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)

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