Using Yoga to Treat Depression by Sarah Griesemer, Ph.D.
Most people who practice yoga will tell you that it makes you feel better. Some point to the cardiovascular benefits as the reason. Others believe it is the breathwork that allows them to relax. Others find that the vibrations of mantra soothe their bodies and quiet their minds. The reason why it’s easy to say yoga makes you feel better, but hard to prove, is that yoga is a complex practice. Regardless of how it works, yoga makes most people feel better when they are having a bad day.
Depression, though, is more than just the occasional bad day. Clinical depression is an enduring and pervasive feeling of sadness that affects your your relationships with others, your work, your interests in life, your appetite, sleep and more. Those with depression might have low energy and struggle to the things they used to enjoy. They might get caught up in ruminative and anxious thoughts that make it hard to think positively.
While we know that practicing yoga can help those who are depressed, research on yoga to date has generally looked at its individual components to explain its effect on mood. Studies show that the practice of asana (postures) boosts mood and decreases depression. Other studies look at individual pranayama (breathing) techniques or kriyas to see how they affect the mood. Perhaps it is when the pieces are assembled as a whole is when yoga has the true power to change one’s mood.
Practicing yoga has the ability to energize and calm. A vigorous yoga practice energizes the body by releasing feel-good endorphins, which can provide a strong boost to someone managing depression by activating the sympathetic nervous system. However, because yoga values balance through the principals of sthira and sukha (steadiness and ease), so all work is accompanied by practicing rest and release. The work of a vigorous practice allows for deeper relaxation and a stronger parasympathetic nervous response during final resting pose (savasana). People who are depressed tend to have a high stress response (increased stress hormones in their bloodstream, high blood pressure, muscle tension, etc). The combination of breathwork and body movement activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the relaxation response in our body. This relaxation response shuts off the stress response, and allows recovery to occur.
While depression can be helped significantly with yoga, certain practices may not be well suited for treating every type depression. For instance, individuals who tend to have racing minds and worrying thoughts might find that meditation practice increases feelings of anxiety. These individuals may find that a long, quiet savasana is overwhelming and may need a teacher who guides them through relaxation in this pose. Individuals who have a history of trauma (such as physical or sexual abuse) may find that some poses trigger their depression symptoms; for instance, child’s pose may feel too vulnerable for some people. Those with trauma histories may also be triggered unintentionally by yoga teachers who physically adjust students during a practice. Students with such histories should be encouraged to discuss this with a teacher ahead of time.
A good yoga therapy teacher can help a students suffering from depression establish a tailored yoga practice that will improve their symptoms. There are many yoga teachers in Austin that are trained in the mental health field and are especially sensitive to issues surrounding depression. Likewise, students may choose from taking group studio classes, private lessons, or even online classes through services such as YogaGlo. Another resource is Amy Weintraub, a yoga teacher who offers trainings, YouTube videos and media specifically focused on depression.