Treatment methods used for depression can vary depending on the individual and their unique situation. Psychotherapy and medication are two of the most common, but healthcare providers may also suggest certain lifestyle changes that could help as well. One of these is yoga, an ancient meditative practice from India that research suggests may help increase mental well-being. In this article, we’ll discuss the potential benefits of yoga for depression symptoms, along with tips for getting started.
What Is Depression?
Common symptoms include:
- A lack of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Trouble concentrating
- Significant changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988.
Depression is considered to be treatable, typically through psychotherapy—sometimes in combination with medication. That’s why it’s usually recommended that those experiencing symptoms of depression or another mental health condition seek professional support. That said, it’s important to note that many people face barriers to receiving care, from stigma to cost to systemic issues. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalized groups. We’ll discuss more effective treatment options at the end of this article.
Lifestyle Changes That May Help With Depression
Again, seeking the support of a healthcare professional is recommended if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression. In addition to psychotherapy and/or medication, they might also recommend certain lifestyle changes that could help reduce symptoms. For example:
- Physical exercise. A 2020 study suggests that regular exercise can have “a beneficial effect on depressive symptoms.”
- A nutritious diet. An article from Harvard Health Publishing indicates that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil may be associated with a decreased risk of depression, with a diet high in red meat, sugar, and high-fat dairy products associated with an increased risk.
- A mindfulness practice. A 2019 study suggests that regular mindfulness practice correlates with lower levels of depression.
Although these are some of the most frequently cited lifestyle changes that may help decrease symptoms of depression, they’re not the only ones. Yoga is another example that many people turn to.
What Is Yoga And How Can It Help?
According to the United Nations, which recognizes the International Day of Yoga every year on June 21, yoga is an ancient physical, mental, and spiritual practice that originated in India over 5,000 years ago. There are many different types, but it generally combine gentle stretching with mindfulness and deep breathing. One part of respecting the cultural history of yoga and avoiding cultural appropriation of the practice is to recognize and honor its original intention: not as a form of exercise, but as a way to unite the body and mind and bring a sense of connectedness and peace, among other purposes.
Yoga has gained popularity worldwide in the last several decades, in large part because researchers continue to unearth its potential health benefits, which may include but are not limited to:
- Physical pain relief from conditions like arthritis
- Improved heart health
- Better sleep
- Increased energy
- Improved strength, flexibility, and balance
Because of its emphasis on mindfulness and the mind-body connection, yoga may also have mental health benefits for many. For instance, a 2022 study suggests that participants with depression and/or anxiety who attended a yoga class twice a week reported improved mood. This may be because it can help improve one’s awareness and control over their body, promote a sense of calm, and increase mental focus.
Yoga Tips For Mental Health
While many people choose to attend paid, free, or donation-based yoga classes in their area, there are also plenty of books and videos available that can help you practice on your own, too. It is generally recommended that you take a few classes if you’re new to this practice so you can learn proper form and techniques to help you keep your body safe. That said, the following are some general tips that may help you use the ancient cultural practice of yoga to help improve your mental health.
1. Learn About Different Forms
There are many different styles of yoga. Researching the various types to see which one appeals to you most may be a good first step. For example, Hatha yoga tends to be gentler and more slow-paced. Iyengar yoga often entails more focus, since it involves strict attention paid to posture and alignment in each pose. Vinyasa, on the other hand, focuses on moving from pose to pose more quickly in order to increase body heat. Trying a few different styles to see what best aligns with you may be helpful.
2. Remember To Keep Breathing
Proper breathwork is a core component of yoga. Not only does it help you sink deeper into the poses, but it can also increase your energy and focus. Pranayama, the practice of controlling one’s breath, is often overlooked or forgotten by those who are new to the practice and focus mainly on body movements. However, it’s generally a significant source of mental and physical benefits, so it’s worth paying attention to. It may also help you avoid injury.
3. Take It At Your Own Pace
According to a public statement on the cultural significance of yoga released by the Indian government and the United Nations, yoga can be practiced by “the young and old without discriminating against gender, class, or religion.” In other words, yoga is meant to be a connective, uniting, effective practice and not a competitive or stressful one.
So although you may at first feel pressure to “keep up” with the instructor or others in your yoga class, it can be helpful to remember that your yoga practice is for you. Pushing yourself beyond your physical or mental limits may increase your stress, rob you of the potential calming benefits, and potentially even lead to injury. The goal is generally to practice yoga in a way that works best for you personally. You can be gentle with yourself, and don’t be afraid to take pauses or modify poses as needed.
4. Stay Consistent
There’s no set time frame in which you’ll start to experience the benefits of a regular yoga practice, because each person and each practice is different. That said, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice major changes after just a session or two. As with many things in life, it’s usually recommended that you practice yoga regularly over time in order to start seeing the benefits. Making an effort to work it into your schedule—even if you start with just 10 minutes a day, twice a week—can help you set yourself up for a consistent, beneficial practice over the longer term.
5. Integrate Your Practice Into Your Daily Life
One of the reasons so many people practice yoga is because they experience the benefits of it both on and off the mat. This is most likely to happen when you make a conscious effort to integrate what you learn in yoga into your everyday life. Taking regular time to practice meditation can be one way of doing this. Aiming to live with a greater sense of mindfulness, awareness of your body, and feelings of connectedness with the world around you can be other simple ways to “live your practice” and continue to enjoy benefits as well.
Seeking Therapy For Depression
Some form of talk therapy is typically the first-line treatment for depression, sometimes in combination with medication and often in combination with suggested lifestyle changes. However, as mentioned above, therapy is not equally available to everyone. Those who face barriers to this may be interested in trying online therapy. You can attend sessions from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection if you lack providers in your area or are unable to regularly commute to appointments. Online session costs are also usually more affordable than in-person sessions. No insurance is required, and costs are typically similar to most insurance co-pays.
With a platform like BetterHelp in particular, you can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online therapy can result in a significant decrease in symptoms of depression and in a more convenient and affordable format.
Which yoga is useful for depression?
Many different forms of yoga have shown the potential to help with depression in experimental trials, including:
- Hatha yoga, the most well-known type in many Western countries, which involves guided sequences of yoga poses (also known as yoga asanas)
- Pranayama, a type of yoga focused on breathing techniques
- Iyengar, a style emphasizing precise body alignment when performing asanas, often involving props such as blocks or belts
- Anusara, a yoga practice involving spiritual meditations in addition to physical postures and movements
- Kirtan kriya, which uses chanting and finger movements as a form of seated meditation
- Prenatal or antenatal yoga, which uses postures designed specifically for pregnant people and may assist with prenatal and postnatal depression
- Viniyoga, in which each participant engages in a personalized course of practice under the guidance of a yoga instructor
Many yoga-based interventions combine more than one of these techniques. Combinations of hatha yoga and pranayama are especially common. Some instructors may also incorporate other forms of mind-body exercise such as T’ai Chi. Combining yoga with mindfulness meditation, which has been found to have positive effects on depression when practiced on its own, may also enhance its effectiveness.
Can yoga relieve symptoms of depression?
Current evidence indicates that yoga can help reduce depressive symptoms in many cases. In some controlled trials of interventions for major depressive disorder, yoga has demonstrated effect sizes similar to antidepressant medications and aerobic exercise. More in-depth research may be needed to confirm its effectiveness relative to other forms of treatment.
Is yoga good for stress and depression?
Practicing yoga may be a helpful way to alleviate stress and depression. A 2015 review of existing evidence found that yoga appears to decrease both self-reported perceptions and physiological measurements of stress, including:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Cortisol levels
- Expression of inflammatory cytokines
Yoga also appeared effective for improving mood and reducing depressive symptoms.
Other researchers who have investigated these effects have offered tentative support for these findings but noted that higher-quality studies may still be needed to rule out bias effects. Still, there’s a good deal of evidence suggesting that those who find yoga relaxing and satisfying may benefit substantially from regular practice.
How does yoga exercise help to decrease anxiety and depression?
Researchers are still working to uncover the precise mechanisms by which yoga can help with psychological disorders. However, current theories and evidence suggest that the practice can improve the regulatory functions of the nervous system, promote relaxation, and improve physical health. All of these factors may contribute to better outcomes in people with anxiety and depression.
Holding and transitioning between yoga asanas like the famous downward facing dog pose requires a combination of mental focus and physical effort. Over time, this practice has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain while decreasing blood pressure, relieve muscle tension, and reduce body mass index (BMI). These factors may improve brain function and decrease depression and anxiety.
Other studies have found that depression yoga may activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls mental and physical relaxation, leading to elevated levels of a hormone called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is known to inhibit stress, worry, and fear, and it’s often reduced in people with anxiety and depression. Increasing GABA levels may be partly responsible for yoga’s beneficial effects.
Why is yoga good for mental health?
In addition to the positive mental and physical health effects discussed above, yoga practice may also lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Many brain regions appear to be expanded and strengthened through long-term practice of mind-body exercises, including yoga. These include:
- The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in high-level cognition, including behavior control and planning
- The hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, which have important functions related to learning, memory, and emotional processing
- The lateral temporal lobe, which may be important for motivation and goal orientation
- The insula and cingulate cortex, which are thought to govern attention, self-awareness, and the processing of both emotional experiences and pain
By growing these crucial brain regions, yoga could have lasting positive effects on mood, behavior, and mental health.
How can yoga help with overall quality of life and depression?
Yoga may enhance quality of life in a variety of ways. It appears to help boost relaxation, relieve pain, and physical health. Keeping up a sustained practice can also be an opportunity to cultivate discipline and focus, and seeing your improvement throughout your yoga journey may provide an important sense of personal satisfaction. Group yoga practice might also help to expand your social circle, which can be an important factor in overcoming depression.
Clinical studies have found that yoga can be used as a complementary treatment option to improve quality of life in older adults as well as people with a wide variety of chronic conditions like:
Why does yoga reduce mental tension?
Engaging in yoga practice may decrease mental tension and stress in several interrelated ways. Researchers investigating the positive effects of yoga noted four mechanisms that were highly correlated with stress reduction in practitioners:
- Positive affect — yoga may improve overall mood, decreasing negative reactions to life stress
- Self-compassion — yoga practice often involves an emphasis on acceptance of your own limitations, which may help decrease the tendency to blame and judge yourself for mistakes
- Inhibition of emotional reactivity — yoga may dampen activity in areas of the brain associated with stress
- Decreased cortisol — practitioners of yoga may have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreasing the strength of the body’s stress responses
Which yoga reduces mental stress?
Many forms of yoga have shown stress-relieving effects in scientific trials. This includes simple asana practice as well as more complex practices involving meditations and breathing exercises. Even simply sitting on a yoga mat, closing your eyes, and taking deep breaths while paying attention to your bodily sensations may have positive effects. Commitment and consistency in practicing yoga may be more important than the specific type you choose.
How can I cure my anxiety with yoga?
Yoga may help relieve anxiety through its beneficial effects on brain structure, nervous system regulation, and stress hormone levels. Many forms of yoga may also stimulate and strengthen the functioning of the vagus nerve, which helps to activate calming responses in times of stress.
Yoga’s emphasis on cultivating a sense of relaxed awareness and focus may also improve anxiety symptoms over time. This attitude of calm attentiveness could help counteract the racing thoughts and tense hyperalertness that often characterize prolonged anxiety.
Is yoga or exercise better for depression?
Both yoga and aerobic exercise may have helpful effects on depression. A 2019 research review concluded that exercise may be more beneficial than yoga for major depressive disorder when the two therapies are used on their own. However, it’s often possible to adopt a treatment plan that combines aerobic exercise and yoga, which may lead to greater levels of improvement than either practice would on its own.
In addition, yoga may be an attractive option for people with physical limitations that make sustained aerobic exercise difficult. For example, the slower, gentler movements involved in yoga practice might be easier for older adults.
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