Yoga and Depression

The recent news of Robin Williams death has hit us many of us hard. Most of my lifetime favorite movies showcased his brilliance and I’m sad that we lost his talent. In particular though, I feel a deep sorrow that it was depression that took him away from us too soon.  I don’t know his exact level of suffering, but it was obviously great.

As a mental health professional I feel a punch to the gut, like we just didn’t do enough soon enough.  This is yet another huge loss to our field.  It feels as if we are sinking in our battle against mental illness.

Our battle is not necessarily to prolong life, but to make our time here better.  To help people find their purpose, values, and enjoyment during their time on Earth.  To recapture that which gives them the will to live, despite suffering.  For, as we all know, suffering is universal.

In my other life as a yoga teacher, I feel this similar passion to help others find relief and joy amidst the suffering.  I believe that yoga can help us find this by changing our perception through mindfulness, increasing energy with exercise, and relieving tension through postures.

It is important to remember that there is a big difference between being sad and being depressed.  We are all sad from time to time and sadness is a normal emotion.  When sadness is prolonged, out of proportion, and/or manifested physically, then it might be depression and while yoga can help, it is most important to go to a doctor.

If you struggle with depression, yoga is a great tool for your toolbox, but the most important thing is to go to a doctor.  Studies have consistently shown that the best treatment for clinical depression is combination psychotherapy (talk therapy, an appointment will last around one hour per session) and medications (with a medical doctor, appointment will last around 15 minutes each).  Depression is often fatal if not treated. If you feel suicidal, I urge your to contact a crisis hotline, call 911, or go to the nearest ER immediately. 

Just as you can’t take a pill to make your life suddenly better, you can’t do one pose to cure sadness or depression. That being said, yoga can absolutely help with a depressed mood AND is a worthwhile adjunctive therapy in treating clinical depression.

A consistent yoga practice helps to train ourselves to listen to our body. It connects the body and mind (literally yoga means ‘to yoke’). As we still the mind from habitual thoughts, and focus on the present, we can find some clarity and peace.

But what is it about Yoga in particular that is such a great adjunct to treating depression?

Yoga has three major aspects that are likely effective in treating symptoms of depression.

1) Increasing mindfulness.
2) Promoting exercise.
3) Opening up areas of tension.

While many of us practicing yoga feel the benefits of mindfulness, new clinical studies have emerged to test the efficacy scientifically. The evidence is building that what we felt personally is real and efficacious to the larger population.  In addition, yoga itself has been newly studied and shown effective as an adjunctive treatment for PTSD.

Exercise, in and of itself, has long been shown to help with depressive symptoms.

While opening up areas of tension has been less studied, it is worth talking about. This is also where specific poses may come into play.

Think of a time when you were a little kid and something made you cry but you really, REALLY, didn’t want to cry.  What did you do?  Maybe you squished up your face, or hardened your lips.  You might have held your breath or tensed up your body.  Maybe your lip was trembling or whimpering out of control as you fought to contain your tears.

Now think of a stressful time in your adult life. Did you ever have body soreness or maybe a stiff neck?  Did you ever find yourself squeezing your face into a grimace or holding your shoulders tight?

In one way or another, you have probably at sometime used your physical body to carry your emotions. We do that, we wear our emotions. We squeeze it in and push it down. Our shoulders hang heavy, our back stiffens… you can SEE sadness in many people.

Yoga asanas that work to release these areas of tension can provide great relief of physical pain. I suspect that this also can release some attached emotions.

Many people talk about hip opener stretches leading to emotional tears.  As we let go of that tension, we release all those emotions and the restraint used to bottle them up. Sometimes they can come flooding out in a torrent.

Poses that open up our chest, expand our rib cage, and open our hips may create this.  Suddenly you feel lighter, more free, and more confident.

When feeling down you may 1) have less energy and 2) need to stabilize before delving into your psyche.

If you lack energy and the thought of lifting your arms up over head makes you feel overwhelmed, consider a slow Yin practice. It can give you the soothing release you need without being too challenging energetically.

If you need stabilization before getting too deep and the thought of sitting still or lying down makes you cringe, I suggest an energetic flow practice. This allows you to release tension through exercise and postures, leaving you grounded without having to dig through all the skeletons in your closet.

Whatever you decide, cut your goal in half and reward yourself for any effort you make!  Above all be kind to yourself.

Always consult your doctor first before starting any new exercise. I cannot stress enough that if you have symptoms of depression, please see your doctor. Yoga is a great adjunct but it has not been proven solely effective in treating clinical depression. Clinical depression is a serious and potentially fatal disease.  

A practice to ward off the blues

  • Seated breathing meditation. Purpose: to increase mindfulness.
    • Find a comfortable seated position (lean against the wall if you feel tired) and begin a breathing meditation.
      Note the depth of your breath and the length of your inhalation and exhalation. Does your breath go into your belly? Is your inhale or exhale is longer?
    • Initiate your Ujayi breath, constricting the throat and starting to warm your body.

 

  • Seated twists. Purpose: open up your upper back, improves lymphatic flow.
    • Seated Twist From seated position, inhale your arms over head and exhale them to the right. Bring your right arm behind your body and your left arm to your right thigh.  As you inhale, lengthen your spine. As you exhale twist further.
    • Repeat on left side.

 

 

  • Child’s Pose (Balasana). Purpose: Calms the mind and relieves stress.
    • From table top position, lean back
    • Allow gravity to pull your pelvis towards your heels
    • Stretch arms in front of you, reaching forward
    • Relax your neck and rest your forehead on the ground.

 

  • Cat & Cow (Marjaryasana &Bitilasana). Purpose: To relieve tightness in the chest and upper back.
    • Cat PoseFrom table top position, make sure your knees are directly under your hips and your hands are directly under your shoulders.
    • Inhale and flex your back, looking in front of you. As you do this create action with your muscles as if you are pulling the mat towards your midline with your hands and knees.
    • Coming back to neutral, exhale and activate your energy pushing away from your midline, arching your back and looking towards your belly.
    • Following your breath, flow between these two poses.

 

  • Bridge Pose (SetuBandhaSarvangasana-option for supported variation) Purpose: To relieve stress and mild depression
    • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Pull the heels towards the buttocks.
    • Using the strength of your quadriceps and abdominal core, pull up your hips. Be sure to relax the buttocks.
    • For supported variation place a block under your sacrum (tailbone).
    • Work your shoulders towards the midline, lifting from the sternum into a backbend. Interlock your fingers and press down into the ground.

 

  • Downward Facing Dog (AdhoMukhaSvanasana). Purpose: To energize and relieve fatigue.
    • Downward Facing DogTucking your toes, push strongly down through hands into downward facing dog.
    • Push down into all corners of the hand.
    • Bend your knees, lifting the pelvis high, then slowly straighten your legs and work the heels towards the ground.
    • Keep abdominal core, arms and legs active.

 

  • Happy Baby (AnandaBalasana). Purpose: open hips and release back tension.
    • Lying on your back, squeeze your knees into your chest.
    • Grabbing the inside of your feet, open the hips wide and pull your feet towards opposite shoulders.
    • Bring the thighs parallel with the ground, feeling a stretch in the pelvis and inner hips.
    • Rock on your back as it feel comfortable, releasing any tension.
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