobra pose is a gentle and very common pose in yoga classes.

  • Lie on your belly and place your hands next to your chest.
  • Inhale and gently push your chest off the floor. If possible, gently lift your gaze.
  • If you experience pain, try to not extend too much.

Benefits

Not only does it help to open up the chest, it also helps to strengthen the lower back.

Bow pose

This can be seen as a deeper stretch then cobra pose.

  • Lie on the ground, belly facing the floor.
  • Bend your knees and arch your neck gently back.
  • If you feel flexible enough try to hold on to your ankles.

Benefits

It helps to open up the chest and also helps to strengthen the lower back.

Shoulder stand

Inversions are typically found at the end of yoga classes.

Lie on your mat. Raise your legs till they are perpendicular to the floor. Alternatively, keep your back on the floor and place your legs up against a wall.

Benefits

Inversions are perfect for calming the nervous system. This in turn helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and helps to then produce feelings of calm.

Fish pose

This pose can be performed with legs straight, or with knees bend and soles of the feet on the floor.

  • Lie on your mat.
  • Place your hands (palms down) underneath your back and fingers pointing to your spine.
  • Press down on your palms and slowly raise your chest and arch your back as much as you are comfortable.
  • Keep your weight on your elbows.

Benefits

This is a great chest opener.

Bridge pose

Bridge pose is a wonderful back-bending pose to help ease back pain. If you have never done this pose, here are a few instructions.

  • Lie on your back and place your feet on the floor.
  • On an inhale, press your feet into the floor and lift your pelvis (lifting your heels is optional).

Benefits

Again, another very common chest opener found in most yoga classes.

Child’s pose

Child’s pose is a very gentle and calming yoga pose and is wonderful for those who are dealing with stress and anxiety.

Benefits

By placing your forehead on the mat you trigger a calming and grounding effect on the brain. And so if your anxiety means troubled thoughts are at play on your mind, this pose my help quieten the noise.

Twisted pose

This is a wonderful posture to help stretch the muscles in the lower back. Be as gentle or go as deep as feels right to you.

If you have never done this pose before, here are a few instuctions:

  • Lie on your back and press your feet on the floor.
  • Bring your knees to your chest and allow them to drop to one side.
  • Bring your arms shoulder level (like in the image above) and turn your head to the opposite side of where your knees are facing.
  • If you want to make this stretch more intense, place your arms n the knees and encourage them to come closer to the floor.

Benefits

This pose is great for releasing any built-up tension in the lower back. Especially if we have been sitting in front of a computer screen all day.

Camel pose

Kneel on the ground and bring your hands t your lower back. Slowly arch back so that the chest lifts up. If you are flexible enough hold on to your heels.

Savasana

15 minutes

Lie back in savasana and close your eyes. Arms stretched out, palms up. Legs stretched and feet rotate out slightly.

If you are looking for a guided meditation to listen to whilst in savasana, this could be perfect for you:

Yoga for stress and depression

If you are looking for a paid course to follow, then you may be interested in investing in a paid course that will guide you along your journey. MindBodyGreen offers a series of courses worth checking out, and here are 3 you may find interesting:

  • How To Control Anxiety
  • The Ultimate Stress Management Guide
  • Managing Depression

Related questions

Which yoga is best for stress and anxiety?

Yoga has been found to help relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. There are a variety of practices to choose from and depending on your needs and desires, some may be more beneficial than others.

For more information, you may find my article interesting: How Yoga Helps Anxiety & Depression (Plus 15 Blissful Types To Try)

Which yoga is good for depression?

Overall, there are many uncomfortable physical side effects of anxiety and depression. These may involve tension and tightness. Yoga postures may be able to stretch and lengthen the body and thus, in turn, release the built-up tension and stiffness.

Each type of yoga may help relieve tension and stiffness and may even be able to calm the mind. It is important to choose what is right for you.

For more information, you may find my article interesting: How Yoga Helps Anxiety & Depression (Plus 15 Blissful Types To Try)

Alexia Koletsou

Alexia Koletsou is a Level 1 Authorized Ashtanga Yoga Teacher with a Ph.D. in Science Communication. She received her blessing to teach Ashtanga Yoga in 2019, from the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, where she has had the honor of practicing with R. Sharath Jois multiple times over the years. She is the owner of her own Shala in Greece and now shares her knowledge on yogamyoldfriend.com and her YouTube channel Alexia K Yoga.

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