How powerful is yoga for depression?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter

How powerful is yoga for depression?

Can yoga compete with antidepressants?

Treat depression at home
Table of Contents

Yoga makes you calm, right? For sure, yoga makes you happier, right? Yoga helps you find your ‘center’. Everybody knows that… right?

Well…

If you attend a yoga class, you might hear phrases such as “This pose is known to lift depression”, “This pose is known to open up your heart”, or “This pose is known to relieve stress”.

Who knows this?

The yogic world is a place where ancient practice, personal stories, proven and unproven experience and research results are thriving together in one big new-old mess. And it’s a challenge to find the facts behind the promises. For example, can yoga actually relieve depression?

As it turns out, modern researchers are interested in finding the answer. And this article presents you with their facts.

It’s an attempt to bridge the traditional gap between East and West – to visit the junction where modern science makes an effort to test yoga’s effectiveness on depression.

At the end, you’ll get a 4-minute research-based yoga practice. The poses included were tested in a randomised controlled study from 2017 and had an immediate effect on participants’ energy levels and self-esteem.

Not bad, right?

Treat depression at home
Want to learn more?
Join our newsletter

Yoga for depression: dissecting the research field

Intuitively, using yoga for depression seems advantageous. Research findings are abundantly clear when it comes to the benefits of physical exercise on depression (and many other diseases). In addition, modern research clearly shows that mindfulness meditation will not only prevent the onset of depression, but relieve depressive symptoms. (Read more about exercise and depression HERE. And about Mindfulness for depression HERE.) So, having a regular practice which includes both elements – exercise and meditation – must be antidepressant, right?

Yup.

A 2020 research review, investigating the effectiveness of yoga for depression and anxiety, showed that yoga was effective both as a complementary therapy and a stand-alone treatment. Here’s what Dr. Nanthakumar (who conducted the study) suggests:

“This review has provided substantial insight to yoga as a complementary and/or stand-alone therapy for anxiety and depression which is much needed in this contemporary society… It is suggested that yoga be included as part of the physical education curriculum in learning institutions and as a recreational activity for staff in public and private organisations.”


Chandra Nanthakumar, 2020

Another research team, led by Dr. Cramer, analysed the results of 7 studies (obviously randomised controlled such), including 240 participants. They found yoga to be as effective as antidepressant medication for people with major depressive disorder.

“Yoga’s efficacy seems to be comparable to that of antidepressant medication.”


Cramer et al., 2017

Yoga as a depression treatment has been questioned due to the relatively low intensity level when compared to aerobic exercise (people who did the questioning must never have tried Ashtanga). It was thought that the amount of sweating and panting would predict how much depressive symptoms would decrease. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Research teams, such as Helgadóttir and colleagues, have found that light exercise, moderate exercise and vigorous exercise are all effective ways to treat depression and anxiety. Moving your body and letting your muscles work more than usual matters more than intensity.

In addition, yoga is effective against different types of pain conditions, such as lower back pain. And it has shown to decrease symptoms of alexithymia – the inability to identify and describe emotions.

Drawing from the studies above and many others like them, it’s safe to conclude that, yes, yoga reduces depression and anxiety.

Now, let’s complicate things.

What is yoga?

The problems with yoga for depression

To be able to determine whether yoga can serve as a viable treatment for depression, modern research must first find the answers to these questions:

  • What is yoga? The vast majority of research studies on yoga and depression explore the effects of different forms of Hatha yoga. And most yoga forms available in the Western world are Hatha. The problem is that Hatha yoga wears many different costumes, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, Kundalini, Iyengar, Power Yoga…. The list goes on.

    Hatha simply refers to the practice of physical yoga postures, often in combination with breathing exercises and meditation. But the research studies rarely specify which type of yoga was practiced, or which postures were performed, or in what order. And different styles of yoga can look very different from each other (if you’ve ever tried both Bikram and Vinyasa flow, you get my point).

    So, most yoga researchers don’t really know what the successful protocol looks like. Only that yoga works. This makes it difficult to compare results and to investigate which method is most effective and why.

  • What is the proper dosage? There is no standardised yoga protocol for depression. And we don’t yet know how much yoga is needed to recover. In some research studies, participants practice yoga every day. And in others, they only attend one yoga class a week. Sometimes yoga sessions are 90 minutes long, sometimes 30. Naturally, doing yoga once a week would probably give different results than practicing twice a day. Or perhaps not. My point is: we don’t really know.
So, more high quality research studies on yoga for depression are needed. Most studies DON’T…
  • …include enough participants,
  • compare yoga to established treatments,
  • report possible adverse events,
  • explain what type of postures, meditations and breathing exercises are used and in what order.

As Dr. Cramer and his team put it:

“Larger and adequately powered RCTs using non-inferiority designs are needed.”

Well spoken.

So, how do you know how to use yoga for your depression?

How to use yoga for depression

The good news is that even though we don’t have the exact yogic recipe for depression yet, research suggests that many different forms and quantities of yoga are antidepressant.

So for now, you can concentrate on the yoga form that suits you best. And use it in combination with psychotherapy or other forms of common depression treatments.

Here are a few things to consider before choosing your yoga class:

  • Elements. The available research suggests that yoga styles which include a combination of physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation are effective against depression. So, make sure you choose a practice with those elements.

  • Availability. If you’re a complete beginner, it’s recommended that you start your practice with the help of an experienced yoga teacher. Perhaps do an Internet search for yoga studios in your area and check them out.

  • Duration. Make sure to practice yoga for at least 1 hour a week, but preferably more than that.

If you’re eager to start right away, here comes a short yoga practice.

You probably don’t need a teacher for this. It’s almost impossible to hurt yourself with these exercises. You can do them right now, standing in front of the computer.

A 4-minute yoga practice for depression

A team of researchers from the UK, Poland and Portugal investigated the effects of yoga poses on energy levels and self-esteem. Their study suggests that a few minutes of doing yoga poses can have an immediate effect on your mood.

“This study demonstrates that positive effects of yoga practice can occur after performing yoga poses for only 2 min.”

Golec de Zavala et al., 2017

Would you like to try the yoga poses?

The researchers asked participants to do two of the following four yoga poses for 1 minute each. All poses showed positive effects on energy and self-esteem. So, choose your two favourites or do all four. After all, it will only take four minutes in total.

1. This is the first pose, called Tadasana:

Keep your spine straight and your chest lifted. Breathe calmly and hold for 1 minute.

2. Second pose, called Urdhva Hastasana:

Keep your spine straight and your chest lifted. Breathe calmly and hold for 1 minute.

3. Ready for the third pose? It’s called Garudasana:

Try to keep your shoulders low. Breathe calmly and hold for 1 minute.

4. The fourth yoga pose is the same as the last one. Just switch the arms:

Try to keep your shoulders low. Breathe calmly and hold for 1 minute.

Nice work! How do you feel?

I hope you found this to be an interesting experiment. If you want to know more about depression, exercise and meditation, check out the Flow Depression app. It’s free to download. And it includes a complete treatment programme for depression, focusing on antidepressant lifestyle changes.

In conclusion

The research on yoga for depression shows promising results. Some researchers suggest that yoga is as effective as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. More high quality studies are needed to determine what type of yoga and what dosage is most effective for treating depression.

Read more about exercise for depression here:
All you need to know about exercise and depression – How to build a treatment routine that lasts

And about meditation for depression here:
How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps – Quick guide to medication-free mindfulness treatment

Top 3 beginner meditations for depression – A psychologist’s guide on how to use meditation for depression

Thank you for your attention!

Table of Contents
Get our psychologist’s tips
Woman wearing Flow headset
Complete at-home depression treatment​
Medication free. Delivered to your doorstep.

Thank you
Check your email for updates

*No spam, ever. Emails are never shared.

Free trial

Try Flow for free, payment will be taken 30 days after the order date.

Treatment pads

You will receive automatic deliveries of your treatment pads directly to your door as part of the subscription service.

Buy device

You can buy your Flow device after 6 months of your subscription. When you are eligible, you can email us at support@flowneuroscience.com to purchase the headset for half of the full price.  

End subscription

You can end your subscription at any time and return your headset by following the return request here. There will be no refunds on subscriptions already paid. Once the request is submitted no further subscription payments will be taken.