Mental 

How to Use Yoga for Anxiety and Depression

October 06, 2020 5 min read

Woman on yoga mat meditating

Yoga is an ancient healing method that people have used for thousands of years. While modern yoga is often associated with physical fitness, it was originally intended as a mental relaxation technique to still the mind before meditation.

Yoga remains an effective form of therapy for promoting a calm state of mind. In fact, a growing body of research shows how the positive mental benefits of yoga make it an effective treatment for anxiety disorders and clinical depression.

In the final installment of our four-part series on the healing benefits of yoga, we uncover the science-backed benefits of yoga for anxiety — and how to start your own practice.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to fear and perceived environmental threats. In some instances, where danger is near, anxious thoughts and feelings help keep you alert so you can quickly escape from harm’s way. When anxious thoughts and feelings interfere with daily functioning in someone’s life, it signifies the presence of an anxiety disorder(1).

People with anxiety disorders are in a constant flight-or-fight state. This means that the body is constantly responding to anticipated danger with a surge of adrenaline — the chemical meant to help your body flee threatening situations quickly (or stay and fight)(2).

Adrenaline causes a number of bodily responses, including:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Rapid breathing
  • Pale or flushed skin and dilated pupils
  • Altered memory recall
  • Muscle tension and trembling

These symptoms occur because the body is trying to preserve its energy for survival. While these experiences are helpful in the instance of actual danger, excessive anxiety can cause a person to remain fearful and worried about the future even when no threats are present(3).

What is depression?

Depression is another common mental health challenge associated with anxiety. Characterized by chronic low mood, depression is a psychiatric disorder(5).

While it’s normal to feel sad and tired from time to time, depression lasts longer than ordinary mood fluctuations and interferes with daily life.

Common symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and anxiety
  • Lack of interest in social activities and hobbies
  • Sleep disturbances, including insomnia and oversleeping
  • Eating changes, including lack of appetite or consuming more than usual
  • Difficulty focusing on everyday tasks(6)
Hand on knee of person meditating outdoors

Depression and anxiety

Anxiety and depression are often experienced simultaneously, yet they both have different symptoms, causes and treatments.

Unlike anxiety, which is associated with fear, worry and tension regarding future events or perceived dangers, people with depression tend to focus on past events or painful memories.

People with depression aren’t as worried about the future and tend to focus more on their current feelings of hopelessness(8).

The link between depression and anxiety

The link between depression and anxiety is prevalent, yet complex. Half of all people who experience depression also have anxiety that interferes with work and life. People with anxiety are more likely to experience depression because anxious feelings and constant thoughts of worry can contribute to low self-esteem(9).

High-functioning anxiety and depression — where symptoms fuel a person’s success and overachievement — is an even more dangerous condition because it often goes unnoticed. Over time, high-functioning anxiety and depression cause elevated inflammation and stress hormones that can lead to chronic illness.

Individuals who experience high-functioning anxiety and depression are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, stroke and additional mental disorders such as substance abuse(10).

The science of yoga for anxiety

Hatha yoga, the most popular type of yoga practiced in the United States, is a promising treatment for people with anxiety. Hatha yoga is an umbrella term for the physical branch of yoga; therefore, all types of yoga postures we practice today fall under this category.

It’s unclear which aspects of Hatha yoga help alleviate symptoms of anxiety; however, scientific hypotheses believe the combination of meditation, breathwork and physical postures help reduce anxiety symptoms(11).

Other researchers suggest that yoga’s anxiolytic effects are caused by biomechanical or physiological processes. In the same way that other forms of exercise are beneficial for anxiety, yoga is a natural and enjoyable way to alleviate stress and worry while improving one’s mood.

The social aspect of being in a group yoga class may also be helpful for elevating self-esteem and self-worth(12).

Additional studies show that the positive effects of yoga for anxiety don’t take long to manifest. In a study on 52 women, instances of stress, anxiety and depression decreased significantly after just 12 sessions of Hatha yoga.

Yoga is believed to be more effective than other forms of exercise for treating anxiety and depression because it directly involves the regulation of thoughts and feelings.

In turn, the mindfulness aspect of yoga helps moderate the central nervous system, which regulates the hormones and nerve impulses that play a role inmental health conditions(13).

Woman sitting with legs crossed on yoga mat

The best type of yoga for anxiety

Additional research sheds light on certain types of hatha yoga that are best for anxiety and depression. For example, Iyengar yoga has been proven as an effective treatment for clinical depression and major depressive disorder.

Iyengar yoga is a practice focused on alignment and often relies on the use of props, such as blocks and straps, to achieve a well-aligned physical posture. Unlike vinyasa yoga, which is a more cardiovascular-intensive, flow-based yoga style, Iyengar yoga focuses on longer holds.

As a result, students of Iyengar spend more time focusing on breath and mental awareness, which helps cultivate peace and calm(14).

In a study on 30 people with clinical depression, three months of high frequency (123 hours) and low frequency (87 hours) yoga significantly improved the major symptoms of anxiety. Areas improved included tranquility, positivity and physical exhaustion, all of which greatly improved sleep quality. General symptoms of depression also improved.

This study suggests that Iyengar yoga is a promising treatment for anxiety symptoms, including depression — especially when prescribed by a physician and used in combination with other proven therapies(15).

How to start yoga when you have anxiety

Starting a new exercise regimen when you struggle with anxiety can feel overwhelming. However, there are a few things to help you feel motivated to start a yoga program, regardless of your experience or fitness level.

The following tips can help you start using yoga for anxiety:

  • Start slow and go at a pace that feels manageable for you
  • Remember that there’s no right or wrong way to do yoga
  • You can always rest in child’s pose or lie down on your back if you need a break
  • You don’t need to a certain flexibility or fitness level to practice yoga
  • Consider watching videos at home to learn the foundations before joining an in-person class
  • Talk to the instructor before class to make sure it’s the right practice for you

Lastly, the most important thing to remember is that Hathayoga has been clinically proven to help alleviate many symptoms of depression and anxiety.

If you keep this in mind, you might feel motivated to persevere even when the practice feels challenging.

In summary

The physical practice of yoga, along with its mindfulness and breathwork practices, make it a powerful antidote for stress and overwhelm.

Hatha yoga, and Iyengar yoga in particular, have been proven to reduce and even alleviate multiple symptoms of anxiety and depression.

While much of Western culture has minimized yoga to a simple workout, research shows that its benefits extend much further. Scientific studies prove that yoga can help with widespread health challenges, including anxiety and depression, chronic pain, digestive ailments and sleep disorders. Overall, the promising science of yoga shows that it can significantly improve the quality of life for people of all ages.

Michelle Polizzi, Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice