Depression is a word given to a variety of mental and emotional symptoms. It affects 1 in 5 people during their lifetime. It can be experienced as hopelessness, an inability to imagine a future, a lack of physical or emotional energy, a feeling of heaviness, sadness, darkness and a feeling that nothing is worth doing. It is often experienced as difficulty in making decisions, sleeplessness, fatigue, thoughts about death, and in extreme cases even suicide.
This is a vast set of symptoms for one condition. The fact that people experience depression in completely different ways and that there are such a variety of symptoms suggests that one name for the condition is not adequate, let alone one cause, or one suggested treatment for sufferers.
Each person has a unique set of issues, imbalances, hereditary influences, traumas, stresses or toxicity that are the cause, and that create a wide range of emotional symptoms that differ from person to person.
These emotions do not exist in a vacuum. The entire health of the body, its chemistry, energy and emotions are a direct result of our history, traumas we have not yet released, toxicity we have not yet dealt with, lack of vital energy and discipline. The good news is that through yoga, we have a plethora of help and wisdom at our fingertips.
Where the body goes the mind follows - how yogic practices help with depression
It is known that changing behaviour changes thoughts and feelings, and even our hormones. For example, research shows that women who perform what are traditionally regarded as stereotypical male jobs or behaviours, such as competitive activities or power wielding behaviours/roles increased their testosterone. It is clear that our behaviours affect our body chemistry.
Many of us, including people suffering depression, think we need to wait until we feel better to change our behaviour. But the opposite has been proven to be true. Change your behaviour first, and your internal life changes for the better. Getting up earlier, eating healthy food, going for a walk, taking up exercise, meditation, keeping the company of happy positive people, will result in a change in our inner life. Waiting until you “feel like it” may be a very long wait.
Exercising and breathing correctly changes blood and brain chemistry. Many chemical imbalances in the body and our thoughts and moods can be positively affected by living a life based on healthful practices of mind, body, diet, and breath.
Yoga encompasses many of these disciplines that improve our lives, and that is why it has been known for decades to be an effective tool in the management of depression.
Yogic Tools for Depression
Yoga more than any other exercise has been proven to help with depression. There are several aspects to yoga that seem to have a direct effect on our mood, stress responses and emotions:
1) Breath / Pranayama
Our breathing patterns directly affect our emotions. Emotions produce specific breathing patterns. It has been proven that if we introduce specific breathing patterns, those patterns will produce the corresponding emotions. So by breathing the long, slow, even breath encouraged in yoga that correlates to happiness we create feelings of contentment.
On a physical level, the stress hormone cortisol is significantly reduced after yogic breathing or Pranayama. It increases optimism and wellbeing by balancing serotonin levels. It has been shown to be as effective in reducing depression as conventional drug therapies.
The SKY yoga breathing technique for example, has been tested in Sweden and India and has been proven to reduce depression, anxiety and stress as effectively as medication and Electric Shock Therapy. Beta, Alpha and Theta brainwave activity has been shown to change after yoga breathing techniques, improving our brain function, alertness and focus, and promoting a sense of wellbeing. Prolactin, a wellbeing hormone, is increased in the blood plasma after pranayama exercises.
Pranayama has been shown in numerous studies to directly affect mood. Full exhalations for an hour or so removes toxicity from body, mind and emotion, releasing pent up emotions and stress, and prompt the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate the relaxation response.
2) Asana / Postures
It is well known that exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, the “feel- good” chemicals (which function as neurotransmitters). Aerobic exercise is very effective for depression. It’s been shown that moderate aerobic exercise done just 30 minutes a day, three times a week, can reduce or eliminate symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression and can help with severe depression.
Exercise oxygenates the body and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Its other well-known benefits are lifting moods, increasing one’s ability to cope with stress, and increased longevity.
Less well known is the startling effect of exercise on the structure of your brain. Exercise stimulates the creation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, your brain’s centre of learning and memory, so that it actually increases in size. This is especially relevant because depression, unless countered with effective therapy, causes the hippocampus to shrink in size. Exercise has also been shown to raise levels of serotonin and norepinephrine and to multiply the number of dendrite connections in neurons.
Through asana, by moving the body, increasing blood flow and compressing internal organs and glands and releasing blockages, the physical aspects of yoga practice create health and balance in the body, mind and emotions.
Emotions are held in the body, as understood by many alternative therapies and therapists such as NLP, EFT, Gerda Boysen technique, Eckhart Tolle, Marianne Williamson, The Journey, and countless others including massage therapists and yoga teachers.
This seems to be explained by the fact that peptide receptors, which are found in the organs, endocrine glands, skin, muscle, and other body tissues, store emotional information received from peptides, which regulate every aspect of your body. Therefore, emotional memories can be stored not only in the brain, but also in many places in the body. That would explain, for example, why people often cry during hip opening yoga poses or why memories and emotions sometimes pop up during certain yoga poses, massage or acupuncture--because emotional memories "live" in the body's tissues. Many yoga teachers and practitioners will attest to the fact that the first year or so of a yoga practice releases so many past memories, old emotions and unresolved issues into consciousness, and over time and regular practice this passes and they feel the issues have been released and they feel happier and more positive.
Back bending specifically is well documented for releasing held emotions. It releases and opens the front of the body, chest, throat, shoulders and abdomen. It helps us to expand our normally contracted state, to breathe and feel deep centres of our being. It goes against our tendency to protect, curve forward, enclose and meditate on the self. This brings a feeling of relief, release, openness, vulnerability and ability to love, express and be in relationship.
Yoga, breath and sweating detoxify us on many levels. We have all arrived at yoga class feeling disconnected, stressed out and enervated. We go through a process of dealing with ourselves for and hour or two, feeling emotions that arise, mental conflicts and resistances, and physical aches and pains, sluggishness and weakness. By the end of class they are gone. This shows us that the human body and emotions and mind were designed to be integrated, via breath and action, and that the living force of Prana (Life Force) is the route, by connecting mind and body to create a feeling of connection and integration with ourselves and the world. So detoxification is happening not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally as well.
Yoga, with its full breathing, stretching and compressing of the internal organs and glands, sweating and stimulation of the lymph system detoxifies the body.
4) The Chakras
Ancient spiritual teachings tell us that the emotional centres of the body, which correlate with the chakras, become blocked, and constricted if we are not regularly releasing the negative build up of life’s difficulties through discussion, confession, meditation, breathing techniques, yoga or other means. These centres are connected to the spine, and are affected by yoga asana, breathing and conscious directing of energy in these centres. We open and relax all these centres in yoga:
- Crown Chakra represents the highest level of consciousness and enlightenment, connects us to the spirit.
- Third Eye Chakra is the seat of intuition, spiritual vision, the ability to visualize things, see possibility and the result of our actions, intuitive knowledge. Forgiveness and compassion.
- Throat Chakra is the centre responsible for verbal expression, things we haven’t said or expressed, becomes blocked.
- Heart Chakra is where our deepest feeling, unexpressed love, heartbreaks or lack of open loving relationship, inability to feel, or excessive emotional expression.
- Solar Plexus Chakra is the centre of our action, effectiveness, will-power self-esteem, and where we conduct life’s force into the world.
- Sacral Chakra represents sense of self, ability to create relationships, sense of self and relationship with the world, sexuality and sensitivity to other people’s feelings
- Root Chakra is the seat of physical vitality, urge to survive, the mechanisms that keep the body alive, sense of safety, stability and groundedness.
Meditation can be a useful treatment for both stress and mild-to-moderate depression. Numerous studies have examined the effects of mindfulness meditation, designed to focus the meditator’s attention on the present moment. One study measured electrical activity in the brain found increased activity in the left frontal lobe during mindfulness meditation. Activity in this area of the brain is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.
6) Karma Yoga
In the practice of Karma Yoga involves performing an action without any expectation of any reward in return. This practice of service to others can be a powerful tool when it comes to depression.
When we are depressed we turn inward, put our attention on ourselves and close down. This can cause a catch 22 situation in which we close down our receptivity to life’s simple pleasure’s, friends who can help us, nature and other positive outside influences.
Getting outside in the fresh air, doing charity work, actively loving others, working with children, nature, animals and the elderly, all give meaning to our lives and develop a more outward turning orientation. Taking one’s attention off ourselves and onto others is an ego-transcending activity which can bring about release from our suffering.
A final thought on suffering
Every living being suffers. If we penetrate our deepest feelings, we will all find a level of suffering. Understanding ourselves is based on looking deeply at this suffering and using it as a way to grow. Society, TV and magazines tell us we are supposed to be happy, fulfilled, fit and beautiful all the time. If we feel sad and depressed we are supposed to hide it away. This can further isolate us.
We are born knowing that we are going to die, life is difficult, and that we can not live up to the media's images of perfection and this can create a struggle in us. If we are disconnected from something greater than us: Life Energy, Spirit Force, Truth, or whatever name we wish to call it, or our true purpose or expression of our talents, then we feel a sense of disconnection and loneliness. In the Spiritual traditions being sensitive to our fear of mortality and the realization that this life is not going to console us, is viewed as a great gift. It can bring about a breakdown of our desire to seek for consolation, and this type of crisis, although painful, can move a person forward into great personal or spiritual discoveries.
Many depression sufferers suffer prolonged depression that needs treatment and support. But sometimes coming to a place of disillusionment, for short episodes, can be a true response to life’s difficulties and be a fertile place for growth or spiritual understanding. Often it can be wisdom in oneself crying out to be heard.
Some types of depression then, where it is not ongoing, chronic and unresponsive to normal help and life changes, can be described as a spiritual problem, not a mental problem and could show that the sufferer has a deep feeling knowledge of their need for something profound in their life. So before reaching for the pills or the wine, we should all take a moment to deeply feel, and see if our inner voice is trying to tell us something important.
If one is suffering, the temptation to get a moment's relief from a pill can be overwhelming and is understandable. However this will only mask the problem. The real goal should be to rebalance your life, understand who you are, practice life and health enhancing activities, and take positive steps, however small. It can seem like dragging yourself up a mountain, but get some help, and it will be possible. It is not as easy as opening a pill bottle, but the effects will be longer lasting, deeper and could spell the beginning of a new chapter in a happy fulfilling life.
DISCLAIMER: The suggestions in this article are not a substitute for antidepressants, or professional therapy or counselling, but rather as a support, a component of a holistic program performed under the guidance of a medical doctor versed in holistic therapies.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression it is important to contact a healthcare professional.