Using Yoga To Fight Depression

By Michael Quesada August 02, 2018

Using Yoga To Fight Depression


Yoga's capacity to reduce stress and ease the mind is common knowledge in the yoga community.  As a matter of fact, there has been a growing of yogis (yoga practitioners) in the West as a result of this pleasantly calm, personal experience--and the number keeps on rising ever since the 1970s.

The benefits of yoga, however, have had far extended to address more serious psychological issues.  In fact, the Harvard Mental Health Letter suggested in recent studies that yoga helps with anxiety and depression, considered as two of the leading mental health problems that affect an estimated one in 15 adults in any given year.

People with depression, in particular, often struggle in getting the health care that they need.  In most cases, they resort to medications that may cause more harm than good in the long-term. Hence, others are eager to explore alternative ways of coping with depression using a more natural approach, including yoga.

How Yoga Can Fight Depression

How does Yoga work?

While popular culture sees yoga as a fitness exercise, it is actually a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices that manifest in the form of physical posture, breathing, and meditation.

Its origins could be traced back to more than 20,000 years ago in India as one of Hinduism’s philosophies.  The word "yoga" is an actual Sanskrit word that means "to control" or "to unite,” or to put it in context, “the union of self and spirit.”  In China and Japan, yoga is also a significant part of Buddhism in the area of meditation.

"Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, and to the self."

-The Bhagavad Gita

Over time, yoga has been widely practiced as a form of physical workout based upon asanas or physical poses to promote improved control of mind and body as well as to enhance well-being.  It has even branched out to multiple disciplines which vary in focus and methodologies.  To name, these are:

Depression and its Symptoms

The American Psychiatric Association defines depression (major depressive disorder) as a mental illness that causes feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities which adversely affects how one thinks and behaves.  It can strike anytime, but most likely takes place during the late teens to mid-20s.

Yoga and Depression

Depression among women is also more common than men due to hormonal changes that they go through, as a result of puberty and during and after pregnancy.  In fact, studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime.

According to the DSM-5, a manual doctors use to diagnose mental disorders, one has depression when he or she experiences five or more of these symptoms for at least two weeks:

  1. A depressed mood during most of the day
  2. Feeling tired or have a lack of energy almost every day.
  3. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt almost every day.
  4. Trouble focusing, remembering details, and making decisions
  5. Sleeping difficulty almost every day
  6. Having no interest or pleasure in many activities
  7. Constant thoughts about death or suicide
  8. Experiencing sad, anxious, or empty feelings
  9. Restlessness or slowing down
  10. Overeating or not eating
  11. Weight loss or gain
  12. Irritability
  13. Headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that don’t go away or get better with treatment

Yoga and Depression

To further diagnose depression, psychiatrists use the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, today’s most widely used assessment instrument for depression where a patient is given 21 questions relating to his present state.  The overall score describes the severity of the condition.

Once clinically diagnosed with depression, patients are prescribed to take anti-depressants or undergo psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  For severe depression left untreated, doctors may prescribe Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), a medical treatment that involves brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia.

How Yoga Fights Depression

As a physical activity, yoga slows down heart rate, lowers blood pressure, increases brain volume, and normalizes stress hormones and neurotransmitters that are partly responsible for one’s mood.

Yoga and Depression

For instance, people with depression experience low serotonin levels.  Yoga, in this case, when performed increases the happy hormone serotonin in the body.  Also, yoga produces anti-depressant effects with the production of calming neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which helps ease the symptoms of depression.

Meanwhile, the meditation aspect allows one to clear the mind, live in the present, and eventually strengthen this body-mind connection.

“Yoga has become increasingly popular in the West, and many new yoga practitioners cite stress-reduction and other mental health concerns as their primary reason for practising,” said Lindsey Hopkins, PhD, of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

It is no wonder that taking classes twice a week may help ease depression, according to a study from Boston University.

The San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center has also seen the benefits of yoga, particularly hatha yoga—one that emphasises physical exercises, along with meditative and breathing exercises, to enhance well-being. 

In this study, researcher Lindsey Hopkins, PhD, studied 23 male veterans and enrolled them in twice-weekly yoga classes for eight weeks.  On a 1-10 scale, the average enjoyment rating for the yoga classes scored 9.4.  All participants said they would recommend the program to other veterans.

Yoga and Depression

After eight weeks, participants with high depression scores before the yoga program had a significant reduction in depression symptoms.  Her findings suggest that hatha yoga has antidepressant effects.

More studies supporting yoga

Meanwhile, Maren Nyer, PhD, and Maya Nauphal, BA, of Massachusetts General Hospital, took notice of the positive effects of Bikram yoga— one consisting of a series of 26 postures, including two breathing exercises an practiced in a room heated to 35–42 °C (95–108 °F).  

In a pilot study of 29 adults enrolled in Bikram yoga programs at least twice-weekly in eight weeks, researchers saw significantly reduced symptoms of depression and improved other secondary measures among the participants, including quality of life, optimism, and cognitive and physical functioning.

Even those whose depression is in chronic stages, or clinically depressed for an average of 11 years, found solace in yoga.

In the first study, 12 patients participated in nine weekly yoga sessions of approximately 2.5 hours each.  The researchers measured participants’ levels of depression, anxiety, stress, rumination and worry before the yoga sessions, directly after the nine weeks and four months later.  Scores for depression, anxiety and stress decreased throughout the program, a benefit that persisted four months after the training.  Rumination and worry did not change instantly after the treatment, but at follow up rumination and worry were decreased for the participants. 

“These studies suggest that yoga-based interventions have promise as an intervention for depressed mood and that they are feasible for patients with chronic, treatment-resistant depression.” -Nina Vollbehr

More research on yoga and helping to ease depression can be found here.


Yoga is one of the ways to ease up one’s mood and keep depression at bay.   As a fitness routine, yoga increases blood circulation, improves flexibility, and enables the production of the happy hormone serotonin. 

The elements of meditation and controlled physical movement, deep breathing and stretching make yoga a potent fighter of depression — a mental illness that is increasingly affecting the lives of millions of people worldwide, largely women and young adults.

Similarly, it is also important to note the while depression is a real illness, help is readily available.  In fact, depression is among the most treatable of mental disorders with 80 per cent to 90 per cent of patients responding positively to treatment.

In this case, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely related, but are essentially the same.  Although there is no substantial acknowledgement yet of yoga as an actual antidote to depression, the evidence is growing that yoga practice offers a low-risk, high-yield result in improving one’s overall health.

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Using Yoga to fight Depression

Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.

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