Can Yoga Banish the Blues?

Can Yoga Banish the Blues?
Yoga Can Lift Your Mood Along With Lifting Your Posture


Christiane had not been in the best frame of mind for quite a while, but with a family to raise she had no time to focus on her mood. Her depression, however, did not slip by her Yoga instructor. Paul Cabanis, who teaches Iyengar in the Los Angeles area, took Christiane aside one day during class and gave her some postures that were different from what the rest of the group was doing at that moment. He also showed her some Asanas she could do at home. “I have to say it worked!” she relates.

Practicing Yoga might not come to mind immediately as a way to relieve depression, but it can be very helpful. Those who have severe or long-lasting depression should, of course, seek counseling, but Yoga can do wonders for an occasional case of the blues. There are several reasons for that.

Like any form of exercise, Yoga is a mood enhancer. It releases certain hormones that help alleviate the built up stress that can lead to depression. It’s also an activity that can keep your mind focused away from negative thoughts, so you have a chance to gain perspective. In some ways Yoga has a better chance of accomplishing this than conventional exercise, because it’s not as physically rigorous or demanding. Most people who are feeling down lack motivation, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as much effort to do a Yoga routine as it does to run or lift weights at a gym. On the other end of the spectrum – the mental side – is meditation, and while it can be good for some depressed people, others have serious problems with sitting quietly and trying to detach from their thoughts. Since Yoga is moving meditation, it is easier to draw attention away from melancholy or morbid thinking. Yoga’s multifaceted focus on balance can also help restore mental equilibrium.

Yoga clearly has a mind-body-spirit connection that neither exercise nor meditation alone has. Paul Cabanis knows about this from his own experience, from observing his students, and from his Yoga studies in Pune, India with B.K.S Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta Iyengar. Cabanis traces Yoga’s affect on depression back to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Daurmanasya, he explains, is the Sanskrit word for “think badly,” and bad thoughts, according to the Sutras, distract one from one’s own essential nature. Patanjali describes symptoms, or “distractions” such as doubt, heedlessness, dissipation, indolence and distorted perception – all of which are signs of possible depression. Since Yoga is meant to bring you to an awareness of your inner truth, it’s only logical that there would be ways to address the issue of depression and other forms of mental distortion. vYoga’s approach to depression is very individual. “Depression comes in many forms and cannot be treated in any generalized way,” Cabanis advises. The only aspect everyone has in common is that “we fall victim to the fundamental error of assuming that what we see and perceive every day is intransient, ultimate and real.” The Yogic philosophy is geared towards making practitioners see the error of this type of thinking. Certain postures, meanwhile, can influence mood, and while there is no “magic Asana” that will cure depression, instructors generally acknowledge that various backbends and inversions are helpful, especially for those suffering from lethargy or a low level of energy. Breathing, or Pranayama, is also good says Cabanis – “On the one hand it calms the nervous system overall, and on the other it teaches one to understand the connection between one’s mind and one’s emotions, enabling one to manage them better.”

Christiane remembers one exercise Cabanis had her do called dropovers: “You drop from the standing position into a Wheel. He would help me do several in a row – at least nine, or even more. That had an immediate effect!” Her practice at home wasn’t anywhere near as taxing, however – she points out that simple backbends over a bolster are a gentle way of opening up. Christiane is studying to be a psychotherapist and she was so impressed by the results she got that she plans to combine Yoga and traditional therapy when she begins practicing professionally.

For those who want to try Yoga therapeutically, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  1. If your depression is serious, do seek out conventional therapy. You can always practice Yoga in addition to your doctor’s orders – after all, it’s drug-free! If you are prescribed any form of medication by your physician, stay on it unless he directs you otherwise – do not halt medication, ever, just because you are doing Yoga!
  2. All forms of Yoga can helpful for the blues – sometimes it’s most important that you just do it in the first place. You don’t necessarily have to focus on a particular type of posture. For feelings of anxiety or restlessness, you may want to start off with a more active form of Yoga, like Flow. If your motivation is low, try a gentler Yoga style.
  3. If you would like to try a Yoga routine specifically geared towards depression, then it’s very important to find a Yoga instructor who can create one specifically geared for you. Iyengar teachers are ideal for this purpose – most of them have gone through very intense training, and the precision and adaptability of Iyengar make it especially good for therapeutic purposes.
  4. And lastly, remember – your thoughts are only one aspect of who you are, and usually the least accurate!

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