Yoga Lifts Depression & Helps You Flex when Wound Too Tight

Focusing on your breath really does do wonders for your brain!

Posted May 15, 2017

How do you respond when you are asked to do something that is outside your normal range of responsibilities or preferred methods of operation in life? What is your “go to response” when you are met with an unexpected obstacle in your path or barrier to your goal? How do you handle the spaces in life where you feel at a loss or find yourself looking for excuses to avoid doing the things or seeing the people you normally would do?

A landmark study (Uebelacker et al., 2017) now provides empirical evidence that antidepressants are not the only “easy answer” to clinical depression. The value of being present in your body, focusing your mind, and bringing conscious awareness and control to your breath and body all combine to help the average person combat bouts of depression. There is clearly something unique about slowing down your mind and focusing on your physical presence in the material world.

Researchers found that yoga practice was more beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression than health education over time. If we listen to our bodies and focus on being present in the moment, we may fare better than when we try to focus on external wisdom rather than inner knowing.

While many people may still assume that yoga is for health nuts, gurus, or aging hippies, it turns out that the practice has far reaching health promoting benefits for the millions of people who are coping with garden variety depression. Not only does the body grow more flexible with regular yoga practice, the psyche and the mind seem to be growing more resilient, as well.

When I was once invited to extend my writing craft to something beyond research manuscripts, I appreciated the opportunity to stretch my mind in new directions. Writing from the “practitioner brain,” not just the “scientist brain,” can open up a few brand new neural pathways and give a few overused pathways a rest. And research consistently shows that keeping the brain firing in both hemispheres is important to overall physical and emotional well-being.

A couple of years ago, I entered my first yoga class and 90 minutes later I knew that I would integrate the practice into my life. I’ve made the weekly trek to this particular class ever since. Students range in age from barely 18 to beyond 70 – the entire adult lifespan is represented among our members. As we all arrive from our diverse paths in life, we sit together, each in our own personal approximation of lotus pose, and “let the dust settle” before moving into our vinyasas.

Most evenings include a series of “brain balancing” movements and poses. Sometimes we start on all fours then lift our right arm straight out from our shoulder as we lift our left leg in a counterbalancing position. The biggest challenge is not necessarily holding the pose; sometimes the struggle is to “find” the pose as we try to coordinate the opposite sides of our bodies through our often “wired one way and one way only” brains. Switching to the other side, to balance the experience, can be a challenge, too, until you get the feel of the opposing movements.

Youth may be more fleet of feet or perhaps more agile, but balancing the brain can present as many challenges to the youngest class members as it does to the eldest. And although science can explain the benefits, it is the practice that removes the struggle. I encourage us all to be a little more conscious of which side of the brain we favor and to challenge ourselves to “think globally,” both metaphorically and in real-time.

A well-balanced mind, body, and soul leave all of us much better positioned to offer stable support to ourselves and to others whose lives may be a little unbalanced at the time we all reach out for assistance.


How strong is your social support network? Do your friends and family help keep you healthy?

If you would like to take part in a new research study designed to explore the relationship between social support and overall well-being, please follow this link:


L. A. Uebelacker, G. Tremont, L. T. Gillette, G. Epstein-Lubow, D. R. Strong, A. M. Abrantes, A. R. Tyrka, T. Tran, B. A. Gaudiano, I. W. Miller. Adjunctive yoga v. health education for persistent major depression: a randomized controlled trial. Psychological Medicine, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291717000575

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