Depression and anxiety are thoroughly modern complaints with at least one ancient solution: yoga. The poses, breathing exercises and meditation techniques of yoga have been shown to synergize neurobiological systems and to stimulate neurotransmitters, effects that help turn the tide on depressed moods.
A 2014 review of six studies in the journal Issues in Mental Health Nursing found that even one yoga class per week improved symptoms of depression. "Silver Yoga," a form of yoga adapted for older people, has been shown to be particularly helpful for depression in the elderly. Yoga has also been shown to improve sleep, which in itself can ameliorate depression and anxiety. For serious clinical depression, yoga isn't a substitute for professional care, but for many it's a powerful supporting tool.
Yoga for Depression
In the yogic view, depression and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, but with different qualities that call for different approaches. Nature is infused by three gunas, or basic qualities and good health depends on a harmonic balance among them.
For some, depression is characterized by an excess of tamas, the guna that has to do with energy stagnation or inertia. If too much tamas is your problem, you probably feel fatigued, lethargic and perhaps hopeless -- in other words, the "hard to get out of bed" kind of depression. The other 2 gunas are sattva, which is associated with purity and virtue, and rajas, which is associated with passion or activity.
From a yogic point of view, folks with this kind of tamasic depression are deficient in life force, known as prana. For shooting your way out of this variety of the blues, vigorous poses like Sun Salutations, as well as balancing poses such as Side Plank and Eagle pose can be helpful.
Back bend poses such as supported Savasana (with a bolster placed lengthwise under the torso), supported Bridge Pose and Camel Pose are particularly helpful because they open the heart chakra, free up your breathing and release tension.
Pranayama for Both Anxiety and Depression
Another flavor of depression (and not a nice one) is anxiety -- the tense, jumpy feeling that usually comes with a sensation that something bad is going to happen. This is caused by too much rajas, the guna that keeps you active, but when you experience it in excess, it can make you restless and edgy. Keeping your mind and body busy with yoga and mindfulness work helps curb this excessive energy and stops you from fixating on whatever is making you sad or agitated.
If you're more the depressive or low-energy tamasic type, pranayama (breathing practices) are a powerful tool for calming the inner energy winds. Yoga philosophy holds that most physical, mental and spiritual diseases occur because the prana, or life force, has gone out of balance. This is corrected by bringing your awareness back to the body, which is most effectively accomplished through exercises that challenge you to control your breath.
There are many variations on the theme of pranayama. Three-part breath, or dirga, is one of the first breathing techniques usually taught in yoga and one of the best for anxiety. To perform three-part breath, begin by inhaling until your lungs are full of air, mentally targeting your breath into your abdomen, ribcage and upper chest. Next, exhale completely, reversing the order. Dirga teaches you to bring awareness back to your body. It also oxygenates the blood, which does a lot to restore a sense of well-being.
For anxiety, more forceful breathing techniques such as Kapalabhati, also known as Skull Shining Breath and Breath of Fire, may help you burn off nervous energy. These may be more effective for depression than anxiety because they activate the central nervous system. At any rate, it's important to be mindful of the effect these exercises have on you and to adapt them to your own inclinations.