Due to the struggles and losses life throws at us, many of us are likely to experience depression. When depressed, we feel shrouded in negativity to an extent that even getting out of bed seems like an impossibility. If the feelings that accompany depression – hopelessness, worthlessness and intense sadness – remain for weeks, we may decide to seek professional help.
Discussions surrounding mental health are becoming more frequent. the theory that mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain dominates the medical profession. In response, the pharmacology industry has exploded and drugs now often surpass other methods of healing. If drugs as medication were as effective as we are led to believe, anxiety and depression in our society should be declining. However, the opposite is true. The number of people in America who are being treated for depression has tripled over the past 20 years and the use of antidepressants and anti-psychotic drugs is steadily increasing. As a result, mental health discourses are beginning to change, whilst other forms of treatment are starting to be explored.
Yoga is a route to personal transformation combined with elements of a physical practice, it has given people a way to work on their bodies whilst simultaneously calming their minds and relieving stress. Most yoga classes begin with a short meditation, before moving on to combining breath control (pranayama) with physical postures (asanas), and finally ending with a period of deep relaxation. These classes can range from dynamic and challenging, to restful and restorative, depending on the style and the teacher.
So how does yoga help with depression?
The most fundamental way that yoga can help with depression is through the release of endorphin. Like many other forms of exercise, such as running or dancing, a dynamic yoga practice causes an increase in the body’s production of endorphin. Endorphin trigger positive feelings, as well we reducing the perception of pain and discomfort in the brain. There have been many studies on the effects of exercise on depression, concluding that regular physical activity can help to increase self-esteem and diminish negative emotions.
Yogic philosophy can also promote recovery from depression. The philosophy is drawn from ancient Ayurvedic texts and is adapted to fit a modern lifestyle. It claims that the mind, body, and spirit exist as one and cannot be separated from the other. This implies your thoughts and feelings are as separate from ‘you’ as your hand or foot. A good analogy to simplify this is to liken the mind to a horse – we can either ride it or let it take us for a ride. With this outlook, one can learn to reflect on emotions as an observer, using them to benefit, rather than constantly reacting to them.
Depression can be attributed to the human tendency of living in the mind rather than in the present moment. People who are depressed are often living in the past, producing feelings of sadness by remembering times in which they were happier or focusing on previous negative events. In a yoga class, you are encouraged to focus on the inhales and exhales of the breath, forcing you to connect with the present moment. This frees the mind from its habitual thinking patterns, allowing you internal space to form new, more positive ways of thinking. Retraining the brain to appreciate the present moment is the road to self-awareness and recovery.
Connection to the Body
During a class, you are encouraged to bring an awareness to the sensations in your body from moment to moment. As you excel in this, you begin to cultivate sensory awareness. Held as much in our awareness as our physical experience, but often overlooked as we cannot physically see it, sensory awareness (our internal map) is vital to a healthy body and mind. Becoming more in touch with sensory experience encourages a new listening to the needs of your body. In turn, a healthy connection to the body can alleviate depression by opening new pathways to better understand emotions.
Community and connection, although important parts of recovering from depression, can be difficult for a depressed person. When we are depressed we feel ashamed of our emotions and usually lack in energy to engage with others. The healing power of community is often expressed through music, rhythm, and dance. In a yoga class, you breathe to the rhythm of the teacher’s instructions, moving in synchronicity with the people around you. Without words, you foster a bond with the other students, leaving you feeling physically attuned through experiences of connection and joy. Practicing in a group setting keeps you moving forward and motivates you to be fully present throughout the class. Eventually, friendships start to form, providing a support network of like-minded individuals, committed to helping us walk our path to happiness.
A regular yoga practice replaces fear with curiosity, enabling us to explore the natural rise and falls of sensation inside the body, letting go of the nervous anticipation that usually accompanies them. For those of us suffering from depression, it gives us a fresh perspective on life and a chance to free our minds from the habitual thought patterns that keep us trapped in the past. By connecting us with the present moment and allowing us to exist free from worry and fear, yoga can help us reduce the symptoms of depression and reclaim our bodies and our lives.