You probably know that alongside therapy, yoga can help ease depression. But whatever the studies say, it can still feel impossible to whip out your mat, choose a yoga video, and actually get started when you're feeling sadder than usual. Learning some yoga flows that help with depression can help eliminate some of the emotional barriers that get in the way of practicing.
"Yoga anchors us into the present moment," says Laila Howard, a lead yoga instructor at YogaSix Midtown in Atlanta, Georgia. And while depression might make the present moment feel terrible, Howard says that yoga helps people focus on soothing breathwork that calms their nervous system, rather than the painful thoughts that often accompany a spell of intense sadness. "Yoga trains the body in moments of work and stress to cultivate the healing breaths that will bring the mind and body to a place of acceptance, no matter the obstacle," she tells Bustle. In other words, it won't just help you feel better in the moment — it can also give you some calming tools that might come in handy the next time you're feeling low.
Of course, for folks who both practice yoga and live with depression (I'm raising my hand in the corner), it's clear that yoga does not magically "cure" you, nor is it a treatment for depression on its own — that's something to talk to a therapist or doctor about. But learning short, easy yoga flows for depression can help make fitness practices much more accessible for folks who deal with mental health struggles on a daily basis. Because if you can get started, a solid session or two, or even a daily practice, can make your yoga mat — and the rest of the world — a lot more approachable.
How To Build Your Yoga Practice
When everything feels overwhelming, you don't have to pressure yourself into intense movement. You can just breathe. "During those depressive times when you're lethargic and don’t want to roll out your mat, firstly you need some positive vibes around you," says Ashish Painuly, a yoga instructor and founder of the yoga resource database fitsri. He suggests starting your practice while lying down if that's easier, stirring up calming energy by repeating your favorite mantra to yourself. Try something simple like "I will be OK" if you're having trouble.
"Once your body allows you to make little movements, you can add three-part breathing and some gentle yoga stretches to uplift your mood and energy level further," Painuly says. From there, you can build yourself up to more energetic poses — or you can keep it as low-key as you need.
What Yoga Poses Or Flows Are Helpful For Low Mood?
The barrier to entry into your practice can feel very high when your motivation and mood are down. "When we are depressed, choosing a yoga video feels so daunting," Painuly tells Bustle. "That's natural, because during depressive times we usually lose our patience and interest in things." Use a moment when you might feel a bit steadier to create a YouTube playlist of your favorite simple flows. Choose instructors that soothe you and make you feel good in your body. That way, you won't wind up doomscrolling through YouTube overwhelmed by options.
Still, sometimes it's less intimidating to just dive into a very simple flow that you can do on your own. Even if you haven't been practicing for long (or at all), you can learn a simple flow when you're feeling good that'll feel like a natural movement later.
Child's Pose Into Cat-Cow
Painuly suggests practicing child's pose into cat-cow to help get your blood flowing without demanding strenuous movements. "When you begin your yoga practice with child's pose, it lets you surrender those emotions, unwanted thoughts, and physical knots to the ground that causes depression," he explains. "Moreover, rolling up and down your body in the cat-cow pose releases the muscles' tension around the spine. This way our spine (AKA part of the central nervous system) starts working efficiently and we feel relaxed after doing this."
Simple Plank & Dog Flow
When you want to combat your depression with some more intensive movement, Painuly advises going from high plank to low plank, then from up dog and down dog. You'll be engaging your entire body in poses that are challenging enough to occupy your body and soothe your breath, but simple enough that you won't have to spend all your mental resources trying to remember what comes next.
Sun salutations can also help ease your angst. "Sun Salutation A is always a good place to begin," Howard says. "It links breath to movement, and it stretches and strengthens the body." Syncing each movement to your breath can also help you unlock parts of your body and emotions that depression closes off, she explains. "This practice can pull the focus out of the mind, into the body, and root you into the present. It also begins to expand the major muscles on the front and back sides of the body — more specifically, it exposes the area around your heart." Whether you're texting all day, depressed, or both, you might tend to hunch down through your chest and leave that area closed off both physically and emotionally, Howard says. "Opening it up can be scary, but is very healing and can even surface emotions that we've buried down."
"If you've ever felt physically lighter after doing yoga, deep hip stretching could be the culprit," Howard says. Your hips hold a lot of emotional and physical tension, she explains, "so deep hip stretches can be very healing and even unburdening." Because hip stretches can be emotionally cleansing, Howard suggests you try some hip-opening poses like pigeon or lizard.
As you're practicing, Painuly advises you to not get caught up on forcing yourself through a "proper" or long session. "Allow your yoga practice to be unconventional and abbreviated, and as flexible as you want it to be," he says. In other words, try not to pay attention to what you think you "should" do. Instead, give your body what it needs at the moment.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
Laila Howard, lead yoga instructor, YogaSix Midtown, Atlanta
Ashish Painuly, yoga instructor, founder of fitsri