Depression is one of the most common mental health issues that we face. An estimated 17.3 million people will have some episode of depression in their life. It can manifest in a vast variety of ways and can have other issues associated with it like problems with food, sleep, digestion, muscle pain, headaches, and immune and stress response. It is characterized by feelings of heaviness, lethargy, negative thinking, feeling stuck, hopeless, or immobilized. Yoga therapy is excellent for mild to moderate depression. There are countless studies on the efficacy of yoga therapy for depression, but how does it really work?
How Does Yoga Therapy Help Depression?
In a nutshell, from the perspective of yoga therapy, depression is the lack of connection to joy. In our model we look at the entire individual, as depression is not just a mental event. Every aspect of a client is taken into consideration and addressed. We look for what qualities are out of balance, and what dimensions of the person this imbalance manifests in such as the physical, energetic, mental/emotional, intellectual, and spiritual (or the ability to connect to bliss) layers.
In its most simple view, our work is to get moving and have fun. But that is only where we begin. Practice is lighthearted and focuses on using the large muscle groups of the body in asana. We warm the body with movements like swinging the arms and body, very similar to how children move. Warrior yoga poses build strength and confidence. Sun salutations get us moving and breathing, balancing the nervous system and sending our brain the message that we are okay. Breathing exercises are focused on moving prana (energy). Often with depression, breathing is very shallow and focused in the chest. By deepening the breath with such practices as Breath of Fire or Kapalabhati (forceful exhalations out the nose with a passive inhale), we increase the movement of energy (prana) in the body and feelings of wellbeing soon follow. These two yoga practices, asana and pranayama, alone might begin to decrease symptoms and alleviate feelings of heaviness, lethargy, and hopelessness by directly affecting the brain and nervous system at the level of neurotransmitters, neural pathways, and by moving us from freeze and fold to safe and sound. But we do not stop there.
A Complementary Therapy and Alternative Treatment for Depression
Yoga therapy works to get at the root of issues, not just reducing depressive symptoms. It’s important to see a yoga therapist who attended an accredited yoga therapy program so they’re qualified to work with you. Mindfulness meditation, mantra, and chanting are deeply effective for changing our negative mental habits, broadening our perspective of ourselves and our place in the world, and developing self-love and compassion. The practice of metta (loving-kindness)is an example of how to cultivate compassion and self-love. Metta meditation teaches us how to have love and compassion for ourselves, the ones we are close to, and even those we have challenges with. By repeating with as much love and feeling as you can, “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I love and be loved.” We can develop a greater internal experience of joy. This is not the joy that comes from outside experiences like from food, shopping, relationships or work, but a joy that one finds within themselves that is without dependence on anything.This kind of work helps us to experience internal contentment even when faced with outside challenges or discomfort. It makes us better able to handle our suffering and see it as temporary.
Yoga therapy views any physical or mental health issue not as a permanent, defining aspect of the individual, but rather a passing experience external to this joy. By learning to bring all aspects of ourselves into more balance we see we are not only our bodies, we are not only our minds. This quickly begins to alleviate our suffering and ease depression symptoms.