How Yoga Can Help with Depression, Anxiety, Anger, and Grief

Front view of young adult with shoulder-length natural hair wearing yoga pants and tank top and stretching on yoga matAs a holistic psychotherapist who has had a daily yoga practice for almost 15 years, I am very well acquainted with the many ways yoga can support one’s emotional journey. Whether you are dealing with anxiety, anger, grief, depression, or feeling overwhelmed, yoga can cheer you up or soothe your soul.

In addition to hatha yoga, the most commonly practiced form in the West, there is also yin, restorative, ashtanga, vinyasa, kundalini, and many other styles of this ancient spiritual art.

The following mini-primer describes some of the more mainstream types of yoga:

  • Yin holds seated or prone poses to open the hips, pelvis, and lower spine. Poses are held for between three and five minutes. Yin targets connective tissues, such as the ligaments, bones, and even the joints of the body that normally are not exercised much in a more active style of asana practice. It is a meditative practice that allows you to go deeply into your body and breath.
  • Restorative uses a variety of props to calm, rest, and soothe the body-mind. By feeling physically supported, tense muscles let go, and you can breathe more deeply and engage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
  • Ashtanga is a rigorous, choreographed style that wonderfully allows your mind to both focus and be free, especially if it is practiced regularly to the point of memorizing the sequence.
  • Vinyasa is a hatha flow that goes seamlessly from one pose to the next.
  • Kundalini uses Sanskrit mantras, breath work, and repetitive motions to energize the body and calm the nervous system.

All yoga focuses on the breath while building endurance, strength, and flexibility. Different styles can be used on different days, depending on how you feel.

The following are some ways yoga can support you:

Anxiety

Forward folds, inversions, alternate nostril breathing, and restorative yoga all can allay anxiety and calm the nervous system. The practice of yoga nidra (yogic sleep) is incredibly relaxing, even though the entire practice is done in corpse pose, lying on your back. Surprisingly, vigorous practices, such as kundalini and ashtanga, can also be helpful as they wring out excess energy. However, since they can ratchet up anxiety in some people, it is best to experiment and see what works for you.

Depression

Backbends, heart-opening poses, inversions, hatha vinyasa, kundalini, and ashtanga energize you and combat the fatigue that often accompanies depression. For depression with agitation, yin and restorative yoga work to both balance and revitalize your body-mind.

Grief

Grief is such a shape-shifter, cycling from depression to anger to anxiety to guilt, that all kinds of yoga can be beneficial, depending on the emotion of the moment. A standing and seated hatha vinyasa practice can be both enlivening and grounding, while alternate nostril breathing balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Anger

Anger can feel both physically empowering and exhausting; so, depending on the way your anger is manifesting in your body, you may want to choose an energizing practice such as ashtanga, kundalini, or hatha vinyasa, or a relaxing, slower one such as yin or restorative. With slower yoga, there is more of an opportunity to tune in to what is fueling your anger and learn to sit with it while it moves through you.

Rumination

Inversions such as headstands and shoulder stands literally and figuratively turn your world upside down, which can be helpful in changing one’s view of any situation, especially one that has worn a rut in your brain. Twists beautifully wring out various emotional states and old ways of looking at things.

Feeling Overwhelmed

Generally speaking, a restorative or yin style is best to calm the adrenal glands and activate your parasympathetic nervous system. A 4-4-4 breath practice will also slow your heartbeat and can be done anywhere. (Breathe in to a count of four, retain your breath for a count of four, and exhale to a count of four. Five cycles of this is usually enough to have a noticeable effect.) Child’s pose and corpse pose both allow the nervous system to recover to some extent from life’s stresses, especially if they are held for five minutes or more.

All yoga can help you ride the waves of your emotions. By familiarizing yourself with a variety of yoga styles, you can tailor your practice to the challenge du jour.

References:

  1. Brown R.P., et al. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Part I – Neurophysiologic Model. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, No. 1, pp. 189–201.
  2. Brown R.P., et al. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic Breathing in the Treatment of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Part II – Clinical Applications and Guidelines. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11, No. 4, pp. 711–17.
  3. Janakiramaiah, N., et al. (2000). Antidepressant Efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in Melancholia: A Randomized Comparison with Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Imipramine. Journal of Affective Disorders, 57, No. 1–3, pp. 255–59.
  4. Khalsa, S.B. (2004). Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention: A Bibliometric Analysis of Published Research Studies. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 48, No. 3, pp. 269–85.
  5. Kirkwood, G., et al. (2005). Yoga for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of the Research. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39, No. 12, pp. 884–91.
  6. Pilkington, K., et al. (2005). Yoga for Depression: The Research Evidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 89, No. 1–3, pp. 13–24.
  7. Saper, R.B., et al. (2004). Prevalence and Patterns of Adult Yoga Use in the United States: Results of a National Survey. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 10, No. 2, pp. 44–49.
  8. Streeter, C.C., Whitfield, T.H., Owen, L., et al. (2010). Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(11):1145-1152. doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0007.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Wayne

    Wayne

    February 3rd, 2016 at 9:39 AM

    I never feel that I have enough patience to do it and do it well,
    Any help for me? Or is there just a commitment thing that is missing in me?

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    February 6th, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    It’s just like feeling comfortable learning to ride a bike. It’s awkward at first and here and there you get it and so you feel more confident in trying, and then after a while it’s comfortable and you just do it without thinking too much about how silly you look because by that time you realize it’s about feeling your body and if you get the pose right you get a rush…similar to getting it right when learning to ride a bike! You eventually just naturally know where to put your foot in certain poses and when it’s off bc it doesn’t feel right. It’s natural to feel clumsy at first. The thing is, when you find the right teacher and studio it’s a comforting feeling- we have all been where you are now, every single person that’s ever done yoga. Look for that studio and teacher you jive with and feel ok with the concept of learning to ride this bike- and I promise you will love it!

  • Brook

    Brook

    February 3rd, 2016 at 2:17 PM

    Yoga can be great for almost anyone, but I have found that almost any sort of exercise can be a wonderful stress reliever. And really you might be doing it to lose weight and stay in shape but I think that it does just as much to keep you mentally intact and fit as it does on the physical end.

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    February 4th, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    Hi Wayne,
    Start with one pose and do it for a minute. If you like how that feels, do another one.
    I think the key to sticking with your yoga is to find a practice that really speaks to you and your body. That may take a little experimentation. Perhaps, it’s a Yin class or a fiery Ashtanga series. Also, different styles are good for different moods and different physical feelings.
    The one thing you always want to practice, on and off the mat, is self-compassion. No one starts anything new and aces it. Allow yourself the learning curve yoga requires and you may find it actually builds patience and self-discipline.

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    February 4th, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    Hi Brook,
    I agree with you about the wonderful benefits of exercise, in general. There are seven other limbs to yoga, besides the postures, and they are what set yoga apart from other physical practices. (Here is a link to more information on all eight limbs of yoga: expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm.)

  • terrell

    terrell

    February 4th, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    haha I think that it would only stress me out more
    I see those poses that some people do in yoga and all I keep thinking is how in the world they do all of that?!

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    February 4th, 2016 at 5:32 PM

    Hi Terrell,
    Of course, if they started with those poses they might actually hurt themselves. They work up to them slowly with lots of practice. I bet you would be surprised to see what you could do with the right teacher.

  • Fran

    Fran

    February 5th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    Yoga is not just about the flexibility and all of that although I am pretty sure that all of that would come in time. I think that for me it is a practice that helps to keep me a little more focused, and a little more centered which is what I think that I am missing in my day to day life. I want that little element that helps me not worry so much, to be less anxious and afraid, and to be more mindful of the good things in my life. Honestly this is what I get out of yoga that again, for me, far outweighs the physical part.

  • Ronnie

    Ronnie

    February 6th, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    This really could help due to the breathing exercises that could go along with the practice, I do not doubt this,

  • Nicole U.

    Nicole U.

    February 7th, 2016 at 11:49 AM

    Hi Ronnie,
    I thought you might like a link to my website’s chapter on breath work. There are a variety of easy-to-learn techniques that you might enjoy. It’s here: holisticdivorce.wordpress.com/category/breathwork-relaxation-techniques/

  • betsy

    betsy

    February 8th, 2016 at 7:36 AM

    I don’t think that this was mentioned and probably not even the intent here, but you know, I have met so many great ladies in my yoga classes at the Y that they are now some of my very best friends. We all went in to the beginner classes not knowing what in the world we were doing and now none of us try to miss a class day. I feel so lucky to have them all in my life.

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