I think these days most of us have had some experience with depression, either personally or through someone we know. For me, depression reared its ugly head in my late teens and initially I didn’t even notice. I just didn’t really like myself, so a combination of low self esteem and depressive thoughts affected who I was. I always felt low,
I avoided social situations where I could and where I couldn’t I would drink alcohol to get me through. Not a great idea considering it’s a depressor! Depressed people generally have a lack of interest in things they once found pleasure in with lethargy and introversion being commonplace, so I should have seen the signs but when you’re in that dark place its sometimes difficult to see that there even could be a way out because it becomes who you are.
I muddled through various treatments including medication, CBT and therapy. For a while I would feel better but inevitably I would find myself sinking back into the dark hole of depression. I came to yoga while traveling and sought it out as a way to improve my tight hamstrings, but now, four years since my last bout of depression I have yoga and meditation to thank for the change. This has led me to thinking about how yoga helped to heal me and what would the best practices be if one of my students asked me to suggest ways to help.
Yoga is thought to modulate the stress response systems, causing decreased physiological arousal, decreased resting heart rate, decreased blood pressure and increased pain tolerance. There is also thought to be an increase in the amino acid GABA which helps to promote a sense of calm. So we can see that generally yoga is well placed to help with the symptoms of depression.
In yogic philosophy matter or prakriti is made up of three qualities or gunas: tamas; rajas and sattva. We can imagine Tamas to be a heavy dense feeling, Rajas a feeling of heat, spice and energy and Sattva like a cool wind. Ideally these three qualities should be balanced in an individual but in depressed people we tend to see an increase in tamas the guna associated with inertia. Depressed people are also thought to have a low level of prana or life energy, which through yoga therapy we want to increase.
Thinking from the point of view of yogic anatomy, we wish to stimulate the manipura chakra or the navel centre. Stimulating this chakra or energy centre can have an effect on the adrenal glands and adrenal insufficiency can cause depression and lethargy. So it makes sense that stimulating this chakra would have an effect on wellbeing.
I’ve found the following asana or postures in the yoga practice help me with low moods-
Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) due to its dynamic nature and ability to increase prana in the body.
Dynamic asanas such as Camatkarasana (Wild Thing) for the same reason.
Back bends such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Facing Bow Pose) or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) can be helpful in opening the heart and encouraging self love and self esteem.
Plank or Dolphin Plank can be useful to activate the core, increase agni or the internal fire and therefore increase prana.
Preparatory poses for Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) and the pose itself can be very energising and uplifting, increasing prana in the body.
The postures that are good for stimulating the manipura chakra are Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend or intense stretch of the west),
Trikonsana (Triangle Pose)
and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes).
Apart from asana we as teachers can also offer pranayama or breathing exercises-
Bhastrika or bellows breath which increases prana and is very energising.
Kapalbhati which helps to clear the mind and strengthen the nervous system.
Ujjayi helps to soothe the nervous system and calm the mind (if the student is doing vinyasa flow or astanga all the better as this is incorporated into the asana practice).
I have also found chanting Om to be effective in not allowing negative thoughts to ruminate and the vibration is generally thought to be healing. This can be paired with some simple meditation techniques that are easy for the student to perform at home like focusing on the breathe or a candle flame.
So healing the depressed body doesn’t just need to be about medication, we can use our bodies to help us heal and along the way maybe discover some inner peace and comfort that comes from within.