“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
The mind and the body are intrinsically linked, and as such, negative processes in either one can have repercussions for the other. Practicing yoga is a great way to maintain a healthy mind-body balance, using constructive physical practices to manifest favourable positive mindsets.
Despite the well-known mental and physical benefits of yoga, it was only until fairly recently that yoga was seen as a prevention and treatment mechanism for issues like depression and anxiety. I am not simply referring to the physical practice of the asanas, which make up only one of the eight limbs of yoga, rather the use of breathing and meditation techniques to cultivate mental awareness and a greater sense of presence.
For many suffering from depression or anxiety, worries and negative thoughts often arise when dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. You can break your mind’s connection with these time-related concerns by bringing your attention back to the present moment, through meditation or Pranayama.
Meditation cultivates awareness of the present moment and is one of the approaches already used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to treat patients with depression. With CBT, meditation is usually referred to as ‘mindfulness’ so as to avoid the spiritual connotations of meditation. From meditation arises mental balance and clarity which are crucial for keeping level-headed when faced with life’s everyday difficulties.
Anyone questioning the ability of yoga to alleviate the difficulties of living with depression should compare a list of common symptoms of depression with the benefits experienced from regular practice.
By improving sleep, increasing mental clarity and reducing stress levels through your practice, you are directly targeting some of depression’s most widespread side effects. If not curing the illness, you can ease your symptoms enough to give yourself the strength to deal with depression in other ways. Exercise has long been known to release feel-good endorphins – yoga does this and more.
It is commonly thought that emotions and past traumas are stored in our physical bodies, and that yoga is a great release for these imprinted experiences. Most often when holding certain deep poses, a huge emotional release can come over people, which is a massive part of overcoming depression. This is an important release our bodies are trying to bring to our attention. The yoga mat is a safe place for these emotional breakthroughs to occur, so they should not be feared. They are an important part of personal progression.
I first came across yoga as a teenager, and although I was only practising once a week, that hour became my sanctuary. A quiet hour of turning inwards and silencing your mental chatter is an absolute blessing in the fast-paced word we live in!
In the following years my dedication to my practise definitely fluctuated, and at times when my depression was worst I couldn’t get out of bed, let alone make it to the studio, but to this day I am still amazed at the calm that comes over me when I settle on my mat. Knowing the relief that the gentle movement and focused breathing will bring me is enough motivation to get me out the house.
Of course, we can’t cure years of mental illness by attending one 90 minute flow class. It’s called yoga practice for a reason, and it’s only with regular practice that we begin to reap the benefits. With dedication and time, yoga can actually change the fundamental biochemistry of the body.
According to Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, “Yoga helps raise levels of oxcytocin, a hormone that reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels and relaxes the whole body. With regular practice, yoga also improves the levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that tends to be low in people who suffer from depression and anxiety.”
Modern medicine and classic therapy techniques have both helped me enormously with my own battles with depression, but when mood affecting disorders continue to be so prevalent in today’s society, I believe it is vital we try some more natural alternatives before seeking medication.
Yoga may not be a sure fire way to “beat the blues”, but having developed this lifestyle through my own personal struggles, I can agree with the studies that promote this ancient practice as a progressive coping mechanism.
On a mental level, the mind control, discipline and focus on the present moment are incredible tools for dealing with negative thoughts, while the physical movement is amazingly soothing and supportive to this nature. Asana practice creates a lightness in the body, a freedom for energy to flow and a heightened bodily awareness. Through yoga you can learn to unconditionally love yourself, a step you have to take before you can ever truly love another. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your body is invaluable for happiness.
Yoga can teach you so much about compassion, about yourself and about the greater picture. Writing this as the positive, body confident and happy person that I am today, I feel eternally grateful for my practice and the wonders it has done for my outlook on life.