The Science Behind Yoga and Depression Relief
Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the country and antidepressants remain the primary treatment for depression, but they may not benefit all patients. It is estimated that around 10 to 30 percent of patients with depression either fail to respond to antidepressants or experience only mild improvements paired with severe side effects.
With this in mind, researchers are on the hunt for new interventions that can boost current treatments for depression. Could yoga meet this need?
How does yoga affect depression?
More studies are using randomised controlled trials to look at the relationship between yoga and depression. Randomised controlled trials are the best ways to verify study results. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, recent studies suggest that yoga can:
- reduce the impact of stress
- help with anxiety and depression
- be a self-soothing technique similar to meditation, relaxation, and exercise
- improve energy
Yoga therapy may help with depression and the symptoms of depression, such as difficulty concentrating or loss of energy. Many people use yoga therapy to manage:
- mental and emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety, or depression
- conditions and disorders, such as ongoing low back pain
- chronic or long-term pain
- overall health and well-being
How does yoga therapy work?
Even if yoga isn’t your forte, the combination of meditation and physical movement provides two important elements for relieving depression. Meditation helps bring a person into the present moment and allows them to clear their minds. Controlled, focused movements also help strengthen the body-mind connection.
Breathing exercises are effective in reducing depressive symptoms, according to one study. You may find yoga helpful as the exercise focuses on deep, controlled breathing.
Yoga therapy improves mood and relaxation
As an exercise, yoga is a natural way to increase serotonin production. According to the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, serotonin production plays a role in the treatment of depression. Serotonin is believed to play a major role in happiness. Another study also suggests people with depression have lower serotonin levels.
Yoga is also especially helpful because of its gentle, calming, and fluid nature. Each pose is flexible, so people of all levels can practice. If you choose to opt for an instructor-led course, they’ll emphasise breathing, concentration, and smooth movement. They’ll also encourage you to focus on positive images to calm the body and mind.
Yoga therapy works to reduce stress and anxiety
Yoga also increases your heart rate variability (HRV), or change in the time between heartbeats, by increasing the relaxation response over the stress response in the body. A high HRV means that your body is better at self-monitoring or adapting, particularly to stress.
Yoga can also:
- reduce resting heart rate
- lower blood pressure
- ease breathing
- increase pain tolerance
One study, according to Harvard Mental Health, found that people who were more stressed had a lower pain tolerance.
Yoga practice for depression
1. Downward-Facing Dog Pose
Effects: Combats anxiety and energises the body.
Lie on your stomach with your palms by the sides of your chest with your fingers well spread. Come onto your hands and knees. Set your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Place one or two folded blankets in line with your breastbone. The blankets should be high enough to support your head, but low enough so that you can lengthen your neck. Come back to your hands and knees. Turn the toes under, and exhale as you raise your buttocks high in the air, moving your thighs up and back. Keep your elbows straight as you lift your buttocks and release the crown of your head onto the support. The action of the arms and legs serves to elongate your spine and release your head. Hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute, breathing deeply.
2. Seated Forward Bend to Plow Pose
Effects: Brings relief from anxiety, energises your whole body, and makes you feel more alive.
Sit on one or two folded blankets with your legs stretched out in front of you. Take a full, deep breath. Inhale and lift up through your sternum and head, making your spine slightly concave.
Exhale and extend your torso over your legs. Rest your head just beyond your knees and your hands on the floor if you can. Do not allow your buttocks to lift off the blankets.
Come out of the forward bend, curling your back and pulling your knees up, and then roll backward into Plow. Raise your hands overhead to meet your feet. If you feel neck strain, support your back with your hands. Go back and forth between the two poses 10 to 15 times.
3. Wide-Angle Standing Forward Bend
Effects: Calms jittery nerves and combats fatigue.
Place a folded blanket or a bolster in front of you. Step your feet wide apart (about 4 feet or so), keeping the outer edges parallel. Keep your thighs well lifted. Exhale and bend forward from your hips, placing your hands on the floor between your feet. Lift your hips toward the ceiling as you draw your shoulder blades away from the ears. Head should be in the same position as if you were doing Handstand. Look up and extend your trunk forward, arching your back slightly so that the back is slightly concave from your tailbone to the base of your skull. Stay this way for 5 to 10 seconds. Then exhale, bend your elbows, and release the crown of your head onto the support. Stay here for 1 minute, breathing deeply. To come out, return to the concave back position, bring your hands to your hips, and raise your trunk.
Intermediate or advanced yoga students can do Supported Headstand instead, which is energising, balances the emotions, and rejuvenates the brain.
4. Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose
Effects: Opens the chest, lifts the spirits, and invigorates the body.
Put a firm blanket on a chair placed with its back about 2 feet from a wall. Sit backwards on the chair, facing the wall, with your feet through the chair back and your buttocks at the chair's edge. The chair should be far enough away that your feet can press into the wall when your legs are outstretched. Holding the back of the chair, arch back so that your shoulder blades are at the front edge of the chair seat. Take your feet to the wall, legs slightly bent, and place your arms between the legs of the chair to hold the back legs or rails. Lengthen your legs, pressing the chair away from the wall, and roll your thighs in toward each other. If you have neck problems, rest your head on a bolster. Breathe quietly for up to a minute, and then come out of the pose.
5. Upward-Facing Bow Pose
Effects: Improves circulation, stimulates the nervous system, and generates a feeling of well-being.
Position two blocks against the wall, shoulder-width apart. Lie on your back with your head between the blocks, your knees bent, your feet hip-width apart, and your heels close to your buttocks. Bend your elbows and place your hands alongside your head with your fingers pointing toward your feet.
As you exhale, raise your hips and chest, straighten your arms, and stretch your legs. Lift your tailbone and move the backs of your thighs toward your buttocks. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds if you can. If not, come in and out of it two or three times. To come out, bend your knees and elbows and slowly lower your body to the floor.
6. Child's Pose
Effects: Releases spinal muscles after backbends and calms your nerves.
Kneel on the floor with your big toes touching and your knees slightly wider than your hips. Bend forward and stretch your arms and trunk forward. Rest your head on the floor or a blanket.
Effects: Relieves irritability. Balances the emotions by quieting and nourishing the nervous system. Also, balances the endocrine system.
Lie on two folded blankets supporting your neck and shoulders, with your arms stretched out alongside your body. Exhale, bend your knees and raise your legs toward your chest. Pressing your hands into the floor, swing your bent legs over your head. Then support your back with your hands, with your fingers turning in toward the spine. Raise the hips and thighs even farther, straightening the legs as they come up. The top of the sternum should move toward the chin. Keep the elbows in toward each other, pressing the palms and fingers into the back as much as possible, and feel that the whole body is long and straight. If you have trouble keeping your elbows in, secure a strap around both arms just above the elbows. Stay here for several minutes.
8. Plow Pose
Effects: One of the most quieting poses for the nervous system; relieves irritability.
Continue to support your back with your hands and lower your legs over your head, placing your toes on the floor behind you. Firm your thighs to create space between your face and your legs. Stay here, breathing deeply and slowly for several minutes or as long as you're comfortable. To come out, slowly roll down one vertebra at a time. Rest with your back flat on the floor for several breaths.
At this point in the sequence, you have several choices. If you feel calm and ready to rest, you can lie in Corpse Pose for 10 minutes or longer. If you still have anxiety or depression after this sequence, you can choose to do a restorative pose or you can do another set of invigorating poses to end on an energetic, positive note.