How to Do Yoga for Depression and Anxiety (and why)
What you’ll learn about yoga for depression and anxiety in this article:
- The proven benefits of yoga for depression
- The proven benefits of yoga for anxiety and stress relief
- How yoga helps concurrent psychiatric disorders
- Step-by-step instructions for doing the best yoga poses for depression and anxiety
Yoga is a practice of poses and breathing techniques designed to strengthen and balance the body and the mind.
Currently, 15 million Americans practice yoga regularly and that number continues to grow. (1)
Why the sudden explosion of interest in this ancient practice?
It could be because of the many proven general health benefits of yoga — improved strength and flexibility, weight loss, and management of pain and chronic illnesses. (2)
But possibly the interest in yoga is due more to its mental health benefits.
Soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and other common mood disorders have coincided with yoga’s recent fast rise in popularity.
More than 90% of people start a yoga practice for stress relief or physical health benefits, but they stay with yoga for emotional or spiritual reasons. (3)
Here are some of the proven ways that yoga can transform your brain, mood, and mental health.
Proven Benefits of Yoga for Depression
Numerous studies have shown yoga to benefit those with depression.
One study on participants with major depression found that 20 sessions of yoga led to an elevation of mood and reduction of anger and anxiety. (4)
Another study on young adults with mild depression found that biweekly yoga classes resulted in improved mood and reduced anxiety and fatigue. (5)
Yoga classes are filled mostly with young women, so it is somewhat of a surprise that one study found male military veterans with depression to be overwhelmingly positive about their yoga classes.
In fact, on a scale of 1 to 10, they rated their classes 9.4 and said they would recommend the yoga program to other veterans. (6)
There are many mechanisms that may be responsible for yoga’s antidepressant effects.
Doing yoga causes an increase in the calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that helps ease the symptoms of depression. (7)
One study found that practicing yoga 12 minutes a day for eight weeks decreased inflammation, a risk factor for depression. (8)
Related article —
Benefits of Meditation for Depression: Why It Works So Well
Yoga increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
BDNF is a protein that stimulates the formation of new brain cells, increases brain plasticity, suppresses inflammation, and acts as a natural antidepressant. (9, 10)
Yoga seems to work even better than some other mind-body techniques.
When compared to visualization and breathing exercises, those who practiced yoga felt more alert and energetic and had a more positive mood. (11)
Proven Benefits of Yoga for Anxiety Relief
Since stress is the precursor to anxiety, it pays to put a stop to stress before it escalates.
One key way yoga alleviates stress is by decreasing levels of the damaging stress hormone cortisol. (12)
Yoga modulates the stress response by slowing down rapid breathing and heart rates, lowering high blood pressure, and increasing heart rate variability. (13)
Heart rate variability is an indicator of your resilience to stress.
Exercise of all kinds reduces stress, but yoga may be one of the best.
This may be because yoga stands out as a proven GABA booster.
GABA is one of your main inhibitory neurotransmitters.
It inhibits brain activity, enabling you to relax.
When you are low in GABA, your brain gets stuck in the “on” position leaving you feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and overstimulated.
Just a single one-hour session of yoga can increase GABA levels by 27%. (14)
A healthy brain is the first line of defense against any mood disorder, and there’s evidence that yoga protects the brain from shrinking that normally occurs with age.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers found a correlation between doing yoga and increased brain volume.
Areas of the brain that experienced the greatest volume gains included the hippocampus, a region critical to reducing stress. (15)
The Benefits of Yoga for Concurrent Psychiatric Disorders
Many people with depression or anxiety also experience other psychiatric disorders.
There’s evidence that yoga can help some of these concurrent disorders as well.
Research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice found that yoga may help those with bipolar disorder manage their symptoms. (16)
When more than 100 bipolar patients were asked to rank how yoga impacted their lives, most reported noticeable emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits.
Some went so far as to call their yoga practice “life changing.”
Harvard Medical School reported some remarkable effects of yoga on a variety of psychiatric disorders. (17)
One study examined the effects of a single yoga class on psychiatric hospital inpatients with bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia.
After the class, average levels of anger, tension, hostility, fatigue, anxiety, and depression had dropped significantly.
Another study focused on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who drank alcohol heavily and took antidepressants.
A five-day stress reduction program that included yoga poses and breathing techniques reduced their symptoms from the “moderate to severe” category to “mild to moderate.”
These benefits were still evident at a 6-month follow-up.
Yoga can help patients with eating disorders by changing their attitude about their bodies.
Yoga helps them see their bodies as an asset, rather than an enemy. (18)
Finally, a group of women suffering from severe emotional distress took twice-weekly yoga classes.
At the end of three months, these women reported significant improvements in depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, perceived stress, sleep quality, and well-being.
Yoga Poses for Depression
Now that you know the many impressive benefits of yoga, you may feel motivated to try some poses.
But when doing yoga, it’s important to do the poses right for maximum benefits and to avoid injury.
So, we’ve enlisted the help of professional yoga instructor Manmohan Singh.
Manmohan teaches yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, a city in India that’s has been called the “yoga capital of the world.” (19)
Below, he describes three poses recommended for depression and provides step-by-step instructions for each.
Savasana (or the Corpse Pose)
Savasana, also called the corpse pose, is one that’s easy to perform yet difficult to master.
It’s an excellent remedy to overcome depression.
The pose works on the mind, body, and spirit, channeling energies inwards and gaining control over the external factors that influence the body.
This meditative and calming pose explores the state of self-awareness and mindfulness, leading to deep awareness of the body and feelings of calm and internal bliss.
The pose is performed at the conclusion of each yoga session for assimilation and integration of the energy channels within the body to bring about a calm, composed, and revived state of being.
How to Do the Corpse Pose:
Lie flat on your back on the yoga mat.
Use a pillow under your neck if needed to be more comfortable.
Close your eyes.
Rest both arms comfortably a few inches away from the body, palms facing upward.
Keep a comfortable distance between the knees while pointing your toes outwards.
Close your eyes and draw attention to and consciously relax every part of the body, starting from the right foot, right shin, right knee, and so on.
After the right leg, move to the left leg while gradually moving upwards.
Keep your breathing slow and relaxed while doing so.
Remain in the pose for 10-20 minutes.
Release the pose in Sukhasana (or Easy Pose).
Sukhasana (or the Easy Pose)
Sukhasana is a highly effective asana, or seated pose, for managing the symptoms of depression while healing from within.
Sukhasana is also the best position for practicing an intense level of meditation.
The easy pose helps relax the mind, body, and spirit by invoking a sense of calm through the entire body and relaxing the brain.
It is highly effective in correcting the alignments of the body while channeling a smooth and steady energy flow.
The pose should ideally be performed on an empty stomach in the morning.
How to Do the Easy Pose:
Sit on the mat in a comfortable position with your legs stretched out.
Now gently bend each leg at the knee to keep the foot under each knee.
Align the torso with the hips, spine firm and straight.
Lengthen your tailbone and strengthen your shoulders.
Rest the arms on the respective knee.
Distribute the body weight evenly on each hip.
Close your eyes and take deep, relaxed breaths.
Focus and center all your concentration on the heart.
As you do so, you should feel a sense of balance both mentally and physically.
The pose has no time limitation.
The masters sit in this pose for hours at a stretch while meditating on it.
Ūrdhva Mukha Svānāsana (or the Upward Facing Dog Pose)
Upward facing dog is an excellent pose to open the heart and dispel any pent-up negative emotions held in the chest.
It regulates the respiratory system and brings clarity to the mind and heart.
Regular practice of this pose should have you feeling more open to embrace life and better equipped to deal with upcoming challenges.
How to Do the Upward Facing Dog Pose:
Lie flat on your stomach on the mat.
Keep the balls of the feet facing upwards and the toes pointing inwards.
Bring both the palms near the shoulder blades and gently elevate the upper body higher while curving the spine smoothly.
Use your body weight to lift your torso while your palms are used for minimal support.
Lengthen the entire body from head to toe.
Take deep breaths while holding the pose in the air, face drawn upwards to embrace positivity and hope.
Yoga Poses for Anxiety
This next set of yoga poses is recommended specifically for anxiety.
You’ll also find additional yoga poses for stress management on Manmohan Singh’s website RishikulYogshala.org.
Supta Baddha Konasana (or Reclined Bound Angle Pose)
Surrender yourself to the art of “letting go” with the reclined bound angle pose.
This pose is an ideal asana to release pent-up anxiety and stress in various parts of the body, particularly the hips, thighs, back, groin, and chest.
The pose invokes feelings of inner calm and serenity and provides an ideal respite from anxiety and nervousness.
How to Do the Reclined Bound Angle Pose:
Lie flat on the back in the corpse pose.
Close your eyes and fold each leg at the knee to let the soles of the feet touch each other.
Surrender your body to the ground, making your mind devoid of any external disturbances except for the moment you are in.
If your knees are unable to touch the ground, then place a pillow underneath each to experience the cushioning effect of deep restoration.
Place your right palm on the heart center and your left palm on the stomach.
Focus inward as you gently connect with your heart and body.
Take deep relaxing breaths while remaining in the position for as long as comfortable.
Feel the tension melt away from your mind and body while doing so.
Viparita Karani (Or Legs up the Wall Pose)
Legs up the wall is an excellent pose to experience feeling whole again.
Let the stress and anxiety stored in the heart, hips, spine, and legs wash away with this wonderful inversion pose.
The pose not only relieves anxiety, but also regulates blood circulation, manages blood pressure, restores the tiredness in the feet and legs, and helps relieve symptoms of sleep-related disorders while effectively managing mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
How to Do the Legs up the Wall Pose:
Find a wall and lay your mat next to it.
Lie on your back and lift each leg at the hip to let the leg rest against the support of the wall.
Close your eyes.
Maintain a slight curve in the spine while resting in this pose.
If you are facing difficulty in resting the hips comfortably on the mat, you may use a bolster underneath your hips.
Feel completely rejuvenated and balanced again as the blood circulates freely through the heart and the brain.
Remain in the pose for a few minutes before gently coming out of the pose.
Garudasana (or Eagle Pose)
This is an excellent pose that fosters the eagle-eye focus technique to manage stress and get rid of anxiety.
The pose effectively relieves anxiety from shoulders, torso, hips, and thighs — areas where the human body stores the maximum anxiety and stress.
Performing this pose aligns the powerful zones in the body into a perfect equilibrium to calm the mind, body, and spirit.
How to Do the Eagle Pose:
Stand with a hip-distance gap between each foot with your arms spread wide.
Cross over the right arm over the left.
Bend the elbows and align the arms at 90 degrees, keeping your palms aligned next to each other while doing so.
Distribute your entire body weight on the right foot evenly.
Bend your right knee a little.
Gently raise your left leg and cross it over your right leg as if sitting in a cross-legged position.
If you are flexible enough, then twist your left calf around the right one while the left leg is crossed over the right.
Remain in this position while engaging the core from within and maintaining a sharp-eyed focus on a point in front of you.
Lower your hips as comfortably as possible while maintaining keen balance and focus.
Keep the spine lengthened as long as you remain in this pose.
Stay in this position for 2-10 minutes, gradually increasing the time frame.
Need Inspiration to Start Your Yoga Practice?
Even if you are convinced that yoga could be helpful for your mental well-being, you may understandably feel a bit overwhelmed or skeptical.
You may think it will be too hard, or that you won’t get the results you’re hoping for.
If you need some inspiration to get started with yoga, I highly recommend the 5-minute video “Never, Ever Give Up. Arthur’s Inspirational Transformation!”.
Arthur Boorman, a disabled Gulf War veteran, was told he would never walk unassisted again.
He took up yoga, lost 140 pounds, and is now doing headstands!
His story is a poignant reminder that you should never underestimate what you can accomplish or let doctors tell you what you “can’t” do.
It’s a remarkable testimony to the benefits of yoga, as well!
Where to Find More Yoga Help
Arthur undoubtedly would not have made the astounding progress he did without a yoga teacher to guide and inspire him.
While there’s plenty of yoga instruction available online, if you are brand new to yoga, I recommend that you take at least a few yoga classes.
Proper instruction will assure you get maximum benefits from your yoga practice and assure that you don’t get hurt.
Finding yoga classes should be easy.
You can search for yoga studios near you, no matter where in the world you live, at YogaFinder.com.
Other places to find yoga classes are at fitness clubs, community centers, schools, or your local YMCA.
Don’t be concerned that you can’t do yoga because you believe you are too overweight, inflexible, out of shape, or old.
There are yoga poses suitable for every level.
Some can even be done at your desk or while sitting in a chair.
Yoga for Depression and Anxiety: The Bottom Line
The ancient practice of yoga is indisputably beneficial for depression, anxiety, and other common mood disorders.
Some of the known ways yoga works is by slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, increasing brain volume, and normalizing stress hormones and neurotransmitters that are integrally linked to mood.
You can start experiencing better mental health today by trying the yoga poses for depression or anxiety presented here.
But be forewarned that yoga can often be a “gateway” practice — one that leads you on a path to a generally healthier lifestyle!