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Yoga is a quick way to lift mood

Yoga is supremely suited to help those who suffer depression but who don't buy into the medical model of 'disease'. Ciara Cronin explores how different forms of yoga can help


The practice and philosophy of yoga, based as it is on the study of human nature over millennia, allows us to understand and treat depression beyond its medical label. Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and The Quest for True Self, says: "Depression manifests as our inability to be present for the experience of life. At its root, depression signals a difficulty with Being itself." Through yoga we can remember our divine nature, rise above the chattering mind, cease clinging to what we love and avoiding what we hate and gracefully ride the currents of change. Yoga can help awaken us to our true self, to return us to Atman, the ‘source', so we can know we have lost nothing and that everything is as it should be.

In the Yoga Sutras, the quintessential yoga text compiled in the fifth century by the scribe Patanjali, the author offers the Eight-Fold Path of yoga as a prescription for all mental and physical disturbances. In a variety of practical ways adherence to the Eight-Fold Path can help someone suffering from depression; by caring for themselves and others (yama/ niyama), through the physical practice of yoga postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama) and through the healing practice of relaxation and meditation they can return to Atman, true Self.

The physical practice of yoga postures (asana) is often the first avenue of treatment of depression through yoga. A common characteristic of depression is mental preoccupation coupled with not enough physical exercise. Dr Alexander Lowen, body-centred psychotherapist, founder of bio-energetics and author of Depression and the Body, explains that depressed people are detached from their bodies. Their energy resides in the upper chakras, or energy centres, and never grounds through the core and legs. Encouraging meditation and focus on philosophical tenets may exacerbate this energetic imbalance. Through the practice of hatha yoga; the ‘Ha' and ‘Tha' are balanced energetically so neither the mental or physical faculties predominate.

It is a well-known fact that physical exercise is effective at treating depression by increasing the amount of oxygen and endorphins in the bloodstream. Recent studies have revealed more beneficial changes from yoga than from exercise. In his book Meditation as Medicine, Dharma Singh Khalsa MD describes how yoga and meditation can radically alter the biochemistry of the brain. The balance of stimulation and relaxation achieved through yoga practice stimulates the pituitary gland to release endorphins, while the peripheral glandular system produces adrenaline and norepenephrine to stimulate brain activity. The levels of the stress hormone cortisol drops and oxygen consumption increases, reducing muscle tension. This unique combination of factors working together raise conscious awareness while promoting deep relaxation. A clinical study in Scandinavia revealed that following a two-hour yoga class the alpha waves (relaxation) and theta waves (unconscious memory, dreams and emotions) were increased in the brain by 40 per cent. The stress hormone cortisol was shown to have significantly dropped in participants, in a study at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, after a single yoga class.

Yoga postures, breathing, and the use of sound as a mantra or chant give us a powerful recipe for positively altering the body's biochemical and hormonal balance. Mantra causes the master glands of the brain, the pituitary, pineal and hypothalamus, to release hormones that give "a light, natural stimulation of the mind and body - the opposite of depression".


Asana — the physical practice of yoga

There seems to be two distinct schools of thought when prescribing yoga poses for a depressed person. BKS Iyengar and others, including The Bihar School of Swami Satyananda, advocate a vigorous programme of asanas, focusing on backbends and sun salutations, to keep the person externally focused, avoiding forward bends and shavasana (lying down relaxation) - postures that promote too much introspection. Kripalu yoga champions the benefits of holding the ‘introspective' asanas to explore, experience and clear the underlying feelings and causes of the depressed state.

This ‘only-way-out-is-through' philosophy of Kripalu yoga sees the yoga mat as an appropriate place to explore the darker feelings that characterize depression. Students are encouraged to move slowly, holding postures, while staying present to the emotions that may arise. Kripalu teachers encourage a slow, deliberate movement that anchors the mind in sensation and allows a deep relearning to happen. By applying the yogic principle of svadyaya, ‘self-study', a profound level of healing can occur. "All the practices in Kripalu yoga are simply tools to strip away the layers of armoring that keep us feeling separate from ourselves and others," says Amy Weintraub. In this way, witness consciousness is cultivated so a deeper acceptance of reality can take place.

Inverted postures such as shoulder stand or headstand, both camps agree, are particularly useful as they alter the flow of blood, lymphatic drainage and cranial sacral fluid. This increases the availability of oxygen and glucose in the brain required for the creation of the feel-good neurotransmitters of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin.

Standing poses help ground energy, elevate mood and build confidence. Backbends invigorate and give a feeling of hope as they open the chest. Seated forward bends can be helpful in calming an agitated, anxious mind. Leading Iyengar yoga teacher Patricia Walden advises different sequences for particular forms of depression. Chronic depression sufferers benefit from beginning their practice with quiet chest-opening postures, progressing to more active, energising poses. Someone suffering from an anxiety-based depression may start with a series of active poses to release excess energy, which can be followed by some calming, restorative poses.


The breath

Breath is often described in yogic tradition as the bridge between the body and mind. The practice of yogic breathing, pranayama, can have a powerful effect on the mind and body of a depressed person - elevating mood and consciousness by directly increasing the flow of prana, life force, through the entire system. By consciously controlling the breath through pranayama the amount of prana in the body may be controlled, either energising or calming the system, depending on the practice.

The internal state of a person can be revealed by close observation of their breath. A depressed person often breathes shallow, short breaths into the tops of the lungs. Donna Farhi equates this upper-chest breathing to people being out of their body and ‘in their head'. Dharma Singh Khalsa explains that this type of breathing can become a vicious cycle, further locking tension into the body. Alexander Lowen observed that many of his depressed patients had actually immobilised their diaphragm, unconsciously trying to control powerful feelings of fear, aggression or sexual response.

Simply teaching a depressed person how to breath evenly and deeply can have a profound effect on their mental state. Deep diaphragmatic breathing fully exposes the blood in the capillaries to air, and circulates the oxygenated blood to the lower parts of the lungs. Deeper breathing brings a more grounded feeling of being in touch with the body and its feelings. With the breath more grounded in the body and the diaphragm relaxed, the body often begins to allow the experience of repressed feelings to emerge. Feelings of anger, fear, resentment, grief may surface and need to be held, integrated and processed, either on the yoga mat or with a properly trained therapist.



Conscious relaxation and meditation can create a calm, healing state in the body, balancing and purifying the mind, although it is important for teachers to evaluate when meditative practices are appropriate for a student suffering from depression. Attempting to meditate in an excessively negative or agitated mind-space may be counter-productive. There are a large number of meditation techniques that have proven their effectiveness at calming and quieting the mind, from prayer, visualisation, mindfulness meditation, medical meditation, Transcendental Meditation, and many others.

The state of samadhi, surrender into wholeness, can be seen as the ultimate healing state. This state is not reserved to the yoga mat, nor is it to be seen as an ultimate goal to be sought in yoga practice. This surrender to what is can allow a state of grace to emerge where everything in the moment feels exactly as it should be. This profound healing state may catch us unawares while watching a bird in flight, following meditation, or it may find us in a yoga asana as the grasping mind lets go for several moments of bliss.

Through the regular practice of yoga it is possible for suffers of depression to be profoundly healed and helped. The more regular the practice, the more profound the results. It can be difficult to motivate a depressed person to do anything and not to increase their sense of failure if they fail to live up to the demands of a daily practice. But if, through the gentle guidance of an understanding teacher, they can feel safe and empowered it is hoped that the results incrementally grow and the tangible benefits will promote the desire to engage more and more with their yoga practice.



Ciara Cronin is a Registered Yoga Teacher and qualified holistic therapist. She teaches regular classes to groups and individuals in south Dublin and Wicklow, and residential workshops in the west of Ireland. Visit www.yoga.ie for further information or e-mail [email protected]


Cope, Stephen. Yoga and the Quest for True Self (New York; Bantam Books 1999)
Corry, Michael and Tubridy, Aine. Going Mad — Understanding Mental Illness (Dublin; Gill & McMillan 2001)
Epstein, Mark: ‘Sitting with Depression'. Yoga Journal (September/October 2000)
Feuerstein, George: ‘Happiness, Well-Being and Reality'. International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) 2000.
Feuerstein, Trisha Lamb: ‘Health Benefits of Yoga'. Yoga World No. 16 (Jan-Mar 2001)
Feuerstein, Trisha Lamb: ‘Yoga and Depression Bibliography'. Yoga Research and Education Centre, 2000
Kraftscow, Gary. Yoga and Wellness: Timeless Teachings in the Tradition of Viniyoga (New York; Penguin Compass 1999)
McCall, Timothy: ‘Padmasana on Prozac'. Yoga Journal (December 2003)
Tubridy, Aine. When Panic Attacks (Dublin; Gill & McMillan 2003)
Weintraub, Amy: ‘The Natural Prozac'. Yoga Journal (November/December 1999)
Weintraub, Amy: ‘Better than Prozac?' Yoga Journal (July/August 2001)
Weintraub, Amy. Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga (New York; Broadway Books, 2004)

See www.yogafordepression.com/Yoga_For_Depression.htm
Worthington, Roger. A Student's Companion to Patanjali. (London; Theosophical Publishing House, 1987)
Singh Khalsa, Dharma, MD. Meditation as Medicine (New York; Fireside, 2002)
Raskin, Donna: ‘How Yoga can Banish the Blues'.

Sarawati, Swami Satyaprakash: ‘Yoga for the Management of Depression'. www.yogamag.net/archives/2000/5sep00/depres.shtml (England, 2000)
Sparrowe, Linda and Walden, Patricia. The Woman's Book of Yoga and Health (Boston; Shambala, 2002)



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