Can Yoga Treat Depression?

Working toward more challenging yoga poses can help people with depression get out of their heads and into their bodies. (Getty Images)

Kacey DeGuardia was only 15 years old when her mother died. The teenager sunk into a deep depression and became suicidal. “I was in a pretty dark place,” says DeGuardia, now a 24-year-old in Philadelphia. “I was on several medications and had gone to multiple doctors to try to find the right ‘cocktail’ of pharmaceuticals that would fix me.”

None seemed to help. But then a friend invited her to a yoga class, which she decided to try in part because she remembered her mom practicing yoga. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says. But within a year of consistent yoga practice, she felt happy and disciplined enough to go off of her medication entirely. “The physical strength yoga offered ran parallel with my mental strength,” she says.

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Like DeGuardia, many people successfully fight depression with yoga, and scientific evidence suggests it works. In one recent study, for example, researchers assigned 15 people with major depressive disorder to a Iyengar yoga curriculum, a method that has a strong focus on alignment, safety and precise modifications with clear steps to advance in a pose. The participants took two 90-minutes classes and completed three 30-minute home yoga and breathing assignments per week. After 12 weeks, brain imaging techniques and mood measures showed the participants’ symptoms of depression improved to match those of people who didn’t have depression. The study also found that anxiety symptoms, which are usually correlated with depression, went down.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, is the first to show that specific yoga postures and deep breathing can increase GABA – a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain and may play a role in depression. Earlier research has linked multi-week yoga programs with significantly lower scores on depression screening questionnaires.

“Yoga … is not just hippie, granola-crunchy stuff. The science shows it works,” says Dr. Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. “It’s important to have a practice that you can do every day to become resilient and relaxed. Yoga students can activate this mechanism appropriately when under stress and go back to being relaxed.”

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While more research needs to be done, the latest development “is exciting because yoga can be incorporated in every treatment plan,” Streeter says. “You could universally apply yoga, though it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use medicine when needed.”

The Best Yoga Poses for Depression

If you have depression (or simply want a mood boost), some poses seem to be more effective than others, finds Iyengar yoga teacher Patricia Walden, who collaborated with Streeter’s team to develop a specific sequence for depression. Backbends, for instance, open up the rib cage and chest, which is helpful for depression because it encourages resilience in people who tend to slouch. Passive backbends (those supported with props) and hand balances against the wall are also empowering, Walden adds. And inversions like handstands next to a wall demand focus, which is helpful for people with depression who can get caught up in ruminating thoughts. When inverted, “they can’t have anything else on their minds,” says Walden, who teaches in Massachusetts.

Other poses can specifically ease symptoms of anxiety, which often goes hand in hand with depression, especially if you practice with consistency and work toward challenging poses like down dog, Walden says. “The sensations of the body overcome their thoughts. For someone who has anxiety, we give them a strong physical practice.”

Breathing exercises can also be a great supplement to a yoga practice if you have depression, anxiety or both. Try practicing “coherent breathing” exercises, or 20 minutes of breathing at five breaths per minute, spending equal time inhaling and exhaling. (If you want a guided breathing exercise, downloading an app like Calm.) Such exercises allow people to “get into their breath, and there’s a freedom in their bodies that they hadn’t felt before class,” Walden says.

DeGuardia used similar breathing techniques to help her get through difficult moments. “I noticed that when I was feeling anxious, instead of turning to medication, I would turn to my breath,” she says. “Yoga didn’t change who I am, but rather the way I engage with myself.”

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The benefits of yoga are not exclusive to the Iyengar method, though. Someone can experience the same emotional lifts under any well-trained teacher, Streeter says. What matters more is that they stick with it – which is exactly what DeGuardia did. Today, she has two yoga teacher trainings under her belt and is using her experience to empower others in her classes. “I feel like the creator of my own reality, rather than the victim of my own circumstance,” she says. “Yoga has also allowed me to form healthy boundaries and relationships without the highs and the lows.”

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