Yoga for Depression: Ancient Wisdom to Beat the Blues

Yoga for Depression: Ancient Wisdom to Beat the Blues

The blues is a nice euphemism, but it says little about what depression, or depressed moods, really feel like. Even the symptoms – lack of energy, loss of motivation, hopelessness, sadness – fail to accurately convey the feeling. There’s a heaviness to it. Like the weight of the world is pressing down on you, making it difficult to get out of bed, much less do the things you normally love to do.

For some of us, this feeling can arise from life events. We can clearly identify a cause. Sometimes it’s the result of a mood disorder, which can be more challenging for a variety of reasons. Or, it can come with the winter season in the form of seasonal-affective disorder. However or whenever it arrives, when depression hits, we want relief from the misery. Yoga for depression can help.

When I say yoga for depression, I’m not just talking about the physical poses. There are indeed a number of postures that can help significantly, and we’ll be discussing them. But beyond the physical postures, the yoga tradition also offers meditation techniques, mindset guidance, and the concept of the gunas, or life energies. All of these can support dramatic shifts in depressed moods.

What is Depression?

About seven years ago, I experienced a bout of depression. My son was struggling with a health condition that left me feeling powerless to help him. I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it through. A storm of emotions was stirring inside me, a heartbreaking mix of desperation and despair. I found myself crying at random times, having difficulty finding the energy or motivation to even go grocery shopping, much less cook. I could barely focus at work. And unlike previous times of crisis or grief, I just couldn’t shake it. In short, I was a mess.

After what felt like several full-blown panic attacks, I sought help from our doctor, expecting him to recommend a short sequence of anti-anxiety medication. I was shocked when instead he told me he thought I was depressed. He wanted to put me on an anti-depressant, a solution that didn’t make sense to me. I pointed out to him there was good reason for the way I was feeling. I was facing the very real possibility of losing my son. It felt a lot like grief, which was a natural emotion given the situation. He countered that the symptoms were the same regardless, and an anti-depressant would fix the symptoms.

He went on to explain that according to the DSM-V (the psychiatric diagnostic manual), grief that leads to the same symptoms as depression can be treated the same way as depression. It was at this moment it hit me. I was depressed. Whether or not I had good reason to feel what I was feeling, the fact was I was depressed.

Types of Depression

Over the years since, I’ve thought a lot about that episode. It shifted the way I view depression. Previously, I had only seen depression as a disease or a disorder. In other words, as a condition with a biopsychosocial cause that persists over time. Now, I’ve come to understand it as a cluster of symptoms that can occur in a variety of contexts. It’s the experience of those symptoms, regardless of the context, which denotes depression.

Clinical depression in the form of a mood disorder is one such context. This is when someone experiences the symptoms of depression periodically without an identifiable reason for it. Grief over the loss of a loved one, a job, a divorce, or any other significant loss is another. Seasonal-affective disorder creates depressed symptoms as a response to the fall and winter months. Trauma can also be a cause.

The point is, it doesn’t really matter why or how we come to experience the symptoms of depression. What matters is that we are in fact experiencing them, and there are things we can do to alleviate them. Taking medication prescribed by your doctor is an obvious option. And, if you’ve been prescribed medication for your depression, I’m not suggesting you stop taking it. (Please don’t make any changes to your medication regimen without first discussing it with your doctor.)

A lesser known support for easing the symptoms of depression is yoga. That’s what I’d like to explore in this article.

Can Yoga Really Help with Depression?

The answer is yes, it can. In my case, it turned everything around for me. When my doctor suggested I take anti-depressants to manage my grief over my son’s illness, it was a huge eye-opener for me. It gave me the perspective I needed – the awareness that I was indeed experiencing symptoms of depression. But, I wasn’t convinced I needed the medication to manage my symptoms. He and I made an agreement that I would try my own techniques and return to see him in a week. If I was still suffering the same symptoms, I would get on medication.

As I left his office, I could feel the depression in my body and my head, like cotton stuffing my insides. Being a yoga therapist, I recalled all I knew about the mind-body connection and acknowledged how little I’d been doing to attend to it. I made a plan for how I could start shifting my internal states, both physical and mental. When I got home, I forced myself to get started.

By the time I returned to see my doctor the following week, I still had some sadness, naturally. But I wasn’t debilitated by it. It no longer met the threshold of clinical depression. He ended up referring me for supportive counseling, and I followed through with that for a couple of months, as long as I needed it. Yoga was a pivotal part of my recovery from depression, not only in that week between my doctor visits, but in the months that followed too.

Yoga for Depression Research

For many yeas now, yoga has been studied as a potential treatment for depression. Numerous studies have been conducted, and the results have overwhelmingly supported yoga for depression symptom relief. Currently, yoga is considered a valuable complementary approach. This means it hasn’t been proven to be a replacement for traditional treatments (such as medication and therapy), but it’s recommended as an adjunct.

Medical News Today reports several studies that showed significant reductions in depression symptoms, including one study that evidenced not only reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms, but results that lasted four months beyond the program’s end.

This review of 23 studies in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine concluded that yoga interventions are in fact effective for reducing the symptoms of depression.

So, it can and does work. But what is the mechanism? How exactly does yoga work its magic on depression?

Yoga’s Powerful Recipe for Depression Relief

Beyond medication and therapy, research shows a number of lifestyle adjustments and activities can prevent and/or alleviate depression. Yoga packs three big ones into a single practice: exercise, mindfulness, and meditation. Additionally, its focus on self-care supports other lifestyle choices that can fend-off depression. And, an understanding of yoga’s teachings on the gunas, or life energies, can facilitate movement from a depressed state into a more vitalized and contented state.

Yoga Is Exercise that Can Help Depression

The evidence is in. Exercise does help with depression. It’s been shown in numerous studies to reduce symptoms of depression and even to prevent relapse into depressive episodes. It not only produces results within a few minutes of exercising, but regular exercise improves depression in the long-term. The article I linked above is published by the American Psychological Association. It states, matter-of-factly, “as evidence piles up, the exercise-mental health connection is becoming impossible to ignore. “

Yoga is exercise. Depending on the type of yoga you do, it can have both an aerobic and strengthening effect. Getting your body moving in sun salutations and holding strengthening poses, while breathing deeply and purposefully, stimulates changes in your body. It starts releasing endorphins and increasing serotonin while also stimulating neuron growth in key parts of your brain. That’s why you feel so good after a yoga or other exercise session.

It can be hard – sometimes even feel impossible – to gather the motivation to exercise when you’re stuck in the pit of depression. But, that’s precisely the time when you most need to do it. The feelings of fatigue, lack of motivation, and hopelessness need an intervention in order to shift. Exercise can and does create that shift. The yogic concept of the gunas actually delves into this phenomenon from an intuitive, energetic perspective, and we’ll explore that more in a bit.

Yoga Develops Mindfulness, Another Tool for Fighting Depression

Mindfulness is the trait of being aware of the present moment from a non-judgmental perspective. Essentially, it’s being in the moment while accepting it as it is, as opposed to ruminating, worrying, or otherwise feeling discontent with what is. Mindfulness has been shown again and again to reduce symptoms of depression.

Think about what depression consists of. It’s typically feeling overwhelmed with life circumstances, thinking about the things that bring or have brought you suffering, and as a result, feeling a lack of energy to move forward with activities of living. Mindfulness is the opposite of that. It’s accepting the present moment and being willing to engage in it. It’s choosing not to focus on the past or the future, or to ruminate about what has gone wrong or what might go wrong. Because it’s accepting in nature, rather than resisting in nature, mindfulness frees up the flow of life energy.

Yoga is a Mindful Practice

When we practice yoga, we’re focusing on our breath. We’re paying attention to the careful positioning of our body. We’re engaging with the present moment with a sense of curiosity about what’s happening in our body and our mind in each posture. In this way, it naturally develops the trait of mindfulness, which is helpful over time for fighting depression. And, in the moment when we’re practicing, our attention is focused on something other than our sources of discontentment. In this way, it supports an immediate mood lift.

During my bout of depression, accessing mindfulness on my yoga mat helped me to approach my situation off the mat with more acceptance. It helped me to accept the things I couldn’t control. That created a huge shift for me. It was like a surrender, but it didn’t feel like defeat. It felt like peace. And, surprisingly, that created a sense of spaciousness in which I could breathe and move and see more clearly. It helped me see the steps I could take and gave me access to the energy I needed to take them.

Yoga As Meditation Eases Depression

Yoga is much more than the physical postures most people associate it with. The ultimate goal of yoga is union of the mind-body-spirit connection, and this is accomplished through meditation. Movement into and between the yoga poses is a form of moving meditation in and of itself. We connect ourselves to the present moment through our body and a focus on our breath. But the postures are also practiced to prepare our body and mind for sitting meditation.

You can learn more about this yoga-meditation process in my article dedicated to this topic, but for our purposes here, it’s important to note that yoga is deeply connected to meditation and in fact rooted in it. Most yoga classes end with a meditation practice of some sort, which may vary in length and type depending on the teacher.

The point of meditation is to focus your mind on a single point, typically the breath, and to sustain that focus for an extended period of time. This involves redirecting your mind as it wanders from your breath. Drawing it back repeatedly to the singular focus. It also involves observing your mind from an objective, non-judgmental perspective.

In doing this, you’re training your mind to come under your control, rather than letting it hop around, ruminate, or get hooked on any given thought. This yoga skill is invaluable for fighting depression. Over time, it can help you give much less weight to the thoughts your mind produces. And it can support you in choosing more positive and self-supporting thoughts. That’s why meditation has been shown to be effective for depression relief and is spurring much research in the field of mental health.

Yoga’s Focus on Self-Care Supports Depression Relief

One of the things mental health professionals assess during psychological evaluations is impairment in activities of daily living, such as showering, eating, brushing your teeth, keeping your house clean, going to work, etc. These are all forms of self-care, the things we do to take care of ourselves and sustain our lives. While the examples I listed are basic, even those forms of self-care can suffer when you’re depressed. Exerting the effort to do the bigger forms of self-care can feel even harder to muster up the energy for.

Yoga encourages a focus on self-care like no other activity I’ve ever done. While it might be difficult to get yourself to a yoga class or to start your practice at home, once you’re actually doing it, you feel a sense of self-nurturing emerge. The slow movements, the inward focus, and the attention you’re giving to yourself in the present moment sends a powerful message to your body and your mind. I’m important. My well-being is important.

Managing depression requires intentional self-care. Whether it be taking your medication, making sure you eat healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, getting good sleep, or reaching out to a friend, it’s important to do the things that will help you feel better. Doing yoga during depression can help shift your mindset into self-care mode. So you can choose to make your health a priority and start taking actions to support it.

The 3 Gunas & What They Can Teach Us About Getting Out of a Depressed State

I’ve saved this one for last because it’s the piece that produced the most profound shift for me during my own episode of depression. And I still use it today when I find myself in a funk, for whatever reason. It’s powerful stuff.

The yoga tradition is a body of knowledge amassed over thousands of years as it passed from yogi to yogi. It’s by nature a self-informed practice, meaning its wisdom is the product of intensive self-inquiry. Yogis gain their knowledge from teachers, but also from their own inner journeys of self-discovery. Knowledge of the gunas, or 3 major life forces, arose from this sort of inquiry. And, it can be assessed for its merits by each individual as they explore their own internal states.

That means, if you start paying attention to your own internal states, you will see these forces at play and can learn to make adjustments to your lifestyle to accommodate shifts between these energetic tendencies. That’s exactly what I did during that week between my doctor visits.

The three gunas are energy states that each support certain aspects of our life. When these energies are in balance and being accessed when they’re most useful and healthy, you feel great. You’re in harmony. But, when they’re out of balance, you feel disturbed in telltale ways.

Sattva

The sattvic state is the goal of yoga. It’s the fundamental force that brings about clarity, truth, peace, contentment, and life-affirming joy. Obviously, this is a desirable state. When we’re our most balanced, most harmonious, most inspired and joyful, we have an abundance of sattva. Yoga helps us access sattva energy, which is a big reason why yoga is so good for depression.

Yoga, meditation, and prayer are practices that help stimulate the force of sattva in our lives. Eating light, plant-based food, sleeping well, and drinking plenty of water support it too. Additionally, and importantly, making sure we don’t have an excess of the other two gunas at work in our lives opens up the flow of sattvic energy.

Rajas

The rajasic state is one of activity, movement, and exertion of one’s will, passion, and desire. It’s a force of change. When balanced, rajas is useful for accomplishing our goals, doing the work we need to do to sustain life, and having the motivation to exert force in a new or different direction to affect change.

However, when out of balance, rajas creates problems. Too little rajas can leave us stuck in inertia or complacency that’s harmful or keeps us from accessing sattva. Too much rajas can lead to anxiety, anger, irritability, aggressiveness, and just generally feeling dissatisfied.

Tamas

Tamas is the energy of rest and inaction. You can think of it like your parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that calms you down and enables you to relax and sleep. Obviously, we need this force to slow down, stop, and restore ourselves. To go to sleep at night, yes, but also at other times when maybe we’ve pushed ourselves too hard, and we just need to take a day to recuperate. In this way, it’s a very healthy energy.

Too much tamas can be problematic, though. It can lead to procrastination, lack of motivation, dullness of mind, and depression. It has a heavy feeling to it, almost like a weight holding you down, making it difficult to get moving or make changes you need to make. Awareness of tamas, and specifically the knowledge of how to shift it, is a powerful way yoga can help with depression.

The Interplay of the Gunas

These three forces engage in a sort of dance, a give-and-take that’s delicately balanced. We need just the right amount of tamas and rajas to nurture sattva. And this awareness is how yoga helped guide me out of my depression. As I was walking out of my doctor’s office, I felt the tamas in me. I felt the weight, the dullness, the resistance to life. I knew I needed the fire of rajas to generate change. The answer was, I had to get moving. Through exercise, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, not to mention the pile of work at my office. Even though I wasn’t feeling motivated or inspired to do any of these things, I HAD to do them. Because the act of doing them would itself create the energy I needed.

When we’re depressed, we’re stuck in inertia. Like a giant boulder at a standstill. It can feel daunting to try to exert enough force to get it moving. But, once it’s in motion, momentum takes over. That’s rajas. The energy of change and movement. Once we start exercising and doing other tasks, we kindle rajas. We give ourselves access to our inner source for life’s energy of motion and change. It gets easier as we keep putting one foot in front of the other, stirring up more and more of that rajasic energy.

And with that rajasic energy flowing, we then seek sattvic energy by practicing yoga, meditation, and prayer. We start to see more clearly. We start to feel hope and faith and peaceful acceptance. Eventually, enough space opens up for even joy. But, stuck in the quicksand of tamas, none of that seems possible. The key is to get things moving again, to stoke our inner fire with rajasic action, knowing it will burn through our heavy resistance and create a fundamental shift in our inner state.

Exploring the Gunas at Play in You

Now, I can’t prove any of this to you with research-backed studies because they haven’t been done. Yet. But I can tell you it worked for me and continues to create shifts in me when needed. When I’m feeling low, I get moving. I can always tell when I’ve got too much tamasic energy because I have absolutely zero motivation to move. But I do it anyway. It never fails to get the ball rolling, to get my inner gears squeaking into motion again. Sometimes it’s in one shot. Other times, it might take several days. But eventually, I shift from my tamasic state into a rajasic one.

And when I know I’ve got too much rajas energy, when I feel anxiety or irritability buzzing inside of me, I make a point to meditate, practice yogic breathing techniques, or do a flow of yoga postures. This too never fails to connect me to a more sattvic state of peace and clarity.

The best way to understand and evaluate the gunas is to start examining your own inner workings to watch them at play. Notice your own internal states. When you’re feeling like you have too much tamas, inject some rajasic movement. As much of it as you need, and for as many days as you need. Until your intrinsic motivation returns, keep forcing yourself to do it. When you’re feeling anxious, angry, or aggressive, try cooling your rajasic energy with yoga, meditation, or prayer. Again, as much of it and as often as you need. Be intentional about it.

See what happens, and then decide for yourself if there’s some merit to this ancient, yogic wisdom for depression.

Yoga Postures for Depression

Any yoga practice will help with depression, for all of the reasons already stated. However, there are some yoga poses that are especially beneficial for depression because they help stimulate the flow of rajasic energy in your system.

The day I came home from my doctor’s office, and every day until I met with him again, I made a point to do Shoulder Stand. Really, any inversion would have worked, but this is my preferred inversion. Inversions are an excellent way to get your blood moving through your body, and more specifically, to your head. This stimulates both your body and your mind, which helps alleviate depression.

Sun Salutations are another great way to stir-up your rajas. The faster movements between the postures makes your practice more aerobic. It gets your heart pumping, your blood flowing all throughout your body, and is overall energizing.

Twisting postures and back bends like cobra, upward-facing dog, camel, and bridge stimulate your solar plexus chakra, which is the chakra connected to your personal empowerment and will. These postures free up the flow of your life-energy all along your spine, stimulating rajas. They encourage an openness to the experience of life.

If you’re going to a studio or finding an online class, choose a Hatha, Ashtanga, or Vinyasa practice that’s suited for your experience level. All three of these practices are active with plenty of movement. They’re perfect for stimulating rajas.

Closing Thoughts…

Yoga can be a powerful force for dealing with depression. I’m not saying it’s the best or the only solution, but it can create big shifts in mood and help develop skills and lifestyle adjustments that can support mental and emotional health over time. Whether you struggle with depression symptoms on a regular basis or find yourself in a depressed space due to a particularly challenging life circumstance, yoga can help you find your light again.

May your practice bring you balance and resilience. May it open up the space for joy and contentment in your heart. Namaste.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Has yoga helped your mental or emotional health? Or, if you haven’t tried it before, do you think it could? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Author: Rose Hahn

Rose Hahn's passion for inspiring intentional wellness has evolved over the past 20 years from a personal practice, to working as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, to founding the first neuroscience and mindfulness-based addiction treatment center in Texas with her husband. Currently, her energy is focused on her wellness blog, an upcoming book, and her yoga/music/arts event production company.

4 thoughts

  1. Great information! I love yoga but somehow stopped doing it. I realize how good I felt after each class. I noticed a change physically and mentally. Thanks for the nudge to go back.

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