When depression settles in there can be numerous reasons for it. As someone who has experienced depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts, I intend neither to clinically diagnose nor to counsel, but only to share insights and ideas. Quite plainly, depression is not simple. It is not something to talk about casually, and it manifests in nuanced ways depending on the context and chemistry of the person impacted. To be clear, then, this is not a clinical research article, but a personal, experiential exposition of the ways in which yoga has contributed to healing a wounded heart.
An Ayurvedic Understanding
Depression can feel like a loss of life. There is a sense of unshakable heaviness, an impenetrable fog, and a dull ache that lingers beneath the skin. Ayurveda describes depression as a tamasic state, tamas being one of the three gunas or qualities of matter in Sankhya philosophy (a foundation of both yoga and ayurveda). Tamas is inertia, and it can have tremendous value as a stabilizing force. It is said, however, that too much tamas produces depression, and eventually lifelessness. Ayurveda holds that the physical body is, by nature, tamasic—and that when our emotional and mental bodies also become tamasic, the resulting imbalance can create a chronic state such as depression.
During those times when I experienced depression, I felt that I was awake, but dreaming—living in something of an un-reality. I could see life happening around me, good things, but my connection to it was gone. I felt an insatiable hunger for something I could not name. I needed to fill an indescribable void. I drank and ate to excess, which fueled my emotional and energetic swings. My body felt increasingly heavy and dull and my mind disinterested. I had lost my home base. When we lose access to the vibrant and dynamic nature of the body, we are cut off from one of the primary tools we’ve been given for experiencing and creating a life full of joy. And while there are myriad reasons for such a loss, there are a few crucial supplements to restoring vitality which yoga can provide.
Through yoga, we can use our innate biological functions such as movement, breathing, and vocalization to heal from the inside out and to re-establish a harmonious relationship with ourself and with the world.
The numbing heaviness of depression can at times make it almost impossible to feel anything else. But we can begin to shift that state with methods that allow us to reconnect to our physicality through the sensations and bodily effort involved in exercise. Because lethargy so often accompanies depression, just getting oneself going can be a very great challenge. From an ayurvedic point of view, the tamasic state of depression needs an infusion of rajas, or agitation, to bring the individual to a harmonious state of sattva (balance).
The interplay of these qualities (tamas, rajas, and sattva) is inherent in everything we come into contact with on a daily basis, including the density of furniture and the variability of the weather. When we start to notice the subtler qualities of our surroundings, it becomes possible to increase or lighten our emotional weight just by engaging with the world around us. Through yoga, we can use our innate biological functions such as movement, breathing, and vocalization to heal from the inside out and to re-establish a harmonious relationship with ourself and with the world.
Yoga for Depression
Yoga asana is a fantastic way to generate activity, gradually and viscerally. The physical body engaging, muscles firing and lengthening, heat building, energy moving in the form of deliberate breath, together provide a kind of wake-up call to a body that has been lethargic almost to the point of lifelessness, as was my experience. Most practitioners are served well by the variability that yoga asana provides. It is highly adaptable to the amount of time available, the level of fitness, and the personal interests of the practitioner.
For example, learning about the philosophy of yoga, or the subtle anatomy systems such as the koshas, might really spark a student’s interest and add an extra layer of motivation for practice. What’s more, even a little practice goes a long way. The postures move us out of our habitual movement patterns so that we may see more clearly our habitual mental and emotional patterns. The variety of physical postures allows us to work with whatever physical, emotional, or mental state we find ourselves in. When depression is the predominant experience, life can feel tedious. But what is less tedious than looking at a room upside down, or coordinating your breath to a beautifully sequenced vinyasa? When you are depressed, movement can be like turning on a light in a dark room. And when you can see the various options ahead of you, there’s often less hesitation to move forward.
A great first practice for someone experiencing depression might be a half sun salute:
- Come to standing, with your feet hip-width apart. Relax your shoulders and feel your feet firmly on the ground.
- Inhale and reach your arms straight overhead.
- Keeping arms extended, exhale and fold forward until your hands touch the floor (feel free to use blocks under your hands and/or bend your knees to reach the ground).
- Inhale, and step your right foot back into a lunge, keeping your front heel down.
- Exhale and step forward, returning to a folded position with your feet parallel.
- Inhale back to standing by reaching your arms out to the sides and then overhead once again.
- Exhale your arms down by your sides and relax your shoulders.
- Repeat with the left leg, and then repeat right and left two more times.
This practice is wonderful anytime you need a “breath of fresh air” or to energize yourself.
Pranayama (breathing) practices are the next set of powerful ignition switches for moving from tamas to sattva—whether practiced on their own or in combination with asana. Pranayama is a “drawing out” (ayama) of life force (prana) through various techniques, and is effective for helping you reconnect your mind to your body. While there are many intricate practices with impressive promises, sama vritti, or pure breathing, should not be overlooked because of its simplicity. This technique for restoring balance to the wave of breath requires no breath retention (holding), no cumbersome hand positions, and no change in the rhythm of the breath. It is pure in delivery and practice, requiring merely that you count:
- Inhale for three, four, or five counts.
- Exhale for the same number of counts.
Breathe in and out of your nose if possible. Keep the transitions smooth, and adapt the technique as needed to the time constraints of the day and to your breath capacity.
Sama vritti can be practiced to great effect—anywhere, at any time of day. Another benefit of such a breath awareness practice is that it can be practiced without having to engage the whole body (as in asana, which may leave some feeling too vulnerable). It still provides, however, the sensual and revitalizing benefits of movement (albeit inner movement).
Finally, mantra is a beautiful means of reawakening a more subtle awareness of our physicality, and even our sensuality. Mantra is the practice of repeating sounds or words—silently or aloud—as a means of concentrating the mind. Mantras may or may not be in Sanskrit, and they can be practiced audibly or silently. The practice of chanting a mantra aloud can stretch and smooth out the breath without requiring us to concentrate on the act of breathing itself (which can create challenges for some). And through vocalization, or chanting of the mantra, the practitioner can establish a strong point of focus for the mind that is sattvic in nature.
Even more than the sound itself, the physical vibration of mantra is said to awaken a very subtle sense of touch internally that is akin to a very gentle asana. Consider, for example, the ability to soothe an agitated baby through humming, cooing, or singing.
According to the yoga tradition, the vibrational origin of the Sanskrit language adds to the potency of using traditional Sanskrit mantras for this practice. The potential language barrier can also soften any mental disconnect that may arise as a result of chanting something you don’t necessarily believe when emerging from depression (such as an affirmation). Rather than thinking, I don’t really believe this, you can focus on the resonance of the sound inside your body and the feel of the words in your mouth.
Creating internal resonance with the yogic mantras adds a kind of sattvic rajas (activity or movement that brings balance) to the body, breath, and mind. Without the practitioner having to understand Sanskrit or “believe” in any particular deity associated with a mantra, the vibratory expression of these ancient poems is believed to harmonize the dense tissue of the body with both the ecstatic pulse of the heart and the fantastic suppleness of the mind.
Moving Toward Healing
When some of the weight of depression has lifted, we can then begin the inner inquiry that may move us toward other supplemental therapies and life changes. For example, expressive art therapy, ayurvedic cooking practices, and good ol’ fashioned strength training have made a huge difference in my own journey. The movement of emotions using art, writing, and dance keep me from sinking into the feeling of sadness, and they allow me to experience heavy emotion as a passing wave rather than a jail sentence. The stability and nourishment I derive from high-intensity exercise and ayurvedically informed foods keep me connected to a felt sense of vitality each day—even if some days I have to work a little harder to get there.
In order to find harmony within one’s self, the obstacle to the Self must be confronted—the obstacle (tamas) has to be moved out of the way (rajas), in order to see the light (sattva). As poet David Whyte said:
One of the great necessities of self-knowledge is understanding, even tasting the single-malt essence of your own reluctance to be here. This is the key to understanding what lies between you and a sense of freedom.
Whether it be shame, doubt, despondency, inner or outer conflict, look closely at that thing which darkens your heart. Take comfort in your sensitivity because it is a sign of your aliveness. And always remember the touch of your own hand, the beat of your own heart, and the gentle wave of your breath urging you back into the world.