Yoga for depression and anxiety

I was happy to be able to snag the last available spot for a two-hour workshop called Yoga for Depression and Anxiety, held this afternoon at the beautiful, community-focused Just B Yoga in Lansing. It was taught by a good friend of mine, South London native Kim Lewis.

Just B Yoga website screenshot

Although I won’t try to document the breathing and moving techniques that Kim went through — I believe these types of things are best learned and digested in context — I do want to say it was very moving when Kim started out the workshop by telling her own story. Here is her bio:

I first experienced a yoga class about 20 years ago, but I began to practice consistently in 2002 in my late 30s. I’d never been comfortable doing sport or “physical” activity, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this unfamiliar form of exercise. Since then, I’ve learned that yoga has much more to offer than simply physical movement.

Before getting more serious about yoga, I was suffering with backaches, headaches, and neck aches – probably all because of stress. I’ve also had trouble with depression and anxiety that has sometimes thrown me completely off balance. Yoga has helped me to build better physical and mental health, so I’m able to function well in my daily life – and really live life.

At 46, I’m in much better physical and emotional shape than I was at 26. The combination of yoga poses, breathing and meditative practices simply makes me feel good. I’m so fortunate that I found yoga and I want to share it with others.

I trained with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga. I am also certified by Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, as a LifeForce Yoga Practitioner.

Kim was diagnosed as bipolar in her 20s, and strongly advises anyone trying to come off medications to do so with the help of a physician — rather than trying to do so on their own. Kim told the group today that she is living proof that while yoga can’t take away all the challenges, it can change someone’s life:

It can change your brain.

Kim told us that yoga gives you the tools to take care of yourself. These tools can be summarized by three words: “Breathe, Move, Watch,” based on breathing techniques (pranayama), physical postures (asana) and looking at how yoga philosophy views the Self.

You can use breathing and movement to:

  • Balance the body and mind
  • Calm the body/mind when anxious
  • Energize the body and mind when depressed — but on this point, Kim emphasized how mindfulness is needed because this can also aggravate anxiety or set off a manic state.

She said everyone needs to cultivate self-awareness and check in with themselves. If you feel lethargic and depressed, start slowly and warm up to a more energetic practice. If you feel jumpy and anxious, start with more active movement and then slow down to a more calming practice.

As a yoga instructor, I appreciated Kim’s pointers for those with depression or anxiety when taking group yoga classes — that you have to cultivate this same self-awareness and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

On this point, I think yoga teachers would be wise to try to learn more about depressed and anxious students. You won’t be able to tell that modifications are needed the way you would if a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy walks into your class, but even being aware of different needs might make you more intuitive about students who may quietly be suffering through major depression and need a different energy from you.

I found these points particularly interesting:

  • For someone with major depression, it may be too much to turn in internally, so don’t allow yourself to go there.
  • For someone with major depression, it might be uncomfortable to close the eyes, so just soften the gaze.

On that point, as an Ashtanga devotee, it made me all the more aware of the importance of dristi — the gaze — of the practice. Dristi is one of the three tools that the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga system gives us (together, the three are referred to as the tristana). There’s not a whole lot of eye-closing in Ashtanga — you are always asked to set a soft gaze on one of nine points (tip of nose, hand, to the side, etc.). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, to keep us present on the mat in a way that allows us to boomerang our awareness inward with true clarity, rather than in a way that allows us either to escape to another place or get sucked into a place we don’t want to go to.

I’m writing about this workshop to, generally, help share the resources that Kim shared. I also noticed that the workshop had sold out at 20 slots — but I only counted about 14 in the room, and wondered if some folks were too anxious to be in a group setting where the focus was on yoga therapy for depression and anxiety.

For anyone with depression or anxiety reading this blog post at home, know that there are people who get it, and that yoga therapy may be able to help. If reaching out seems impossible, maybe make a few clicks to buy some of these resources listed below, to help you get to a point where you can seek out a professional who can work with you on some basic yoga techniques that — while they will hardly fix everything — might be able to help.

Suggested books

Suggested CD

>>Related posts: A different kind of black Friday

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By the way — I know it’s been two weeks since my last blog post, and I have to tell you that it’s killing me that I’ve been too busy to blog. If you’ve been following this blog for the past year or so, you know I fit in blogging whenever I can — so the fact that I haven’t been able to put anything up is a testament to how compressed my schedule has been. I think I literally have about 12 blog posts in my head right now — about the first Bikram class I took about what being a Radiohead concert made me think about injuries, about one excellent tool for home practice and how I lost my voice nearly completely but taught a led class anyway — and on and on. I hope to catch up on some of these. We shall see.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A different kind of black Friday: How yoga therapy can be used to help treat depression

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Enjoying the post-Thanksgiving food high, I’m with my family in San Jose. And I see that the Mercury News ran a story the other day saying that here in Santa Clara county, someone commits suicide on average every three days. Think about that — every 72 hours.

Black Friday officially kicks off the winter holiday season — a time of year designed to be full of family, friends and celebration. For those who live with clinical depression, though, it can be one of the toughest times to go through.

In high school, I worked on a teen hotline where, in theory, anyone contemplating suicide could call (gratefully, I was never on the other end of one of those calls). Depression has profoundly affected the life course of people I care deeply about. If there’s one societal change I have long wanted to contributed to, it is that, in my own way, one conversation at a time, I want people to understand that depression is not simply being sad. Or feeling really, really down. It is chemical. Deeply physiological. You don’t just buck up to get yourself out of depression. You don’t just will yourself out. Would you tell someone living with a heart condition to just get over it? True clinical depression should be considered with the same social regard as other serious threats to health.

Which brings me to yoga, and what yoga can do. The new issue of Yoga International has a wonderful piece by Gary Kraftsow:

Depression tends to hit us on every level of our being, often all at once, which makes yoga the perfect antidote for the physical ramifications, mood swings, thoughts, and behaviors that it engenders. From a physiological perspective, depression affects the entire body, including the digestive, respiratory, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems. Yoga therapy’s main impact on our physiology is via the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the ANS. Depression creates a state of sympathetic/parasympathetic disregulation, which further impacts how we feel, what we think about, and how we behave.

The sympathetic nervous system governs the functions involved in the fight-flight-or-freeze response and is activated when we perceive danger. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the functions involved in the rest-and-digest or rest-and-repose response and is activated when we are at rest.

Although some types of depression include sympathetic activation (feelings of agitation or anxiety), when people become depressed, they most often experience a state of sympathetic suppression. They may have physiological symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal distress, and/or decreased libido or sense of pleasure.

Practicing asanas with adapted breathing, pranayama techniques, and guided relaxation will help to balance the nervous system. For example, doing standing postures and backbends with an emphasis on movement—during which you progressively lengthen the inhalation and the exhalation and gently hold the breath at the end of the inhalation—will activate the sympathetic response and energize the system.

Even if you don’t know anyone right now with depression, I highly recommend reading the entire article to get a better sense of how yoga can work with depression. Kraftsow also offers a unique practice sequence. And because I’m a writer by trade, I will also say–better even than consuming online, buy the winter 2011-2012 issue of Yoga International and support this kind of quality yoga content (versus so much of the vacuous, fluffy and celebrity-driven stuff you can find these days).

(Photo credit: gogoloopie’s Flickr stream)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.