Breathing to Beat the Blues: Yoga and Depression
Depression is a condition with which we are all familiar on some level. If we have not been depressed ourselves, we likely know someone who has. Estimates of the occurrence of depression range from 5 to 25 percent of the population. While on a physical level, depression can be identified by the dysfunction of hormones and neural chemical reactions in our bodies, the causes appear to be many. Genes, lifestyle, diet, stress, trauma, grief, and attitude may all contribute. A certain amount of mild depression is a normal reaction to the ordinary losses of life, but a serious depression can bring one’s life to a standstill or even lead to suicide. When the effects of the depression are serious, they need to be taken seriously and professional help sought.
When one is under the influence of depression, one’s body often feels heavy and slow, while one’s mind races, often going over the same territory again and again. Interest in the ordinary things of one’s life gets lost. Often physical symptoms appear, such as headache or digestive troubles. The depression may be lethargic or anxious.
One of the hallmarks of yoga, intelligently applied, is that it tends to bring balance, so in the face of the the inertia and dullness that often characterize depression, yoga would try to bring movement, a shift of focus, and breath. In the case of a lethargic type of depression, the movement may have to start slowly and proceed gradually, while in an anxious depression, the movement may help dissipate the anxious energy. Once appropriate movement is happening, conscious work with the breath can help calm and refocus the mind. Moving the body mindfully and working with the breath in an appropriate way lead to greater self-awareness, which can help the person learn more about how to ease the depression and perhaps lead to greater understanding of the depression’s roots.
While the ‘formula’ is fairly simple, it is not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation. Both the nature of depression and the needs of an individual often result in a personally tailored program working a lot better than a generic class. Going to a yoga class regularly, and/or regularly doing a home practice may do the trick. And maybe not. If you have the motivation to go to class and/or practice, try it and see if it helps. If not, or if going to a class seems overwhelming, you may want to seek the help of a yoga therapist who is experienced in working with depression to get you started. In addition to yoga’s poses, mindful attention, and breathing exercises, the greater awareness yoga encourages may help one change habits that foster depression. Substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and sugar affect mood, and for some, this may contribute significantly to depression. Some people are sensitive to certain foods or chemicals. As you practice yoga, your ability to notice the effect of these things on yourself will grow. A yoga practice can also help normalize sleep and ease any physical symptoms that are part of the depression.
One of the best things about a yoga practice for depression is that people generally start to feel the positive effects right away. In studies that have measured the after-class effects as well as the after-study effects, subjects have reported an increase in positive symptoms for both. After each practice, you are likely to feel a little better, and that is likely to build and accumulate over time. Once you are familiar with how yoga helps you, it is also portable and adjustable for whatever life situation you may find yourself in.
For more in-depth information about yoga for depression, you might want to read Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga by Amy Weintraub.
Here are two examples of simple techniques that might be part of a program for depression. In any case they are unlikely to be hurtful to anyone.
Mountain Pose Stand with your feet under your hip joints and parallel to each other. Even your weight over your feet, and press your feet into the floor. Keep your feet pressing the floor throughout. Let an exhalation come out like a long sigh, and as you inhale, bring your arms out to the sides in a large sweeping motion, taking them up over your head, palms facing each other, as high as is comfortable for you. Pause as a breath goes by. With the next exhalation, sweep your arms down to your sides. Pause again and let a breath go by. (Are your feet still pressing?) Repeat 5 times.
Bee Breath Sit on a chair or the floor on the front edge of your sitbones (not on your tailbone) with your back tall. Or lie on your back on the floor with a folded blanket under your head so that your neck is comfortable and your knees up, feet on the floor. As an exhalation comes around, make a humming sound so that you sound like bees humming over the flowers. Hum all the way to the end of the out breath, but not so long that you strain. Then stop humming and watch the inhalation happen. With the next exhalation, hum again. You can hum at any pitch, or change your pitch. Feel the vibrations in your head. Continue for a few minutes. After you stop, take a moment to notice.
Sandra Helpsmeet, RYT500, LMFT, is owner of The Yoga Center of Eau Claire and a psychotherapist at SouthWoods Counseling Clinic. She teaches classes and private lessons at the Yoga Center.