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How Yoga Heals Depression
Perhaps you go through your day feeling a general sense of melancholy; you don’t laugh as much as you used to and feel a subtle pressure on your chest. Or maybe it’s more serious; you struggle to get out of bed in the morning and feel breathless beneath a dark cloud. Depression affects nearly 15 million Americans, many who take medication to help elevate their mood. But whether you experience depression as a subtle sadness, or as a life-altering health condition, yoga may provide a path for healing.
Depression from the yogic viewpoint
Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression and founding director of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, which trains practitioners in yoga for depression and anxiety, says that when you look at depression from the yogic perspective, there are two deficits to address. The first is a lack of breathing. “Often depressed people do not have enough prana, or breath, coming into their body,” she says. “They are not getting enough oxygen to the brain so it can fully function.”
The second is a lack of connection to self and others. “Our natural state is wholeness; we are born connected,” says Weintraub. “Little by little, as we go through trauma, loss, the kind of parenting we receive, we begin to separate from our true nature, which can lead to a feeling of alienation and loneliness.” Weintraub says that many people carry this sense of loneliness, and this lack of fully breathing, as depression.
How practicing yoga improves your mood
Yoga’s effectiveness in healing depression has been proven both anecdotally and through numerous studies with scientific methodologies using randomized controlled trials — a format considered the most effective for determining accuracy of study results. Preliminary evidence suggests the benefits of yoga are similar to that of exercise and relaxation techniques. One study suggests that three months of practicing yoga for 90 minutes a week improved depression in participants by about 50 percent.
Weintraub says that yoga that includes breathing practices called pranayama offers a positive mood-altering effect, by elevating our “feel-good” hormones dopamine, prolactin and oxytocin. Deepened breath work reduces stress by allowing a person to physically experience the sensation of relaxing. Some studies have shown that the controlled breathing aspect of yoga reduces levels of two stress hormones, cortisol and corticotropin.
Yoga also stimulates our vagus nerve (a nerve that runs from the back of the neck to our perineum), says Weintraub. Stimulating this nerve is one way some practitioners treat depression.
Practicing yoga also offers an important connection to community. Many practice with a favored teacher in a group setting, or sanga, which creates a sense of belonging. “Feeling separate is built into our high-tech culture,” says Weintraub. “We are connected globally, but disconnected personally. When we go to a yoga class we have the sanga, the community, of that class.”
Shannon Paige Schneider, owner of Om Time Yoga Centers and a teacher trainer and blogger, says that yogic communities can fill a space of loneliness. “Community creates a cultural pattern of connection and helps significantly with depression,” she says. “There is the lesson that one is not alone when one shows up to yoga.”
Another significant healing aspect of yoga, whether practiced at home watching an online video or DVD or with a group, is that it offers a path for connection to self. “People who are anxious and depressed often don’t feel comfortable living in their own bodies,” says Weintraub. “They are living from the neck up. When you practice yoga, you are cued to pay attention to the sensations in your body, and for some people it leaps over that feeling of ‘it’s not safe to live in my body anymore.’”
Schneider also says that this connection to self, through yoga, helps a depressed person re-channel her quality of thought. “Depression can be a negative emotion held in place with negative self-talk,” she says. “Yoga can help one step out of self-talk that harms into a self-talk that entrusts, accepts and loves.”
If you have been taking medication for depression, Weintraub cautions to be sure to work with your prescribing psychiatrist before going off your meds. “Don’t go cold turkey,” she says. “Slowly build your practice, and slowly go off your meds with observation.”
How to motivate to the mat
When you’re depressed, it’s not always easy to start a new routine. Begin a yoga practice with small steps, suggests Weintraub. If you’re at the point where you can’t get out of bed in the morning, start with gentle stretching in bed. “Take baby steps, and don’t judge yourself for not doing a longer practice,” she says. Keep your listening device next to your bed — whether it's an iPod®, CD, DVD or video — and begin by doing just one section of the program, perhaps a short breathing technique or warm-up stretches. Gradually work your way up from there.
Once you are ready for a longer practice, choose an approach that is right for your level and need. “If you are really depressed and you go to a class, start with a restorative class,” says Weintraub. “Yoga is about union, about a sense of connection to yourself and others. If you do not feel that way when you walk out of the class, then find a different class.”
Look for yoga classes specifically oriented toward depression and anxiety, suggests Schneider. “These classes create a safe place to enter yoga,” she says. “Yoga can be seen as so perfect — crisp and clean on the covers of magazines — when in fact many of us use it as a healing modality for great places of discomfort in our own skin. Truth be told, yoga is perfect for the messy spaces in our hearts, minds and bodies.”
Find thousands of streaming online yoga classes at GaiamTV.com and start your home practice today!
Jean Weiss, a writer and editor, has been practicing yoga for more than 13 years.
We asked experts, authors and readers like you to share their stories of Hope. Every day for the next month, you'll find new tips for optimism on Gaiam Life, the Stream of Consciousness blog and our social media sites: Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And don’t miss the GaiamTV.com Hope Film Festival, with FREE films all month long.