Yoga for Depression

Everyone has moments of depression. Can yoga and meditation help with depression? “Research shows that antidepressants are mainly effective with individuals who suffer from severe depression. Those with a mild-to-moderately depressed mood can be helped from exercise and physical activity” (Mason & Birch, 2019). YOGA can be a form of exercise AND physical activity, and it can be more accessible for those suffering with depression. So let’s get to it….

Yoga for Depression

By arching the spine, the sympathetic nervous fibers are stimulated, which may help to lift a person out of lethargy."
-Yoga for Mental Health, H.Mason. & K.Birch, 2019.


  • Slow Breathing Techniques: are a vital part of yoga practice for alleviating depression.

  • Yoga breathing and meditation increase PNS activity, which is beneficial in depression even if the person is feeling lethargic.

  • Technical Mumbo Jumbo: People who are depressed often feel tired but not rested. “Increased parasympathetic response activates the body’s natural healing reserves and consequently supports an increase in energy. Aligned with this greater parasympathetic activity is an increase in GABA levels, which may be mediated by an increase in certain kinds of stimulation of the vagus nerve that occur through slow breathing, and, over time, increased HRV. HRV (heart rate variability) indicates a flexibility to move between the PNS and the SNS, thereby supporting psychological resiliency” (Mason & Birch, 2019, p.55).

  • Bottomline: Learn to slow down your breath. Particularly the exhale.


There are a few different breathing technique that can be used for those with depression that can help slow the nervous system and create a calm. “Deep breathing may induce short-term feeling of activation and vitality” (Mason & Birch, 2019).

  1. Dirga breath (3-part breath technique): This technique is not stressful on lungs and requires them to work, therefore increasing wakefulness and lifting energy. It expands the lungs and deepens the breath – increasing oxygen consumption and release of carbon dioxide. or

  2. Alternate-nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama):

  3. Ujjayi breath:

Dirga Breath

3-Part Breath Technique

Alternate-Nostril Breathing

Ujjayi Breath

"The Ocean Breath"

EXERCISE: “Breath of Joy”: This exercise is great for lifting your spirits and for those who are feeling depressed. After you finish with this exercise, take a moment in mountain pose, closing your eyes, and notice the sensations in your breath, heart rate, fingers/hands and throughout your body. Slow your breath down, relax your facial muscles and add a half-smile on your face.


FIRST: Inhale through the nose. First, fill up your lungs 1/3 of the way and do the first motion (reaching out in front of you). Slight bend in your knees.

SECOND, Fill up your lungs 1/3 more and open your arms to the side. You can keep your knees bent or straight the knees.

THIRD, Fill your lungs the rest of the way and reach to the heavens. Legs can be straightened or kept bent.

FINALLY, exhale out through the mouth in one breath, moving into a chair pose (or forward fold). You can make the sound “Ha” as you exhale or say the word “lum”.

End the "Breath of Joy" by standing in MOUNTAIN POSE for a minute and being mindful of how you are feeling. Calming the breath and noticing the different sensations in your body.

Video: Breath of Joy


4-6 (4 counts in through the nose & 6 counts out through the nose): if you are feeling revved up, you need to slow down your exhalation.

If you are feeling agitated, hold sphinx pose for several 4-6 breath cycles, then come back to child’s pose while creating the mmmm sound. (See explanation in asana poses: sphinx is a form of backbend positioning).

4-4 (4 inhale & 4 exhale): if you are feeling sluggish, this even breath helps balance your nervous system.

Breathe through nose: There are many health benefits for breathing with the nose, including increased oxygen uptake, nitrous oxide production, and filtering the air before it reaches the lungs. Breathing through the nose also stimulates the prefrontal cortex which is involved with higher mental functioning, decision making, self observation, emotional control, language and reasoning. (Here’s an excellent TedTalk on the breath “Change your breath, Change your world

Change your Breath, Change your World

TED TALK by Lynsie McKeown

Exercise: Sphinx Pose – Move into a sphinx pose. Hold this pose as you take 4 counts in through the nose and 6 counts out through the nose. Go through this breathing technique a few times as you allow your facial muscles to relax and maybe even adding a half-smile to your face.

Sphinx Pose

Elbows go under the shoulders. Palms down. Shoulders back and down. Chin up. Facial muscles relaxed. You can even move into the wrong position to feel the difference, then moving into the right one by lifting your spine/neck, shoulders back and down.


Asana are postures or poses used during a yoga practice. Studies show that an asana-based yoga practice that uses few breathing or meditation components showed little evidence of effectiveness. This means a strong yoga class isn’t helpful to those with depression until there are breathing techniques or meditation elements to the practice. As a contrast, “interventions that used breathing and/or meditation as a primary focus of their yoga program showed strong positive effects” for individuals dealing with depression (Mason & Birch, 2019, p.56).

  • A yoga practice can include all movements: forward bends, back, side-to-side, twisting.

  • Backbend (or form of backbend that arches the spine): backbends elevated mood more than other postures, backbends are stimulating.

  • KEY: “By arching the spine, the sympathetic nervous fibers are stimulated, which may help to lift a person out of lethargy.

  • POSES: Cobra (bhujangasana), upward facing bow, wheel, sphinx.

  • FOCUS: During yoga practice, a person should explore what is occurring for them (don’t put value on feelings, but simply be aware). You are not a judge, but a scientist.

  • Anxiety-based depression: backbend (or form of) would include a longer hold, and can include a supported posture using props, and use a 3-part breath (dirga pranayama). That way the bend is less likely to provoke anxiety. Pose: legs-up-the-wall (viparita karani) is helpful with anxiety-based depression.

  • Remember: there should be a warm-up prior to any backbend (or form of) through sun salutations or other spine warm ups prior to slowing down and bending the back.

  • Guided Relaxation/Ending practice: Depression leaves a person depleted. It’s important to end with relaxation like yoga nidra or other guided forms of relaxation. It is discouraged to use long periods of silent savasana, while the mind tends to be attached to negative thinking during depressive episodes. Allow guided relaxation techniques where the person can be anchored through the yoga teachers voice.

Other Asanas (Postures)



Straight Arm Cobra – Listen to your body. Your back should be comfortable bending where you can take a few breaths while comfortably holding this pose.


What yoga does is to give people the tools for managing their depressive symptoms. This encourages empowerment through obtaining an “internal locus of control” or “self-efficacy”. Studies show that a drop in depressive symptoms occur when we increase a person’s sense of self-control.

Yoga helps a person develop a present-moment awareness – which helps to increase feelings of self-efficacy, an important factor needed in the recovery of depression.

Resources: Most of these references stem from a recently published book called Yoga for Mental Health edited by Heather Mason and Kelly Birch. It’s an excellent source to better understand how certain disorders impact the brain, body and mind – and how yoga and meditation helps each of these areas.