Yoga to Combat Depression – Kyczy Hawk

““Yoga gives us an active role in healing. And by slowing down mental chatter through breath work, it helps facilitate self-acceptance,”  – Yoga International

yoga for depression

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What a lovely promise. Depression hurts so much it would be wonderful for there to be a simple answer to healing and avoiding it. Simple but not easy is what we learn in the rooms of recovery. Self-care and self-acceptance sound straight forward, but the effort is overwhelming if you start the process when you are deep in depression. A key is practice.

Three actions to help with depression:

  1. Practice self-care for prevention
  2. Return to self-care before an emotional “emergency”
  3. Use three forms – so you can have them to choose from (anytime and anywhere)
    1. Breath
    2. Meditation
    3. Hatha – pose or asana practice

Addiction and a familiarity with depression often go hand in hand. Some say addiction is a process of “self-medication” for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fear. Once you are in the grips of a dark night that extends into days it matters not where it comes from, we just want to find the dawn.

Yoga has a documented positive impact on depression: both on preventing it or at the least preventing a full scale onslaught of the enervating impact of sadness, hopelessness and grief. It can also help the transition back to balance.

The Harvard Medical School Health Publication has featured articles on the benefits of yoga, meditation and breath practices in treating depression. They found that yoga is useful in both lessening the impacts of depression as well as preventing recurrence. Yoga magazines articles and books have also been dedicated to its healing properties. The huge question for me has always been HOW?

When I am depressed, and I am of the character that keeps mobile, even in depression, seldom cancelling my activities, seldom staying in bed; when I fall into the dark night I go through the motions of my day. I do the least I need to, usually those activities that benefit others. I feel like I am a third person in my life with a running negative commentary. The idea of taking a moment from the prescribed actions of my day to care for myself seem ludicrous. “It is too much work; it won’t make a difference, I don’t see how that can help.” and so on are the critical phrases that come to mind.

There are others for whom depression means a complete pulling of the energetic plug. Staying inert, remaining in bed, shutting the shades and turning off the phone are the only remedies perceived. Again the resistance to change is the only effort expended. “How can any of this help? I just don’t have the energy to try.”

Yoga in the process of identifying illusion, avoiding believing the false for the real, letting go of both aversion / avoidance and grasping for the “pleasurable” – or in the case of depression, the status quo of nothingness and pain.

How does one do this? In two ways. In the spirit of progress not perfection; I create a healthy habit. Like meetings and working with others I practice meditation, breath work and hatha yoga. I do it when I feel good. I do it when I feel neutral. The practice is there when I feel bad. I avoid criticizing myself for a shorter than usual practice when I am down. I don’t need that negative dialog. My only criticism is when I don’t do it at all. Then I know that I am either in big trouble and need help from my support system or I am being lazy.  I have to try in order to know.

What are yoga techniques that help? The breath practices I use to bring me more energy are the more active ones. My choice is a purifying breath (driving out the ill winds of depression) known as kapalabhati. It is a repeated forceful exhale with a softer inhale repeated over and over. It energizes as well as cleanses. For all breath techniques and in general, getting grounded by sitting or standing with purpose is hugely important. Come to the sensations of the body before you begin any practice. This is true for breathing as well as meditation.

For instructions on kapalabhati I appreciate Yoga International, as an authentic yet accessible yoga resource. That is a safe basic practice on You Tube. This is a good place to start; there are many others as well. (Other breath practices include a slower breath dirgha three part breath. This is useful when you are feeling anxious. It is a calming breath, more soft and relaxed.)

What are some yoga poses for depression? First is to move. Stand up. Raise your arms and breathe in. Exhale, winging the arms out to the side, bending at the hips rather than the waist, come into forward fold. Bend the knees, chin to chest roll up. Do this a few times. Bring loosely formed fists behind you and pressing into the lower back lean back slightly.  Return to upright, repeat again a few more times. Inhale back and exhale as you return to upright. Bring arms back to your sides. With arms overhead bend to the right, and then to the left. Repeat. Return the arms to your sides. With knees slightly bent and arms loose swing to the right and then to the left swivelling at the waist in slow lazy turns, twisting side to side. Repeat 10 times, breathing in a rhythmic way. That is a start. See how you feel.

There are many poses that can continue the sense of opening the body and calming the mind. Most are best learned one on one or in a class that is wisely taught in order to do them safely and in healthy form. Moving the spine in all directions (as descripted above) is a beginning; other poses designed to open the chest and heart area along with loosening the hips and shoulders continues the process of letting go. Find a teacher and get your own customized home practice plan.

“The issues live in our tissues” and one of the reasons we can feel blue is that we are stuck. We are stuck in the processing of emotions that our mind is having a problem knowing. A healthy yoga practice can help unstick old feelings, traumas and emotions. Be aware that this can happen; that you will feel. There is no danger here. It will help you heal in the long run.

Depression can be avoided or at least minimized. It takes discipline and practice. It can be an asset that helps you grow. It may not be your “friend” but know, you don’t have to live in the dark.

And don’t forget:

Three actions to help with depression:

  1. Practice self-care for prevention
  2. Return to self-care before an emotional “emergency”
  3. Use three forms – so you can have them to choose from (anytime and anywhere)
    1. Breath
    2. Meditation
    3. Hatha – pose or asana practice

About Kyczy Hawk

Kyczy has been teaching recovery focused yoga classes since 2008. She is a devoted teacher to people in treatment centers and in jail. Kyczy created a teacher training program for others who wish to work in this field. Trauma sensitivity and the somatics of feeling and relating more wisely to your body are some of the basics taught in S.O.A.R.(™) Success Over Addiction and Relapse.Kyczy has been a certified Y12SR (Yoga of 12 Step Recovery) leader for over eight years and a leadership trainer for the past two. She leads workshops nationally and holds and annual retreat at the Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, California.Author of “Yoga and the Twelve Step Path” , “Life in Bite-Sized Morsels” , “From Burnout to Balance” she has recently released a book and workbook through Central Recovery Press:”A Yogic Tools for Recovery; A Guide To working The Steps” as well as five recovery oriented word puzzle books.You can also join Kyczy and a host of other people in recovery every Sunday morning at 8am PT (11 am ET) on In The Rooms at the Yoga Recovery meeting. Join the Thursday “12 Step Study; Yogic Tools For Recovery” 8pm ET on ITR.Kyczy is very proud of her family; husband, kids, and grandkids, all who amaze her in unique and wonderful ways. Join her mailing list for other online offerings at
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  2. Thank you Kyczy for this article. I love the reminder of how important it is to practice yoga. I am one that lacks the discipline to make this a weekly part of my life and I am inspired by this.

    I love to meditate and follow my breath. After a meditation. I practice a deep cleansing breath in and exhale out first Then I inhale and inhale some more and then some more and when I think I can’t inhale more I try one more. Then the exhale is the same slowly releasing and slowly releasing and so on until you can get anymore breath out. The experience I have is amazing and it seems to bring oxygen to my entire body. Pretty awesome practice

    • Slow deep breaths are nourishing and they can also calm anxiety. This “fill and empty” practice can be a pleasant way to calm and feed the body. Nice description!

  3. Thanks so much for this Kyczy. I actually tried the breathing techniques today and the one with the fast breathing help almost immediately. I could feel a definite lift in mood and energy.

    • That breath is powerful. It it a cleansing breath but I also find that it energizes, too. My experience odd depression is a total dampening of my spirit, and this breath help reverse the tide.

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