Yoga For Depression?

Can you tell me whether or not yoga is useful for dealing with depression? I know you recommend exercise in general, but I’m curious as to whether yoga specifically can help.

– June 25, 2017

We don’t have many scientific studies evaluating yoga’s effect on depression, but the evidence we do have suggests that it can help. The latest word on this comes from a small study at Boston University Medical Center showing that twice-weekly yoga classes and home practice led to a significant reduction in symptoms in people with major depressive disorder.

The researchers randomized 30 patients to two yoga groups. Those in the “high dose” group completed 90-minute Iyengar yoga classes three times a week, while those in the “low dose” group took two 90-minute classes per week. Both groups were instructed to practice yoga at home. Iyengar yoga emphasizes detail, precision and alignment in performing posture and breath control. The study lasted 12 weeks.

The participants either were not taking anti-depressant drugs or had been on a stable dose of antidepressants for at least three months but continued to have symptoms. They ranged in age from 18 to 64 with a mean age of 38.4 in the high-dose group and 34.7 in the low-dose group. The researchers reported that compliance with the weekly classes was high (meaning they attended the sessions as instructed) and that the participants also practiced yoga at home between classes.

They concluded that twice-weekly yoga classes plus practice at home might be all that’s needed to gain the benefits seen in this study. They said their findings provide preliminary support for yoga and deep breathing classes as an alternative to antidepressants or as an adjunctive therapy to these drugs.

Earlier investigations have suggested that yoga can have positive effects for people with mild depression. In 2013 researchers from Duke University Medical Center published a review of yoga’s influence on depression as well as on other major psychiatric disorders. The team determined that only four randomly controlled trials focused on depression met the strict criteria established for inclusion in the review. After analyzing the 4 studies and their outcomes, the researchers concluded that yoga has a “reasonable benefit” for treating mild depression.

Even earlier, the Boston University team compared the effects on depression of three hour-long sessions of yoga per week with walking for an hour three times a week. Prior to the study, the participants were tested for levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter linked to depression and anxiety disorders. After the last study session, the participants’ GABA levels were measured again. Results showed that these levels had increased, indicating that depression had lessened and that anxiety levels had dropped among participants in the yoga group. The researchers reported that compared to those in the walking group, the mood of yoga participants had improved more and their anxiety levels had dropped further.

Andrew Weil, M.D.


Chris C. Streeter et al, “Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, February 15, 2017; DOI: 10.1089/acm.2016.0140

Murali Doraiswamy et al, “Yoga on our Minds: A Systematic Review of Yoga for Neuropsychiatric Disorders.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, January 25, 2013, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2012.00117

Chris C. Streeter, et al, “Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, November 2010, doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0007


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