We all feel a little blue or have our “down days.” But when we have multiple “down days” or our blue moods seem to consume our lives, this could very well be depression.
A mental disorder like major depression can affect your mental health, as well as your physical health — depression symptoms range from losing interest in your daily life to weight changes.
If you have a depressive disorder, you’re not alone. An estimated 21 million adults in the U.S. had a depressive episode in 2020. This means that a lot of people are seeking treatment for depressive symptoms, and you might be one of them.
Or maybe you’ve looked into talking with a therapist about the depression symptoms you’ve been experiencing.
Maybe you’ve even looked into an alternative treatment for major depression. If so, you might have come across yoga for depression, which is one possible alternative treatment.
But is yoga for depression effective? And what kind of yoga poses for depression work best?
First, we’ll cover general information about what depression is, as well as symptoms of depression and treatment for depression.
Major depressive disorder, more commonly referred to as depression, is one of the most common mental disorders. It causes depressive episodes, which are negative changes to your mood and thoughts that impact your daily life.
A bad mood may be fleeting but the symptoms of depression last longer. A depression diagnosis is typically confirmed by a depressed mood or other symptoms lasting for at least two weeks.
Other common symptoms of depression include:
Loss of interest in activities that are normally pleasurable
Irritability and anger, or frustrated outbursts over minor issues
Difficulty focusing, making decisions and recalling information
Noticeably slower speech and movement
Lack of energy, or fatigue
Insomnia or trouble sleeping
Changes in appetite and weight, which may include gaining or losing weight
Physical pain, including headaches, joint pain, or muscle pain
Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts
Depressive symptoms can differ from person to person, and you may not experience all of them. Different people also can have different severity of symptoms.
Depression symptoms can also vary depending on the type of depression.
Some of the most common types of major depression are:
Major depressive disorder (MDD). Commonly referred to as just “depression,” major depression is a mood disorder that causes negative changes to your mood and thoughts, a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy and other symptoms.
Persistent depressive disorder (Dysthymia). Dysthymia is a chronic form of depression that lasts for two years or longer. People with a persistent depressive disorder often feel as if they are constantly going in and out of depression.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This form of depression is a mood disorder that occurs with seasonal changes, mostly in the fall and winter. Women are four times more likely than men to be diagnosed with SAD.
Postpartum depression. This type of depression causes feelings of sadness, fatigue and mood changes in women after they give birth. Mood shifts after giving birth are common, but could indicate postpartum depression if the symptoms last more than two weeks.
Psychotic depression. Major depressive disorder with psychotic features is depression that involves hallucinations, paranoia or delusions. This form of depression often coincides with psychosis, a loss of touch with reality.
Bipolar disorder. Those with bipolar disorder may experience episodes of depression along with episodes of mania (high or euphoric moods). Bipolar disorder is typically treated with different forms of medication and therapy than other forms of depression.
A variety of factors can cause depressive symptoms and depressive disorders — factors like genetics, changes in brain chemicals, major life events, trauma and more may all play a role.
Major depression is a treatable mood disorder, and there are many safe and effective evidence-based treatments.
The most common methods of treatment for depression are medication, therapy or a combination of the two.
Antidepressants.Medications for depression — or antidepressants — work by changing levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain that control your mood, appetite, sleep habits and other behaviors. The most commonly prescribed antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other types of antidepressants include serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
Psychotherapy. Therapy is often recommended for treating depression, sometimes in combination with antidepressants or other medications. Several different types of therapy are used to treat depression, including interpersonal therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). You’ll talk with a mental health care professional to work out how to solve problems and manage difficulties, identify behaviors and thought processes that contribute to your symptoms and set achievable, realistic goals you can work towards.
Lifestyle changes. While depression can’t be treated solely with lifestyle changes, they can help you to stay focused, avoid setbacks and work towards recovery in combination with proven treatments for depression. Some changes that can help include setting a daily schedule, staying connected with friends and family, avoiding alcohol, finding support groups and physical activity, such as yoga.
Our guide on depression goes more in-depth on causes, diagnosis, and treatment for depression.
While these methods are the first lines of treatment for depression, there are many reasons people may not use medication or therapy, such as side effects, personal choice, and lack of access or resources.
So, they may turn instead to an alternative treatment like yoga.
First, let’s go over what yoga is.
Yoga is a physical exercise that involves different body poses, breathing techniques and meditation.
Yoga, which is 3,000 years old, is regarded as a holistic approach to health and is classified as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by the National Institutes of Health.
One way many people think about yoga is as a mind-body practice to connect the body via mind and spirit, which promotes physical health and mental wellness.
Regular yoga practice promotes strength, flexibility and endurance, while also building compassion and self-control and creating a sense of well-being and calm. It can bring you into a calm state that’s the opposite of our flight-or-fight stress response.
A long-term yoga practice has even been found to help change people’s perspective on life and their self-awareness. It has been said to improve their sense of energy and how they live their life.
There are four basic principles of yoga:
The human body is a holistic entity made up of various connected, inseparable dimensions. The health or sickness of any dimension affects the others.
Individuals and their needs are unique; therefore their practice must be tailored to acknowledge this individuality.
Yoga is self-empowering and engages the student in the healing process. By playing an active role in their journey toward health, healing comes from within rather than from an outside force. A greater sense of autonomy is achieved.
The state of an individual's mind is crucial to healing. With a positive state of mind, healing happens faster, whereas if the state of mind is negative, healing may be prolonged.
Different yoga practices vary in approach and speed. can try out different types in yoga classes and see which you like best. Some types of yoga include:
Hatha. This form incorporates gentler and slower paced movements and is suitable for beginners.
Vinyasa. This form of yoga links breathing and movement together, starting with a slow pace and gradually getting faster.
Bikram. This type of yoga takes place in a hot room where you practice a set series of moves.
Ashtanga. Ashtanga yoga focuses on quick, sequenced poses and tends to be more of an aerobic exercise.
Hot. As the name implies, this form of yoga is in a heated room, like Bikram, but without set moves.
Kundalini. This form combines repetitive exercises with intense breathing for a more physically demanding experience.
Restorative. Restorative yoga moves slowly through the poses to help you relax.
Yin. Yin yoga is a form of yoga that aims to restore length and elasticity to your muscles.
There is some evidence of the effectiveness of yoga — incorporating a yoga practice can have many positive effects on your physical and mental health.
Some of the physical benefits include:
Reduced aches and pains
Reduced heart rate
Lowered blood pressure
Increased blood flow
Reduced stress and anxiety
The practice of yoga is viewed as a holistic stress management technique, or alternative medicine.
Yoga produces a physiological sequence of events in the body, reducing the stress response by lowering cortisol levels.
Cortisol prepares you for physical and emotional challenges and is produced by the body in response to stress.
Research has revealed that cortisol levels don’t decrease throughout the day in people with depression. This is different than in people without depression, whose cortisol levels peak in the morning and then decrease.
In a study on 54 patients treated for depression with yoga by itself, medication by itself or a combination of yoga and medication, more patients in the group who practiced yoga saw a drop in cortisol levels than those who only used medication.
Practicing yoga can also improve mood.
In a study of 37 adults diagnosed with major depression who participated in yoga three times a week, all participants reported significant improvements in their moods.
Yoga is a natural way to increase serotonin, a brain chemical believed to play a role in happiness and the treatment of depression according to the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.
As a gentle exercise, yoga has a calming and fluid nature, allowing people to take their time with each movement and create a relaxing environment.
Now you know what yoga can do for your body and your mind.
But what specific yoga poses should one do for depression?
Some yoga asanas — the physical movements of yoga — can reduce certain depressive symptoms, such as back pain or sleep issues.
But the best yoga poses are the ones that feel good in your body and help you to feel calm and centered, which means your practice may change from day to day.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is just getting started — especially if you’re new to yoga and find it challenging to get moving when depressed.
Fortunately, the practice of yoga can be modified to your skill and energy levels. It consists of gentle movement, which makes it an easier physical exercise to incorporate into your life.
You don’t need any special equipment to practice yoga either — all you need is a soft surface, which can be a mat specifically made for yoga or even a towel substituting as a mat.
Mountain pose (tadasana) can be an excellent yoga pose for improving posture and grounding yourself. This pose is also very accessible for any level of yoga.
Stand tall and plant your feet about hip-width apart, relaxing your arms by your sides with your palms facing forward.
On an inhale, raise your arms overhead and press your palms together.
On an exhale, lower your arms by your sides.
Repeat for three to five cycles of breath.
Standing forward fold (uttanasana) promotes flexibility and relaxation, which is helpful during depression and anxiety episodes.
From mountain pose, hinge at your hips and fold forward until your fingertips touch the floor (or yoga blocks).
Soften your knees and allow them to bend.
Relax your neck and allow your head to feel heavy, gently turning your chin from side to side.
Breathe deeply for three to five cycles of breath.
A classic yoga pose, downward dog (adho mukha svanasana) is a full-body stretch asana, which can induce calmness.
From a forward bend, plant your palms about shoulder-distance apart.
Step your feet back one at a time as you reach your hips up and back. Your body should form an upside-down V-shape.
Gently bend your knees to allow your spine to extend.
Keep your neck relaxed as you gaze between your palms.
Breathe deeply for three to five cycles of breath.
The low lunge (anjaneyasana) releases tension in your hips and may improve mental focus.
From downward dog, step your right foot forward just behind your right hand.
Lower your back knee and untuck your toes.
Draw your belly button in towards your spine and engage your glutes as you lift your torso and arms overhead.
Stay tall and upright in your spine, and gaze forward.
Hold for three to five breaths, then release your hands back down.
Step back to downward dog and repeat on the left side.
You can also use a yoga blanket or fold your yoga mat over for extra padding under your knee.
Knees to chest pose (apanasana) may reduce lower back pain and could be calming when experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and arms by your sides.
Draw your right knee to your chest and extend your left leg straight.
Take a deep breath in, then exhale to draw your right knee in closer.
Stay in this pose for a few breaths, and then switch sides.
Tree pose (vrksasana) may naturally cool off your body and could balance your fight or flight response when dealing with anxiety and stress.
Stand tall with your feet together. Bring your hands to your hips and shift your weight onto your right foot.
Step the sole of your left foot to the inside of your right leg, below or above your knee.
Find a focal point to affix your gaze to maintain balance.
Breathe deeply for five to seven breaths.
Reclining bound angle pose (supta baddha konasana) can help with headaches and reduce tension and stress. This pose may even help with insomnia.
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor and arms by your sides.
Press the soles of your feet together, letting your knees fall out wide.
Your arms can stay by your sides or you can place them wider.
While not technically a yoga pose, pranayama is a Sanskrit term for the practice of regulating breathing for slow, deep breaths.
A study from 2016 suggests yogic breathing may play a central role in balancing the nervous system and heart rate.
Breathing practices may steady your heart rate, clear your mind and promote relaxation. All of these can help depression symptoms — as well as anxiety, which can often be present with depression.
Yoga can be a very helpful part of coping with depressive disorders or the symptoms of depression.
As an alternative treatment for depression, yoga has been shown to help reduce several symptoms for major depression and even depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Even if yoga isn’t in your wheelhouse, the combination of meditation and physical movement provides two important ways to relieve depression.
Yoga is a good choice as a complementary treatment option, in combination with therapy, medication and other coping tools that are effective for depression.
If you’re struggling with depressive symptoms, you can start up a yoga practice. But the first thing to do is to consult with a healthcare provider and find a therapist that can work with you on managing your depression.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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