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Treating Depression and Anxiety with Yoga

Can a regular yoga practice curb symptoms of anxiety and depression? We dive into the science to give you the answers.

Last Updated: Nov 1, 2021

woman doing yoga on a mat in front of a sunset

Yogic practice has roots that reach back thousands of years, involving much more than just the kinetic, posture-based meditation that’s grown into a massive industry in the west. Still, modern physical yogic practice can unlock other aspects of traditional yoga — including introspection and social ethics — while also potentially treating depression and anxiety effectively.

Over the past decade, interest in yoga as a treatment for mental health disorders has led to various studies on the topic. Most of these studies confirm what any long-time yoga practitioner would already know: yoga offers serious benefits for anyone suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

With the various yoga schools that have developed through the years, there’s something that should work for anybody. There are high-intensity classes that take place in sweltering environments and would challenge even seasoned athletes, as well as low-key classes that focus on gentle stretching and breathing.

Relief for depression, anxiety, and stress

Several studies looking at yoga as a treatment for depression and anxiety offer convincing evidence of the practice’s efficacy. Some of these studies look exclusively at how consistent yoga affects women, while others take a broad look at the field of study to offer the most comprehensive picture possible.

In every case, participants reported reduced levels of stress, elevated mood, and calmed nerves. But how does yoga affect the body and the mind so profoundly?

Yoga and the fight-or-flight response

The relationship between your sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response and anxiety is somewhat intuitive. The body responds to perceived threats with an elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, and other symptoms we associate with high levels of stress and even panic attacks.

In recent years, scientists have made fascinating connections between this response and depression in ways that may at first seem counterintuitive. A depressed person whose illness prevents them from getting out of bed may not seem like a person in the middle of a fight or flight response. But in many cases of depression — especially severe depression — that stress response has been suspended. The terms used for a suspended fight or flight response are arrested anger and arrested escape, respectively.

Life events, neurochemical imbalances, and other stimuli can cause an experience of stress or depression that activates a fight-or-flight response specific to that stress or depression. This creates a negative feedback loop: your body tries to flee stress but cannot, so your stress increases, and your body tries to flee this new stress but cannot, and so on.

Yoga can counteract some effects of stress in cases of both anxiety and depression, no matter which school of yoga you follow.

Breathing is integral to yogic practice, with some schools prescribing specific breathing techniques and others allowing the body to dictate its breathing patterns within movements and postures. In any case, yoga tends to slow down breathing and align it with movement. That results in a reduction in cortisol production and blood pressure as the body’s fight-or-flight response subsides.

Most yogic practice also involves some stretching, which can reduce daily pains and increase circulation. Like your slowed, controlled breathing, these stretches can calm the sympathetic nervous system and reduce your stress response.

Yoga creates a positive feedback loop: as you practice, it relaxes you, and the deeper you relax, the farther you can take your practice. Its direct opposition to the mechanisms of depression and anxiety is clear, and the science supports it.

Which type of yoga is right for you?

Scientists generally agree that physical activity plays a vital role in mental health. But not everyone has the time or physical aptitude for jumping into a 10K. Yoga offers the benefits of physical activity on a sliding scale of ability. Obesity, asthma, chronic pain, and disability are barriers to various sports and exercises, but yoga is adaptable.

Knowing which yoga school is right for you before trying it out can help you stay with the practice. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most popular types of yoga.

Hatha yoga

Hatha is among the gentlest forms of yoga and is ideal for anyone just getting started or those who have been away from yoga for many years. Its postures and movements are slow and simple, and its classes are readily available at many gyms and schools.

Vinyasa yoga

Vinyasa yoga is ideal if you want to break a sweat and reap more of the musculoskeletal benefits of yogic practice. It can be a little too fast and complicated for those new to yoga, but it’s a great way to step up your practice after you’ve gained a degree of comfort in something like Hatha.

Kundalini yoga

With its focus on breathing and meditation, Kundalini yoga is a spiritual yoga that focuses on clearing the mind. Its simple postures aren’t too challenging, but those seeking a more traditional yoga experience may leave their first few sessions wondering if they accomplished anything.

Ashtanga yoga

Experienced practitioners and athletes often gravitate toward Ashtanga. It builds strength and flexibility by syncing your breathing up with challenging movements and postures. This school has some of the best muscle-building potential but is not ideal for beginners.

Iyengar yoga

If you have any physical limitations that might prevent you from engaging in other yogic practices, Iyengar is likely your best bet. It focuses on spinal alignment through slow, deliberate postures and the help of elastic exercise bands, balls, and blocks.

Bikram yoga

Also known as hot yoga, Bikram takes place in an environment where the temperature sits just above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The increased heat helps to loosen up muscles more quickly and can contribute to certain mental states akin to a runner’s high. Still, talk of the sweat eliminating toxins is ignorant of the body’s actual waste management processes.