When I was in my early 20s, I’d often feel a dark cloud of depression descend over me. A bad mood would take hold for days or weeks or even months. I’d find myself spending hours on the couch watching television to escape my thoughts, or going out at night to drink. Once, the depression became so serious that I had to quit my (admittedly stressful) job. I knew there had to be a better way, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
Everything changed when I walked into a yoga class in New York City. I’d just broken up with the man I thought I was going to marry, I was getting ready to leave New York for graduate school in the Midwest—a trip I’d imagined we’d be making together—and my relationship with my parents had reached a new low. I felt alone in the world. Yet from that first yoga class, opening my heart up in bridge pose, allowing myself to rest deeply in shavasana, I experienced a new, and until then unknown, sense of lightness and ease. The depression started to lift, and as I attended more classes and made lifestyle changes in conjunction with my new practice, my mood changed for the better—and so did my life. Yoga alone didn’t cure my depression, but the philosophy and the practice have given me the tools to jump-start my system when I feel depression coming on.
Dr. Janeen Locker, a longtime yoga student and clinical psychologist, says that the characteristic symptoms of depression include a loss of interest or pleasure in life, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. What separates depression from the occasional sadness that most everyone experiences? “When the feelings start to impair daily functioning and your ability to participate in work, activities, relationships, and the like,” says Dr. Locker. Quitting my job because I was too sad to get out of bed in the morning? That was the sign of a real problem.
I asked Dr. Locker how and why yoga helps. “Yoga gives us an active role in healing. And by slowing down mental chatter through breath work, it helps facilitate self-acceptance,” she said. In other words, through practicing yoga, we become quieter and more grounded. “Yoga can help perfectionists as well as those who tend to be self-critical or lack self-confidence,” notes Dr. Locker.
Marla Apt, president of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, has been participating in a UCLA research project studying the effects of yoga on moods and emotional states, led by psychiatrists Dr. David Shapiro and Dr. Ian Cook, both of whom are on the UCLA faculty. Working with clinically depressed people who are taking antidepressants but responding only partially to the medication, the study had patients attend three yoga classes a week over an eight-week period. Researchers found that the yoga classes dramatically reduced levels of depression—so much so that afterward most of the research subjects wouldn’t have qualified as depressed enough to participate in the study in the first place.
Apt and her fellow yoga instructors used a three-pronged approach with their students: invigorating backbends, balance-bringing inversions, and calming restoratives. With inversions, says Apt, “you feel a oneness with yourself. Getting up into a handstand was a mood-lifting and empowering thing for even a few seniors in the study who had no idea they could do the pose safely and effectively.” For those who are ready to practice them, dropbacks into backbends can be extremely helpful as well.
“The goal in all these poses,” says Apt, “is to open people up and take them out of their shell. While we usually use yoga to draw the mind inward, here we need to turn people and their view of the world inside out.”
Because depression is exhausting, restoratives are also an important part of the recipe for emotional wellness. Using props and supports when practicing restorative poses is particularly important for those who are depressed. “When the body sinks, the mind sinks,” says Apt.
Apt and Locker both emphasize that attending a class, and drawing on the energy in the room, is more beneficial for those dealing with depression than practicing alone. Sometimes, though, getting to class may be too much for a depressed person, and a home practice may be a more realistic daily goal. Apt and Locker agree that when you’re feeling depressed, it is essential to practice some energizing poses—even when that’s the last thing you feel like doing.
Here’s a sequence Apt suggests for a home practice when you’re feeling down. It is recommended for those with a regular, consistent yoga practice. If you are not acquainted with the Iyengar approach to asana, some of these poses may be unfamiliar. Experiment by holding each posture for a few breaths longer than you hold the poses in your usual practice.
The Anti-Depression Sequence
Each of the following poses combines several depression-fighting elements into one posture for extra potency. For example, the chair shoulderstand is both an inversion and a restorative; viparita dandasana with the chair is simultaneously a backbend and an inversion; the supported bridge pose is a restorative backbend.
#1 Mountain Pose with Arms Overhead
(Urdhva Hastasana in Tadasana)
Stand in mountain pose with feet hip-distance apart and lift up through the legs and torso.
Stretch your arms overhead. Lengthen and spread the fingers and toes.
Why mountain pose? This is a good warm-up posture. The vigorous upward motion through the limbs and torso, and the spreading of the toes and fingers, will help invigorate your system and lift your spirits.
(Adho Mukha Vrikshasana)
Place both hands on the floor six inches from the wall, shoulder-distance apart.
Bring straight legs toward the wall.
Kick up one leg, and then the other.
Lift up through the arms, torso, and legs as you walk the heels up the wall.
Flex the feet and gaze at a point midway between the hands.
Note: Practitioners with weak joints, high blood pressure, or who are overweight should not attempt this pose without the help of a skilled and knowledgeable teacher. If you think you may be ready for this pose, but feel timid about trying to get up into a handstand, you probably have more of a chance of standing on your hands than you think. This pose is as much about balance and technique as it is about strength. Using the wall to catch your legs, press into your fingertips and up through the upper arms, growing taller and taller as you inch your feet up the wall. If you have difficulty keeping your arms straight, work with a strap tied directly above the elbows, keeping arms shoulder-distance apart, and drawing the arms in and up.
Modification: Downward-facing Dog
(Adho Mukha Shvanasana)
Those who are not yet practicing handstand can benefit from the inversion and strengthening properties of downward dog. Keep the arms strong and straight, lifting up through the limbs and spine. If possible, hold for one minute.
#3 Chair Backbend
Place a folded blanket across the seat of a folding chair.
Sit backward through the chair with your knees bent.
Hold onto the top of the chair back and lift your chest.
Lie back over the seat of the chair so that it supports your upper back (just below the shoulder blades).
Straighten the legs.
Loop your arms through the bottom rungs of the chair and hold the chair’s back legs.
#4 Shoulderstand with Chair
Position a folding chair about a foot away from the wall.
Pad the chair with a folded blanket and place two folded blankets on the floor beneath the seat of the chair.
Drape your knees over the back of the chair, holding onto the sides.
Lower the torso so that the head moves toward the floor.
Continue lowering until the back of the head rests on the floor and the shoulders rest on the edge of the blankets. The arms should move through the bottom of the chair; hold onto the back of the chair.
The sacrum rests on the chair as the legs lift up.
Pull on the legs of the chair with the arms and move the back ribs in toward the front body to open the chest.
Why the chair? Using the chair for the shoulderstand provides a more restful experience in the pose, and gives you the chance to remain here longer than usual. This variation also provides a slight backbend and opens the chest more than a regular shoulderstand.
#5 Supported Bridge Pose over Crossed Bolsters
Crisscross one bolster over another in the shape of a plus sign.
With your knees bent, lie down lengthwise on the top bolster and slide off until your shoulders just reach the floor.
Extend the legs straight, roll the shoulders under, and open the chest so that it lifts and spreads to the sides.
Rest your arms by your sides and stay for 5 to 10 minutes.
If your back is tender, place a block or another bolster under the feet.