Banish the Blues – by Gary Kraftsow
Banish the Blues: (an excerpt from an article by Gary Kraftsow) Yoga for Depression – Yoga teaches us how to lift ourselves out of depression and move toward a deeper sense of self.
Anyone who has suffered from depression understands how deep, abiding sadness or worthlessness can infiltrate and affect every aspect of our being. Our psychological makeup, physical health, mental outlook, and even our ability to interact with friends and family and be present to the world around us can get shaken to their core. Why? Because we identify with and attach ourselves to things that will inevitably change. As our feelings and other symptoms of depression persist, we have an increasingly difficult time imagining a life in which we break free from their spell and avoid “becoming” them.
Yoga teaches us that we aren’t our feelings or our symptoms but live in multidimensional relationship with them. One way to grasp this paradox is to picture the Self (purusha or pure, undifferentiated awareness) as pervading all nine interlocking and interdependent spheres of influence without being any one of them.
The first three spheres correspond to our moods, thoughts, and behaviors and, where they overlap, our sense of self or svabhava. These spheres profoundly affect—and are affected by—our memory, unconscious conditioning, and by the fourth sphere, our physiology, particularly our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The remaining five spheres represent our anatomy and our relationships with family, society, the world, and the entire cosmos.
Balance Your Physiology
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.
Stabilize and Uplift Your Moods
The way you respond emotionally to what happens around you and within you is influenced by conscious memories and unconscious conditioning, as well as by your thoughts, behavior, and physiology. When you become depressed, it’s not unusual to feel sadness, grief, despair, emptiness, helplessness, hopelessness, or shame.
The ancients used meditation, chanting, mantra japa, prayer, right relationship, and right association to elevate mood. Mantra japa—one of the most powerful yogic tools for this level, along with pranayama—emphasizes both the meaning of the mantras (artha) and the feelings or attitudes they engender (bhava). Traditionally a teacher who knows you well would choose a particular mantra for you to work with. If you don’t have a teacher, you can begin by choosing a mantra or a symbol that takes you beyond your thought distortions, uplifts your mood, connects you to sources of inspiration and positive feelings, and moves you away from loneliness or isolation.
The company you keep, the activities you participate in, and the values you hold also profoundly impact your mood. Thus, practices for this sphere include cultivating right associations—what yogis call sangha or satsangha—and right relationships, which can steer you toward people and things that are more meaningful, uplifting, and positive, and nurture feelings of love and joy, tolerance, compassion, and generosity of spirit.
Awaken the Intellect
When you feel down, your mind can wreak havoc on your moods and behavior, as well as on your physiology. Depression clouds your self-concept—the stories you tell about yourself, the way you interpret events that occur around you. Low self-esteem, guilt, regret, a sense of futility, apathy, and pessimism permeate your thoughts, and you get stuck in a self-destructive spiral.
Developing the ability to sustain focused attention (one-pointedness) is necessary to bring your mind under control and to create mental stability. Once you can maintain one-pointed focus, use deeper forms of meditation such as vichara (inquiry), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and pratipaksa bhavanam (cognitive reframing) to develop discrimination and wisdom and to reawaken your intellect.
You may also find inspiration or insight by studying sacred texts or turning to any piece of writing that inspires you, or through a renewed commitment to your faith. Through meditation and study it’s possible to regain a sense of meaning and purpose and find a broader perspective on life, which is essential to healing and freeing the mind.
Build the Will
Being depressed can often radically alter the way you act toward yourself and others. So it’s not unusual to lose interest in daily activities (the behavior sphere)—and stop taking care of yourself physically or wall yourself off from friends and social obligations. Cultivating determination, strengthening the will, and setting and activating intention are the cornerstones of yoga practice and can help you overcome habits and dysfunctional behaviors that can paralyze you and keep you depressed.
To get started, a yoga therapist may suggest specific practices (sadhana) that emphasize discipline, impulse control, and self-restraint. Such sadhana may include what yogis call tyaga or selective renunciation, abstaining from something you habitually do in order to become free of attachment. You can begin by giving up something you know isn’t good for you, like eating junk food, which should give you confidence that you can overcome your habits. But ultimately, practicing tyaga means selectively renouncing something you are attached to, even if it’s not bad for you—like foods you eat for entertainment rather than nourishment. This practice strengthens your will and intentions, making them stronger than your habits.
Creating some form of daily ritual—a few minutes of breathing exercises or a morning walk in the neighborhood—as well as selfless service can further pull you out of a depressed state. Doing something, no matter how small, for yourself and/or for others, can generate and release positive energy and set you on the path toward wholeness.
Take the First Step
Each of these four spheres—mood, thoughts, behavior, and physiology—is profoundly affected and driven by our memories and our unconscious conditioning. Committing to personal practice helps us become free of the twisted journey of thoughts, feelings, desires, conflicts, distractions, and habitual and dysfunctional behavioral patterns that dissipate our energy and keep us locked in depression. How? By purifying memory and bringing the unconscious impressions and impulses that drive us to the level of the conscious mind. When we can see our patterns clearly, feel them, experience them as mutable and impermanent, we take the first step toward freeing ourselves from their influence. Purifying memory is the combined effect of all the work done in the four spheres through an integrated practice, one that encompasses much more than what we typically experience doing asana on our yoga mat. Such a practice includes everything we do to take care of ourselves—taking walks in nature, performing selfless service, connecting with friends, even going to work or cleaning the house.
Purifying memory does not mean developing selective amnesia. It means we learn to see things as they are without reacting or misperceiving them. An integrated practice like the one that follows, in which breath, sound, meaning, and feeling are linked through asana, pranayama, meditation, and mantra japa can help you harness and direct all of your energy toward deep and lasting transformation at every level of your being.