Yoga for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

How does winter make you feel? If you get depressed and anxious during the colder months, you're not alone. What was once thought of as the winter blues is now a recognized medical condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD? There isn't a laboratory test that will tell you if you have SAD. A diagnosis is made based on symptoms such as depression, anxiety, weight gain, and lethargy, among others, during the time of year when your part of the earth is getting less sunshine. In fact, this very lack of exposure to the sun thought to cause SAD by disrupting the body's natural circadian rhythms. The most effective treatment is daily exposure to light, either by spending more time outside when possible or using a special light box for several hours a day inside. Since stress contributes to depression, exercise is also an important part of SAD treatment. Yoga is a proven stress reducer and may help combat SAD in additional more subtle ways. 

The change in the balance of daylight vs. night may affect the production of melatonin in the pineal gland in the brain. Melatonin is important in regulating the body's internal clock. Although this avenue has yet to be adequately studied, Amy Weintraub, an expert in yoga for depression, has seen anecdotal evidence that suggests there are specific yoga practices that may help people with SAD. Weintraub is the author of  Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapy and is the founder of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, which helps people with depression through yoga, pranayama, and meditation. She suggests emphasizing inversions, forward bends, and specific mantras to stimulate the brain, as well as backbends to open the chest and shoulders, counteracting the tendency to hunch forward when it’s cold. These types of poses should ideally be done as part of a well-rounded, consistent yoga routine. The following 5 poses are inspired by Amy Weintraub’s recommendations. 

Standing Forward Bend - Uttanasana Variation

Moon Salute 2
Standing Forward Bend - Uttanasana. © Ann Pizer

Inversions are yoga poses where the head is positioned below the heart. Though we usually think of poses like headstands and handstands as the examples of inversions, there are many other options that make inversions accessible to all. One of the simplest is a standing forward bend

Before you come forward, interlace your fingers behind your back and roll your shoulders forward, then up, and finally back to open the chest. Maintain this position of the shoulders as you tip your pelvis forward to bring your torso over your legs. Bend your knees slightly if you have tight hamstrings. 

Amy Weintraub recommends that to further stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands in forward bends, you make the sound "ng" while pressing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth at the dome of the hard palate. 

Rabbit Pose - Sasangasana

Rabbit. Gary Connor/Photodisc/Getty Images

Another example of a forward bend that also stretches the shoulders is rabbit pose. Amy Weintraub suggests that you make the vibration sound "mmm" while the crown of your head in on the floor. A 2011 study that looked at the neurological effects of chanting om found that the effects are similar to those of a vagus nerve stimulator, which is sometimes used as a treatment for depression. 

Headstand - Salamba Sirsasana

Full Headstand
Full Headstand. Ann Pizer

If headstand is part of your practice, include it in your anti-SAD yoga routine. If you're not quite up to a full headstand yet, try this preparatory version of the pose. For experienced yogis who regularly practice other inversions such as handstand, forearm stand, and shoulderstand, these are also great options for a daily inversion. 

Bridge Pose - Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

Bridge Pose
Bridge Pose - Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. © Barry Stone

Now for a little backbending. These types of poses are good to do whenever you feel stressed since opening the chest and expanding the lungs to let more breath in is calming. Bridge pose is especially good for countering the hunched posture you get when you're protecting yourself from a chilly wind in the winter. If you're in the mood for a more restorative backbend, try a supported bridge with a block under your sacrum. Either way, try rolling the shoulders under for a nice expansive feeling in the chest.

Camel Pose - Ustrasana

Camel Pose - Ustrasana
Camel Pose - Ustrasana. © Barry Stone

Continue the work you started in bridge pose (above) with camel. Camel is a good choice for a backbend because you can easily adapt the pose to fit you. For a beginners, this may mean keeping the hands on the low back instead of reaching for your heels or using blocks under your hands. (If you don't have blocks, check out these yoga props hacks.)

Remember that the most benefit from yoga come with establishing a regular routine that includes asanas for the whole body. The above poses to ward off winter depression are most likely to be effective when used as a part of your yoga practice, not in isolation.