Yoga for Depression: How It Can Make a Difference
Depression is a serious medical condition that can affect anyone at any time. Symptoms may include fatigue, irritability, overeating or loss of appetite, persistent aches and pains, or even losing interest in activities once enjoyed.
Effective treatments for depression, including medication and counseling, are available. However, whether you’re undergoing depression treatment or simply aiming to optimize overall health and well-being, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that certain exercises can help improve your mood.
How Yoga Can Help
“I was in a pretty dark place,” says Kacey DeGuardia from Philadelphia. She was only 15 when her mother passed away, and she started sinking into deep depression and suicidal thoughts. Despite consulting multiple doctors and taking various medications, her mood wasn’t improving.
Then, a friend invited her to a yoga class, partly because she remembered her mother practicing yoga. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says. But within a year of consistent yoga practice, she felt happy. “The physical strength that yoga provided ran parallel to my mental strength.”
Like DeGuardia, many people have successfully uplifted their mood through yoga, and scientific evidence suggests that it works. In a recent study, researchers assigned 15 individuals with severe depressive disorder to an Iyengar yoga curriculum, a method with a strong focus on alignment, safety, and precise modifications with clear steps to progress into a pose. Participants attended two 90-minute classes and completed three 30-minute yoga and breathwork sessions at home per week. After 12 weeks, brain imaging techniques and mood assessments showed that the participants’ depression symptoms improved to match those of non-depressed individuals. The study also found a decrease in anxiety symptoms, which are often correlated with depression.
“Yoga… is not just hippie, granola-crunchy stuff. Science shows that it works,” says Dr. Chris Streeter, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine. “It’s important to have a practice that you can do every day to become resilient and relaxed. Yoga practitioners can activate this mechanism appropriately when under stress and return to a relaxed state.”
While more research is needed, this recent development is exciting because yoga can be incorporated into all treatment plans, Streeter adds. “You could apply yoga universally, although it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use medicine when necessary.”
Yoga Poses That Help
If you’re seeking a mood boost, some yoga poses seem to be more effective than others, according to Iyengar yoga teacher Patricia Walden. Walden collaborated with Streeter’s team to develop a specific sequence for depression. Backbends, for instance, open up the chest and ribcage, which is beneficial for depression as it encourages resilience in people who tend to slump.
Breathwork exercises can also be a great complement to a yoga practice. Try “coherent breathing” exercises or 20 minutes of breathing at five breaths per minute, spending the same time inhaling and exhaling. Walden explained that such exercises allow people “to come into their breath, and there’s a freedom in their bodies that they didn’t feel before class.”
DeGuardia used similar breathwork techniques to help her through difficult times. “I noticed that when I felt anxious, I turned to my breath,” she said. “Yoga didn’t change who I am but how I engage with myself.”
A Healthy Lifestyle
The benefits of yoga are not exclusive. What matters most is sticking with it – precisely what DeGuardia did. Today, she is training to become a yoga teacher and using her experience to empower others in her classes. “I feel like the creator of my own reality, not the victim of my own circumstance,” she says. “Yoga also allowed me to form healthy boundaries and relationships without the ups and downs.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for physical and mental health, but exercise, self-care, and mindfulness can help almost everyone feel better. If a yoga program appeals to you, start by discussing your plans with your healthcare provider to see how it can fit into your overall health and wellness plan.
This article was originally published in IBX Insights.
About Jake Panasevich Jake Panasevich is a certified yoga instructor with over eight years of therapeutic yoga education. He teaches yoga to men and women in the Philadelphia region, including professional athletes from the Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Phillies, and The Philadelphia Union. Jake is also a yoga and health expert featured in publications such as NPR, Men’s Health, Huffington Post, HuffPost Live, Origin Magazine, ABC Philadelphia, Be Well Philly, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Known for his unwavering passion and efficient approach to healing, inspiring, and advancing the practice.