Yoga for Depression
By Joy Bennett
Depression appears to be a universal human experience that has become a worldwide epidemic. According to Richard Brown, M.D., clinical psychiatrist for Columbia University, it is the leading illness in adults, and often occurs with other serious illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, and arthritis. Depression accelerates aging of the body and brain, and women and the elderly have an increased risk of depression.
What causes depression? Mainstream medicine acknowledges that many reasons may prevail, including genetic predisposition, and environmental situations. Conventional wisdom holds depression to be a mood disorder: “I’m depressed. I feel blue. I feel sad.” In looking deeper, however, we discover that much more resides beneath the surface. Depression can manifest in vastly different ways, such as self-defeating or addictive behaviors, negative self-talk, or low self-esteem.
Depression, however, is much more than a mood disorder. When we are depressed, we may not be aware of it. We don’t feel depressed; in fact, we don’t seem to feel much of anything. Our secular culture of overloaded schedules and endless distractions can effectively shut life out, so that we don’t have to feel anything at all. We operate through our week on automatic pilot, yet sense a vague uneasiness, disconnection, and a lack of fulfillment in our routine existence. This alienation from life is really at the heart of depression. Stephen Cope, psychologist and senior scholar in residence at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, describes it thus: “Depression manifests as our inability to be present for the experience of life.”
There is a steady stream of good news, however, coming from a wide variety of yoga communities. Yoga is very effective at relieving depression. Time and again, the practices of yogic breathing, postures, and meditation are proving to be effective tools in recovery from depression. I found this out first hand.
In 1998, I underwent a period of deep depression, accompanied by intense anxiety. I had experienced great losses and many disappointments in life, which eventually engulfed me. During this time, I awoke in the morning with a heaviness in my chest, a deep darkness in my mind, and significant trembling in my hands. Getting through the day seemed too difficult to bear. Life had become unmanageable, and my body and soul began to shut down. I effortlessly lost 15 lbs, but it was not a weight loss program that I would wish on anyone.
Quite by accident, I discovered yoga. I heard of a gentle yoga class being held in Providence, on Thursday mornings. It was something to do to make the day go by faster. I signed up. I can’t say that there were any bells or whistles that sounded, the first time I sat down on the mat. After my third class, however, I noticed that Thursday was the only day of the week that I did not cry. As time went on, and I continued to show up every Thursday morning, the heaviness in my chest began to lighten up, my shakiness calmed down, and the darkness in my brain began to perceive light at the end of the tunnel. I realized that going to class was not about accomplishing the perfect posture, but learning to build a new relationship with my body and with my spirit. Time passed, and as I continued to breathe and stretch as deeply as I could, I was unfolding all those compressed places within me, where sadness and loss had been stored. My outlook on life was brought into balance by the physical practice, and my mind was soothed by the philosophy of the yogi sages. The wisdom and compassion of the yogi adepts that had gone before me was inspirational, and motivated me to persevere. I began to feel alive again.
As the years have gone by, I’ve learned how and why I was able to transform my life through yoga. I have since become a yoga instructor. Through the flow of breathing exercises, yoga postures, and meditation techniques, I invite my students to come home to their natural state—that place where there are no separations, reuniting to the ground of one’s being. Though I teach several types of classes, teaching yoga for depression holds a very special place in my heart, for it’s where it all began for me. I have studied LifeForce Yoga with Amy Weintraub, a foremost authority on this subject, and author of the book : Yoga for Depression: a Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga.
I also believe it’s important to state that other forms of therapy such as counseling, and medication management certainly have a place in the road to recovery from depression. However, a treatment program that includes yoga does more than treat the symptoms of depression. Yoga addresses the root of our suffering, meeting our suffering at its source. Furthermore, yoga can balance the biochemistry of the brain, and stimulate the endocrine system to create a state of healing relaxation.
We are fortunate that we now live in a time when being depressed no longer marks us a flawed, or possessed in some negative way. Depression marks us only as human.
If you or someone you know is caught in the grasp of depression, I highly recommend giving yoga a try. A regular yoga practice will bring the physical body and emotional body into balance, restoring a sense of energy and wellbeing.
Step onto a yoga mat to breathe, relax, and discover the possibilities for a brighter outlook, and a fuller, happier life. Experience the foundations of yoga—clear seeing, and calm abiding. By saying “Yes!” to yoga, you have to the opportunity to remember who you really are…a unique and miraculous being of goodness and grace.
Visit www.JoyfulBreath.com for more information.