Is yoga an effective coping skill for depression?
Yoga is everywhere. From hospitals to schools, and even Fortune 500 companies, yoga is being offered in more unexpected settings. So, why not a therapist’s office? Research from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University suggests that yoga does more for you than stretching and strengthening your muscles. Yoga can help alleviate symptoms of mild depression and anxiety, as well as ward off panic attacks and calm racing thoughts. As a therapist and yoga instructor, I often integrate yoga postures (asanas), deep breathing (pranayama), or relaxation (meditation) with traditional talk therapy. From a holistic perspective, yoga is a way to engage mind, body, and spirit, promoting mental, physical, and emotional health.
Before rolling out the yoga mat, it may help to explore some yoga philosophy. It is said that all of Nature has three qualities (gunas) - Sattwa, Rajas, and Tamas. These qualities exist in all beings, in various concentrations.
1) Sattwa - purity, clarity, steadiness
2) Rajas - restlessness, agitation, imbalance
3) Tamas - dull, inert, slow to change
From a mental health perspective, each guna may be viewed as a mental or emotional state. Rajas correlates with anxiety, Tamas with depression, and Sattwa with self-actualization. Rajasic people have high energy and motivation, but tend to burn themselves out with excessive activity or worry. They are often impatient and strive for control. This leads to mental states of unrest and agitation, and a lack of peace. Tamasic individuals are isolative, withdrawn, and stagnant. Their emotions are typically repressed and they neglect self-care. For those with Sattwic qualities, harmony, balance, and compassion are predominant. They strive to understand and explore emotions rather than suppressing them.
In attempting to promote mental healing through yoga practice, it is important to consider which postures work with or against each guna. Aptly named “heart-opening” postures are thought to alleviate tamasic depression, while forward folding postures calm rajasic anxiety. In addition, meditation is essential for cultivating Sattwic qualities, such as peace and contentment.
Always consult a physician or counselor if you are having ongoing feelings of depression or anxiety and before trying any new exercise program.
"Heart-opening" pose: Bhujangasana or Cobra
1) Lie belly down, stretching your legs back, tops of the feet on the floor. Place your hands, palms down, with fingers under your shoulders. Hug the elbows close to your body.
2) Press the tops of the feet, thighs, and pubis firmly into the floor.
3) On an inhalation, begin to lift the chest off the floor, going only to the height at which you can maintain a connection from your pubis to your legs. Lift the upper torso with strength from the lower back. Avoid using hand your arms to lift the chest, instead, allowing them to support the pose. Firm but don't harden the buttocks.
4) Slide the shoulder blades back and down. Lift through the top of the sternum (breast bone) while keeping back muscles engaged but not tense. Distribute the backbend evenly throughout the entire spine.
5) Hold the pose anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds, maintaining focus on the breath. Release back to the floor with an exhalation.
Visualize an opening in your chest, both physical and metaphorical, while breathing energy and self-compassion into the body.
Reference: Novotney, A. (2009). Yoga as a practice tool. Monitor on Psychology, Vol 40 No 10. Pg 38. Retrieved at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/11/yoga.aspx