How is a yoga practice beneficial for someone with a history of depression?
Here is what I think, or at least what I have noticed in my personal experience.
First of all, depression is defined as experiencing feelings such as worthlessness, hopelessness, lethargy or an overall feeling of sadness that lasts more than two weeks. Most of us feel down from time to time, but clinical depression is a completely different animal and is very serious. I am not suggesting that yoga replace medical care for clinical depression. I am simply acknowledging how yoga has helped me personally as someone with a history of depression and that yoga can prove very helpful as a preventive measure.
When you exercise, as in a yoga class, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. This can help ease anxiety and feelings of depression. Regular exercise has also been proven to reduce stress, boost self esteem, improve sleep, and increase energy levels.
In addition to the physical benefits and the boost to your self esteem beginning an exercise regimen brings, there are more subtle ways in which yoga might help with depression. The mind-body connection is something which most people agree exists. The most immediate way of expressing emotion and communicating is through our body. The term “body language” refers to how we react physically to our emotions. I believe this to be at the root of yoga’s benefits for assisting in overcoming depression. Many yoga postures (asanas) place your body in positions which open the front side of the body. Take a backward bend like Ustrasana, Camel Pose, for example. This position with the chest lifted and arms extended is the physical expression of joy and gratitude. Practicing this posture will trigger an emotional response which, as you might imagine, can bring immediate hope and relief to someone experiencing a depressed state.
There is another way yoga might prove useful. Something I also consider to be a key element in yoga’s ability to ease depression is the way in which yoga practice reveals to us how we treat ourselves. Listening to that internal dialogue can be extremely helpful. Are we accepting of our self? Are we critical? Is this thought or this way of thinking useful to me? One of my favorite yoga quotes really sums this up:
“Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are.” -Jason Crandell
Yoga eliminates hiding from yourself by bringing forth confrontation of both physical and emotional blockages during asana practice. While the physical blockages may seem obvious (the tight hamstrings, shoulders, etc.), the emotional experience in your yoga classes might be confusing at first. You may find yourself feeling angry, scared, or disappointed during class, and sometimes it may seem completely out of place. Great! Take this as an opportunity to acknowledge, accept and feel your emotions completely. Allow yourself to be curious and to practice not judging yourself. Simply ask yourself, “I wonder where that came from?” and let the healing begin. For once you ask the question, or perhaps it is simply the act of asking the question, your mind is opened and your heart is opened as well. Yoga class can offer such wonderful and much needed emotional release.
So please, take these 60-90 minute classes and get to know yourself, accept yourself, love yourself and heal yourself.