How Yoga Can Help Your Depression

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

It’s normal to experience symptoms of depression when you lose a loved one, get fired from a job, go through a divorce, or experience other significant life events that lead you to feel sad, lonely, scared, discouraged, nervous or anxious. We sometimes call it a “case of the blues.” When you experience these symptoms daily or they persist for long periods of time, for no obvious reason, and make it difficult to carry on with activities of daily life, then you may have true depression.

Depression is treatable and one of the recommendations that people are often given is to begin an exercise program. Exercise, whether it’s aerobic or strength-training, can help to get you moving if you are feeling lethargic, and it can also boost endorphins, helping to improve your overall mood. Research has also focused on yoga as a therapeutic tool, to compliment your treatment program.

The science

Available reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest that yoga can reduce stress and be helpful for both anxiety and depression. It is a self-soothing technique and can help to modulate stress response systems in the body. Benefits of yoga can include reducing a person’s heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing one’s rate of respiration. One German study of 24 women showed that the half who took 90 minute yoga classes twice a week for three months had lowered levels of emotional distress compared to the control group, who did not begin any exercise or stress-reduction programs during the three month period.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that the brain scans of people practicing yoga showed boosted levels of GABA. Low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with depression and anxiety. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine suggests there’s a growing body of evidence that yoga may positively alter your brain and blood chemicals and improve your mood and sense of well-being.

Why is yoga a good exercise modality?

Yoga involves different poses, techniques and mediation as a means of exercise and mental relief. The different poses help to stretch muscles, promote strength, improve flexibility and it is a popular choice of exercise for variety of chronic conditions including chronic pain and cancer. Yoga can be done in a class setting or as a solitary experience. Regardless of the type of yoga you choose, the breathing, concentration and smooth movements can help to calm your mind and your body. Yoga requires mental immersion so it can help to limit some of the unhappy emotions you may be feeling. It can also help to relieve insomnia and chronic pain, both of which can be associated with depression.

Are there different types of yoga?

There are many styles of yoga. Some of the more popular ones in the U.S. include:

Hatha – Considered a more gentle style, it has a slower pace and is very well suited for beginners. It includes asanas (poses0, controlled breathing and short periods of relaxation or meditation.

Ashtanga – Also called power yoga, this is a more face-paced style and more physically demanding.

Vinyasa – This style focuses more closely on breathing pacing with poses and movement. A class will usually start off slowly and build up to a faster pace towards the end.

Iyengar – Chairs and pillows are used and it can help to reduce tension

Kundalini – Chanting, mantras and mediation accompany guided relaxation in this style of yoga.

Bikram – Still a popular style of yoga, it’s also called hot yoga. The room is kept quite warm in order to help to loosen muscles. Participants will sweat copious amounts of fluid which helps with the cleansing focus of the class.

Viniyoga – Is an individualized style of yoga, focusing on slow movements through poses that focus on balance and healing.

There are also dozens of variations on the more traditional formats of these styles of yoga. Experts recommend trying several different styles so that you find a yoga format that you feel comfortable with. If you are struggling with depression, the flow of poses, gentle movements, and especially the meditation and self-focus aspects of yoga, can be very soothing and restorative

Are there any downsides to yoga?

If you’ve never meditated before, then it can be a challenge to quiet your mind. So the meditative aspect of yoga may take time to master. The poses can be hard for beginners or individuals with limited flexibility. Yoga classes can be expensive so you may need to search for affordable options or use DVD’s or online classes. Yoga alone may not be enough to treat depression. It can be an excellent complement to traditional therapies including medication and psychotherapy.

Is it the physical or mental component of yoga that helps with depression?

It’s really the combination of the physical component and meditative elements that can help to combat depression. Meditation can help to bring you into a more present mindset and help to clear your mind of some of the more negative emotions you may be experiencing. The poses and other physical aspects help with mind-body connections, important considerations in depression.

Despite advances in psychopharmacology, individuals suffering with depression, can likely benefit from adding yoga sessions to their weekly schedule.


Harvard Health Publications

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”