The mental and physical benefits of practicing yoga are extensive.
As scientific research into our wellness increases, we are expanding our understanding of how these benefits are derived and finding the quantitative support of their impact.
Recent studies have indicated there may be a correlation between consistent yoga practice and the presence of depressive symptoms.
Let’s take a closer look at depression and anxiety to see the role yoga practice may play in their regulation.
What Are Depression and Anxiety?
Depression and anxiety are two independent disorders, but individuals experiencing one may often experience symptoms of the other.
From major depressive disorder to persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), there are many different forms of depressions, and each has its own unique set of symptoms required for diagnosis.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety include but are not limited to a sad or low mood, irritability, anger, hopelessness, loss of appetite, overeating, changes in sleep patterns, fatigue, poor concentration, and suicidal ideation.
Individuals experiencing any of these symptoms for prolonged periods should seek medical advice for a full assessment and diagnosis.
What Causes Depression and How Is It Cured?
There isn’t just one accepted cause of depression. A variety of factors including genetic, emotional and, environmental influences have a role in the development and persistence of depression and anxiety.
For some individuals, depression can develop following a traumatic event, and for others, it may be a gradual onset due to biological factors. As the core cause of depression varies, it can be difficult to recognize or diagnose.
Once diagnosed, symptoms of depression can be treated and alleviated, but there isn’t currently support for a cure for depression or anxiety.
Can Yoga Cure Depression and Anxiety?
Yoga cannot cure depression or anxiety, but increasingly, research studies are showing the benefits yoga can provide in alleviating symptoms.
The main takeaway from much of the research about the effect of yoga practice on anxiety and depression is yoga’s ability to regulate stress responses.
Yoga appears to reduce how stress and anxiety are perceived which limits the more physiological reactions of a stress response. When under stress our bodies react to variations in blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, breathing, and energy.
Maintaining more control over the stress response gives individuals more control over these physiological changes that intensify symptoms of depression and anxiety.
When anxious, the added physical impact of a higher heart rate can bring more stress, so it is essential to be able to control this. This ability to modulate the effect of a stress response has also been linked with other stress-reducing practices such as meditation and relaxation.
What Yoga Practices Ease Anxiety and Depression Symptoms?
Often when we think of yoga, we limit the understanding of the practice of yoga asanas or specific postures, but this represents only one of the eight limbs of yoga.
Especially for the application of yoga as a tool to address symptoms of depression and anxiety it is important to involve a more holistic yoga practice.
So first let’s begin with an understanding of what the eight limbs of yoga are. The eight limbs of yoga were documented by the sage Patañjali in the Yoga Sutras as an eightfold path to liberation.
The eight limbs of yoga are:
Yama means “control” and refers to the five ethical rules or moral codes one should follow to lead a righteous life. These rules govern interactions between yourself and others.
These include non-stealing (Asteya), non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), sexual restraint (Brahmacharya), and non-possessiveness (Aparigraha).
Recognizing our adherence or lack of observance of the Yamas can provide a quick personal test of our current state. If you typically have an active observation of nonviolence or Ahimsa and find yourself being easily irritated or more volatile in nature this could be an indicative depressive symptom.
While you used to observe truthfulness or Satya, you may now find yourself lying to friends to disguise how you feel. Recommit to telling your truth to raise awareness and find support. Shifting your focus back to the maintenance of the Yamas also provides rules of engagement which may aid in day to day interactions.
Niyamas, meaning duties, complement the Yamas in presenting personal observances to lead an enlightened existence.
While the Yamas focus on how you engage with the people and world around you, the Niyamas focus on internal practices.
The five Niyamas expressed in the Yoga Sutras are purity of mind, body, and speech (Saucha), self-discipline (Tapas), contentment (Santosa), self-study (Svadhyaya), and surrender and contemplation of a higher power (Ishvarapranidhana).
Similar to the Yamas, observance of the Niyamas presents a plan of behavior. Especially since they are internal practices, they also encourage internal healing.
Strive to maintain Saucha and find the purity of the mind through positive affirmations of yourself. Purity and cleanliness of the body, particularly through your diet, may also aid in improving one’s mood.
Links between diet and mental health encourage us to avoid processed foods in favor of healthier, whole food options.
Self-study through Svadhyaya can help you discover a deeper understanding of your mental state so you can move beyond it. Through this introspection, you can identify potential triggers and reactions to better regulate how you feel day to day.
Perhaps the most commonly known limb, asana practice has become synonymous with yoga. Asana traditionally means seat, refers both to how and where a yogi sits.
Presently asana is used to refer to the physical poses performed. From Adho Mukha Svanasana or downward facing dog to Savasana or corpse pose, the base of the word referring to the pose is “asana.”
Asanas are intended to be a posture that can be held steady and comfortable for an extended period of time and the physicality of the practice brings both meditative and strengthening benefits.
Most of the studies linking benefits of yoga to depression and anxiety symptoms focus on a practice of asana.
One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine involved individuals with major depressive disorder participating in two or three 90-minute Iyengar yoga classes in addition to a home practice each week.
Both the two class per week and three class per week groups noted significant decreases in their depressive symptoms. Asana practice has also been found to reduce the release of stress hormones like adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and cortisol, the main stress hormone.
Yoga Poses That Help Depression and Anxiety
Certain poses can have more specific impacts on mood regulation. Below are some of the best asanas to practice to target symptoms of depression and anxiety:
Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Due to its presence in the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) series, Downward Facing Dog is a staple pose in many yoga practices. The added benefit it provides through energizing the body may also help combat anxiety.
Wide Angle Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana)
As this pose positions your head lower than your heart, it functions as a mild inversion. This pose is excellent for all and especially for those who may not have a more advanced inversion in their practice. As an inversion, this pose can bring a feeling of calm as well as address concerns of fatigue.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
When looking for a way to calm the mind, Seated Forward Bend and variants of it are great pose options. While in this pose you can surrender to the effect of gravity stretching your hamstrings and simultaneously relieving stress.
Upward Facing Bow (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Great for an energy boost, this heart opener has been found to improve circulation. Through movement in the spine, it also stimulates your nervous system and opens your chest to positivity.
Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) and Plow Pose (Halasana)
Typically taught together, these poses can be used to stabilize your mood. Due to their ability to calm the nervous system and balance emotions, pairing these two poses together can aid with relieving tension, irritability, and anxiety.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
This restful pose calms the brain to help reduce stress. By providing us an opportunity to breathe fully into our back, it is also noted for releasing back and spinal muscles and calming nerves. As an internal turning pose, this position can also be used in a practice of Pratyahara or withdrawal of one’s senses.
The two Sanskrit words that form Pranayama, “prana” meaning breath or life force and “Ayama” meaning to extend or control, give us a clear understanding of the term. Pranayama is a practice of breathing techniques intended to extend and control the breath or life force.
Another key element in the study of Iyengar yoga classes was the use of coherent breathing. By their methods, coherent breathing involves gentle inhalations and exhalations through the nose at an average 5 bpm rate.
This method of breathing, in which it is intentionally sustained and controlled can be recognized as pranayama. Breathing is an important part of the benefits yoga provides because of its direct impact on the nervous system.
Particular breathing patterns, for example, 2-1 breathing in which the length of exhalation is double the duration of the inhalation, have been found to target the autonomic nervous system.
Through this pattern, the impact of the sympathetic nervous system is reduced and the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system is increased, minimizing arousal and maximizing relaxation.
Pratyahara meaning withdrawal of one’s senses is a practice in sensory deprivation. By practicing drawing inward we increase our focus and concentration, pulling away from other external distractions.
This inward focus keeps up the present, so the mind isn’t free to wander to anxious thoughts and feel overwhelmed. Focusing inwardly also allows us to find peace and calm regardless of the environment. Maintaining a singular internal focus, minimize the impact external stressors and other distracting factors may play on our wellbeing.
Dharana means focused concentration and works closely with the previous limb of pratyahara. Fixing the mind on one focus, either a mantra, one’s breathing, or an external object stops the mind from drifting and allows for introspective focus.
Dharana and Dhyana are linked such that they lead into each other. While Dharana is the state of focus in the mind, Dhyana is the active process of focusing. We begin with a focus on meditation and when were become fully absorbed in that focus that is when we actually experience the practice of meditation.
Through Dharana and Dhyana, we find meditation which is another practice that has been found to reduce the impact of an exaggerated stress response in individuals with depression.
When the perceived stress is minimized, the physiological impacts of arousal which perpetuate the physical symptoms of anxiety or stress are also reduced.
This physical control can benefit those not yet suffering from any depression disorders. Current research suggests brain changes as a result of chronic stress may contribute to depression and anxiety so halting those changes by reducing stress may be beneficial as preventative care.
The eighth limb of Samadhi is the final step in which we reach enlightenment or bliss. In this spiritual state of harmony, we find oneness in which the mind becomes aware and still.
Seeking this as a practice helps us to find acceptance and appreciation of our present state. When you accept where you currently are, accept any discomfort, and accept any agitation, you begin to build emotional resilience.
Often times we seek to find this acceptance while on our yoga mats through finding ease in challenging poses, but working to find this acceptance off the mat and in depression or anxiety can also help shift our focus and perception of our situation.
How Immediately Will I See Changes in Behavior?
While the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine study ran for 12 weeks, changes in the Beck Depression Inventory-II, a self-scoring assessment for detecting depression, were noted in the first, four-week evaluation.
The exact time and how you will see changes will vary by person, type of disorder and many other factors but maintaining a consistent practice of at least two sessions a week will likely have a positive impact.
Seek to find a practice of asanas as well as selections from the other limbs to most effectively feel the benefits yoga can bring.
Commit to yourself and commit to your practice. With time you will find ease and regain hope.