The Science Behind Yoga for Depression

by | Sep 21, 2022 | Neuroscience of Yoga | 1 comment

the science behind yoga for depression

If you struggle with depression persistently, episodically, or seasonally, you are not alone. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide for teens and adults. 

Yoga may help ease symptoms that keep the mind feeling foggy. 

The cause of depression is multifaceted. It is linked to genetic vulnerability, environmental factors, and/or prolonged periods of severe stress. Depression is not limited to race, gender, or socioeconomic status–it affects everyone. Depression is accompanied by prolonged sadness, loss of interest in hobbies, loss of motivation, fatigue, and lack of feeling connected to one’s body, friends, or family. 

Several studies reveal yoga as a potential complementary or alternative treatment to improve depression symptoms. 

yoga for depression

One current treatment option for depression are antidepressants, but even so, only one-third of people benefit from drug intervention. The pharmaceutical industry dominates treatment options because of the rigorous scientific research supporting medication improvements. With the current healthcare model, the doctor listens to the patient’s concerns, gives the patient a survey, clinically diagnoses them, and prescribes medication. The healthcare professional explains the prognosis in further detail, provides a list of suggestions to help with mental health hygiene, and refers the patient to a therapist. Patients follow the doctor’s advice, usually take the medication, and visit the therapist. However, even after successful treatment, some people continuously experience relapse or undesirable side effects from medications. 

There is an increasing emphasis on prevention and using mind-body practices to better meet the needs and complexity of the human nervous system.

The prevalence of depression continues to grow exponentially because the current healthcare model only skims the surface. The body holds more information than is perceived. To achieve sustainable health and healing, people require something wholesome and deeper. When changing mental health care routines, seeking a highly established yoga therapist, mental health care professional, or integrative health specialist is always recommended. However, the Neuroscience of Yoga Blog strives to open doors and explore the possibilities of yoga as a therapeutic tool based on the growing body of scientific research. 

yoga for depression

In the last post, Improve Your Mood with Asana, we discuss how physical yoga postures (asanas) can induce GABA level changes, a neurotransmitter linked to mood. Here we discuss another positive and influential biochemical change associated with yoga– an increase in Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). After practicing yoga, people experiencing depression with a clinical diagnosis self-reported improved symptoms. These findings were additionally associated with increased BDNF levels. Although BDNF is not a direct biomarker for neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric ailments, its dysregulation does relate to the progression of and pathology of neuro-related dis-ease, including depression. 

Why does BDNF matter, and what is it?

BDNF is one of the most prevalent growth factors in the brain and is well-known for its neuroprotective properties. It is a gene that encodes proteins that act as fertilizer to maintain brain health and development. It is most abundant in children to support their rapid growth and development but also continues to be an important molecule in the adult and aging brain. BDNF is essential for keeping neurons and neural connections healthy and communicating effectively. Increased BDNF levels are associated with enhanced learning, memory, and cognitive function. In contrast, decreased BDNF levels are related to neuronal cell death, cognitive impairment, and brain fog. More research is required to fully understand BDNF’s signaling processes/pathways, its precise relationship to cognition and behavior, and how it relates to neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric ailments. However, a trend in research reveals that changes in BDNF levels correlate to the progression of several diseases making it an intriguing therapeutic target.

brain derived neurotrophic factor

Studies suggest that asana and pranayama have the potential to increase BDNF. 

Researchers from India and Australia conducted a 12-week study to compare yoga therapy with antidepressants for depression treatment. Compared to the antidepressant group, the yoga therapy group had significantly higher levels of BDNF and better improvement on self-assessed depression surveys. A separate study in the United States revealed similar results. After a three-month yoga retreat, BDNF levels tripled, and participants reported feeling less depressed. Although more research is required, changes in BDNF levels assist yoga teachers and therapists in understanding the biological changes of yoga.

Yoga practitioners, teachers, and therapists witness the positive transformation in people’s bodies, minds, and lives induced by the practice. Yoga cannot substitute receiving proper healthcare when needed, but it indeed rejuvenates and invigorates the biological feel-good responses that help mitigate depression symptoms and clear brain fog.


Autry, A. E., & Monteggia, L. M. (2012). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and neuropsychiatric disorders. Pharmacological reviews, 64(2), 238-258.

Miranda, M., Morici, J. F., Zanoni, M. B., & Bekinschtein, P. (2019). Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor: A Key Molecule for Memory in the Healthy and the Pathological Brain. Frontiers in cellular neuroscience, 13, 363. 

Mohammad, A., Thakur, P., Kumar, R., Kaur, S., Saini, R. V., & Saini, A. K. (2019). Biological markers for the effects of yoga as a complementary and alternative medicine. Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, 16(1).

Naveen, G. H., Varambally, S., Thirthalli, J., Rao, M., Christopher, R., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2016). Serum cortisol and BDNF in patients with major depression—effect of yoga. International review of psychiatry, 28(3), 273-278.

Tolahunase, M. R., Gautam, S., Sagar, R., Kumar, M., & Dada, R. (2021). Yoga in major depressive disorder: molecular mechanisms and clinical utility. Frontiers in Bioscience-Scholar, 13(1), 56-81.

Yamada, K., Mizuno, M., & Nabeshima, T. (2002). Role for brain-derived neurotrophic factor in learning and memory. Life sciences, 70(7), 735-744.

Zuccato, C., & Cattaneo, E. (2009). Brain-derived neurotrophic factor in neurodegenerative diseases. Nature Reviews Neurology, 5(6), 311-322.

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1 Comment

  1. Tad

    I love knowing the WHY behind everything, and that’s what you’re giving us. Knowing the mechanisms which support (or threaten) our physical and mental health makes us more responsible and increases our personal power as we make choices in our everyday lives. Thank you for teaching us step by step, in easy to read articles, how our brain and body work and why we should choose wisely.


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