Yoga and Depression

Depression is a subject often avoided. Our culture prefers to pretend it does not exist or to avoid conversations around mental struggles, and we are seldom comfortable admitting our own challenges. The truth is that the majority of people will have temporary depression at one time in their lives, and one in four people will have chronic depression or some form of mental illness.

There are many factors contributing to temporary depression. Common causes include death of a loved one, elevated or charged hormones due to puberty, pregnancy and menopause, emotional shifts due to work or family life, and a decline in fitness and health.

The latter two can often be the reason all the other conditions become harder. Numerous research projects have demonstrated that humans thrive emotionally when we are physically fit and when movement is effortless and easy. So, how do we deal with mental wellness when movement is a challenge?

Depression is not a natural part of aging only a common one, and is more common in individuals over sixty-five years.

It is normal to hear women between the ages of fifty to eighty often struggle with getting older; loss of friends, needing to relocate to a more senior friendly home, inexplicable pains, complaints with some medical professionals, side effects of medications, seeing and hearing impairments, sleeplessness, aches and pains and just feeling plain tired.

There seems to be a sense that aging is a failure. We are all painfully aware of the trend to praise all things young, which results in a binary and rejection of all things “old”.  However, we can’t dismiss the notion of maintaining fitness and wellness throughout our lives, regardless of age, as it is has direct ramifications on our health and mental well-being.

Yoga can help to address many of the complaints and ailments people have or help with the coping skills when we can’t alleviate the symptoms. In a study (Effects of Yoga and Ayurveda on Older Adults in a Rsidential Home, Manjunath Nandi Krishnamurthy, BNS, PhD and Shirley Tellers, MB, BS PhD) completed in 2007, the goal was to discern if yoga, aurvedic tinctures or a control group would have a lower rate of depression.

The test was done with more than sixty-five participants persons aged sixty and older at a residential seniors’ home. All the participants were determined to suffer from “geriatric depression”. The yoga group was the only ones to have shown any improvement on depression. The results were significant, as the participants only practiced thirty minutes per week.

In addition to helping people cope with depression, there are many areas that yoga can help people profoundly to address and/or alleviate health issues. Yoga helps flush the lymphatic system, and can also detoxify the joints by squeezing the bursa sacs, thereby renewing the senovial fluid. The muscular system, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system and the respiratory system all can be greatly strengthened through a regular well balanced yoga practice. By developing pointed concentration and breath awareness, yoga practitioners can potentially lower blood pressure, finding a better balance of moods.

Our cells secrete specific, diverse fluids as a regular action. Hormones, proteins and various fluids help the cells to communicate with each other. When the body is stressed or experiencing mental disease, some fluids secreted may create an inflammation response (ie. Cytokine), raising the over all stress in the body. In one test (Yoga reduces Cytokine levels known to promote inflammation, Ohio State University) done on caregivers and non-caregivers (of family members) the caregivers secreted four times the inflammatory fluids than non-caregivers, clearly illustrating that the emotional state can affect physical wellness in the body.

When additional negative fluids are secreted, the cells need to form more receptacles to take them in and process the fluid. If the cells stop producing the signature fluid caused by an emotional state, the cells start to crave the fluid, as more receptacles have formed, creating a desire for this “habitual” emotion from stress. When we stop feeling the stress for a length of time, the receptacles become less and the desire for the stress-feeding fluid is minimized.

Learning to lower our stress level can be a challenge at first because of the habitual chemical process. However, knowing that is gets easier with time helps to keep us dedicated to the process of relaxing, breathing purposefully and practicing yoga asanas.

Hatha Yoga in general is considered to include yoga postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and contemplative time (meditation). Yoga appears to modulate stress response systems as a whole, decreasing physiological arousal, including reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and calming the respiratory system.

A pain threshold test performed in 2008 at the University of Utah, had a group of fourteen people with fibromyalgia, twelve yoga practioners, and sixteen healthy volunteers. There is an understanding that people that respond poorly to stress also have a lower pain threshold, so the test was set up to test pain tolerance in thumb pressure.

As expected the fibramyalgia participants felt the pain with less pressure and had the strongest activity in the pain centres of the brain. The yogis had the highest pain threshold and the lowest pain related brain activity.

In 2005, a Yoga study was set up in a New Hampshire psychiatric hospital. More than a hundred participants joined, including patients with bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia. By the end of one class, the majority of participants reported (via mood states’ questionnaires) a dramatic drop in tension and anxiety, depression, anger hostility and fatigue.

These studies support the amazing and unique responses that people may experience when incorporating yoga into their lives. This being said, we also can understand that there are other responses that may come up too. When people start to practice yoga, they may have emotional releases like sadness. It is helpful to know this in advance.

When connecting inward in yoga, one can connect with memories that are latent but stored in the body, for example cellular memories. When an emotional release comes up and can be witnessed, it creates more open space inside. It can be like cleaning out your messy or cluttered closet. Not only does our body release physical toxins held in our joints and organs, we have toxic memories that can also be released.

Back bending and hip opening are two main areas that people seem reluctant to open and expand to; although emotional pain can be situated anywhere in the body.

To help with the alleviation of stress, and all that we come to class or practices with, the body needs to relax…. deeply, and then we need to relax more deeply again. And sometimes upon hearing the third suggestion to relax, people start to understand all the ways we try to convince ourselves that we are relaxed when we are really in a state of stress.

When the body is able to experience comfort and kindness within, we are also quieting the mind. The back and forth initial chatter between body and mind starts to slow its pace and intensity. A tool to aid in the smoothening out process is the breath.

Perhaps you simply take a deep inhalation, followed by an exhalation. We drop our weight further down in our bodies. Judgments about our mind state or body shape settle into the distance, even for twenty seconds. The Vrittis (or mind chatter) may come back wanting to be heard. You can be kind with this “child-like voice”, smile at the chatter and then take another deep breath in and a deep exhale out. Now you have another twenty seconds of calm.

When you pile up enough twenty-second calm pauses, they start to string together to create a calmer state of being. We start to feel fresher and are better able to deal with real concerns that come up. The calm climate of mind and body become favorable and desirable. After time you start to notice when your mind is racing when you are not relaxed, and that there are tools to deal with a non-equanimous mind. Sometimes it is deep breathing (counting to ten works too) or it may include finding time and space to ground yourself.

It’s important to note this new awareness, as you may wonder if your yoga practice is causing the emotional disturbances inside you. The truth is that you now have the sensitivity to perceive when you are imbalanced. Before you may have been ignoring your body’s signals and you now are redeveloping a relationship, long missed, with your body and mind, using the breath as the glue to bind everything together. The practice of yoga can tone the nervous system, stimulate circulation, increase concentration, and build mental and physical energy.