Yoga and Depression
This is a little something I wrote as part of my Yoga Teacher Training back in October. We could write about anything we wanted to do with yoga and this seemed like the obvious choice. Its so important that people talk about these things so we can slowly remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and hopefully that will help people to speak out when they are struggling, rather than suffering in silence.
If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present || Lao Tzu
The mind and the body are intrinsically linked, and as such, negative processes in either one can have repercussions for the other. Practicing yoga is a great way to maintain a healthy mind-body balance, using constructive physical practices to manifest favourable positive mindsets. Despite the well-known mental and physical benefits of yoga, it is only fairly recently that research has begun into using yoga as a prevention and treatment mechanism for depression and anxiety. I am not simply referring to the physical practice of the asanas, which make up only one of the eight limbs of yoga. The use of breathing and meditation techniques cultivates mental awareness and a greater sense of presence. For many suffering from depression or anxiety, worries and negative thoughts often arise when dwelling on the past or worrying about future. You can break your mind’s connection with these time-related concerns by bringing your attention back to the present moment, through meditation or Pranayama. The physical practice of yoga is traditionally seen as a means to better the body as a vehicle for the soul. Whilst asana practice is a fun and rewarding form of exercise, it is the emotional progression that accompanies it that is key.
Meditation cultivates awareness of the present moment and is one of the approaches already used by Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to treat patients with depression. In CBT meditation is usually referred to as‘mindfulness’ so as to avoid the spiritual connotations of meditation. From meditation arises mental balance and clarity which are crucial for keeping level-headed when faced with life’s everyday difficulties. The yamas and niyamas, or ethical precepts on which yoga is based, can offer reassurance and strength to any sufferers of depression. By advocating a life free from judgement, violence and material gains, they encourage appreciation of the simple things; the belief that your life and body are a blessing, and compassion in all thoughts and actions, towards both yourself and others.
Anyone questioning the ability of yoga to alleviate the difficulties of living with depression should compare a list of common symptoms of depression with the apparent benefits experienced through the regular practice of yoga. By improving sleep, increasing mental clarity and reducing stress levels through your practice, you are directly targeting some of depression’s most widespread side effects. If not curing the illness, you can at least ease your symptoms enough to give yourself the strength to deal with depression other ways. Exercise has long been known to release feel-good endorphins and yoga does this and more.
It is commonly thought that emotions and past traumas are stored in our physical bodies and yoga is a great release for these imprinted experiences. Some people burst into tears for no apparent reason midway through their practice, most often when holding certain deep poses, and this emotional release this is an essential part of overcoming depression. Past events that have left their mark need to be worked through, and sometimes it takes this involuntary raising of issues to bring them to our attention. The yoga mat is a safe place for these emotional breakthroughs to occur, so they should not be feared. They are an important part of your personal progression.
Of course, we can’t cure years of mental illness by attending one 90 minute flow class. It is called yoga practicefor a reason, and it is only with a regular practice that we begin to reap the benefits. With dedication and time, yoga can actually change the fundamental biochemistry of the body. According to Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, “Yoga helps raise levels of oxcytocin, a hormone that reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels and relaxes the whole body. With regular practice, yoga also improves the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that tends to be low in people who suffer from depression and anxiety.” In no way am I shunning modern medicine or classic therapy techniques, both of which have helped me enormously with my own battles with depression, but when mood affecting disorders continue to be so prevalent in today’s society, I believe it is vital we try some more natural alternatives before handing out yet another prescription. I am not claiming that introducing yoga to your life is a sure way to “beat the blues”, but having found yoga through my own personal struggles, I can agree with the studies promoting yoga as an amazing coping mechanism. On a mental level, the mind control, discipline and focus on the present moment are incredible tools for dealing with negative thoughts, and the physical movement is amazingly soothing. Asana practice creates a lightness in the body, a freedom for energy to flow and a heightened bodily awareness. Through yoga you can learn to unconditionally love yourself, a step you have to take before you can ever truly love another. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your body is invaluable for a happiness. Depressed or not, yoga will teach you so much about compassion, about yourself and about the greater picture. Writing this as the positive, body confident and happy person that I am today, I feel eternally grateful for my practice and the wonders it has done for my outlook on life.