Today is World Health Day, and this year, the theme for the day is depression.
Depression is one of the biggest causes of disability in the world, affecting between 300 and 350 million people worldwide.
Depression comes in many forms, is caused by a number of triggers, and affects the life of the sufferer in a variety of ways.
Learn more about the types, causes and symptoms of depression here.
When a person suffers from depression, life seems to be a very dark, bleak place. There can be a lot of guilt, shame, self loathing and conviction that there is nothing that is good about oneself or the world.
Depression creates a negative cycle of thoughts and behaviours that reinforce and prove one another. Medical help can be very hard to come by, and stigma and ignorance surrounding mental illness can scare many from even seeking help in the first place.
For many, self medication in the form of alcohol, drugs or other self destructive behaviours, seems to be the only way out of the depressed state.
There is another way.
The Path to Wellbeing
In 2014, I entered a yoga studio in a state of anxiety, unacknowledged addiction, and deep unhappiness. I felt lost, but with a sense of hope that I was finally on the right path.
I was to later realise that I had experienced a breakdown the previous year, and to learn later still that I had, as I had often suspected, suffered from depression for most of my adult life.
I never did anything about it for a number of reasons, most of which stemmed from shame and a deep sense that there was just ‘something inherently bad’ about me.
The one time I asked a doctor for help, way back when I was 20 and my life had fallen apart quite spectacularly as a direct result of my poor mental health, I was told there was nothing wrong with me and I just needed to get a job. This was, as I am sure you can imagine, a very unhelpful response that furthered my conviction that there was just something rotten in me, and led to 2 decades of self medication in the form of alcoholism and drug misuse.
Fortunately for me in 2013, when I experienced a breakdown that had been 2 decades in the making, I had discovered Yoga. My decision that I needed to be a yoga teacher rather than an IT consultant (which was the new job I had embarked upon) was to be my salvation.
I stopped drinking, smoking (both legal and illegal forms), and no longer experience the deep self loathing and shame that blighted my life for so long.
Yoga did more than give me a toned, bendy body (actually, it isn’t that toned, I definitely look like a 44 year old mother of 3, but I am ok with that at last!)
Ten Ways Yoga can help beat Depression and Stress
Yoga is well known for it’s ability to create relaxation in the body and mind. Relaxation is not merely the absence of activity, you do not relax by simply lying on the sofa. Relaxation is an active state of consciously relaxing the body through the mind. Thanks to the amazing connection between body and mind, there is a wonderful feedback loop, we use the mind to relax the body, then a relaxed body creates a relaxed mind. You can get a simple but effective 10 minute relaxation here
A big problem of depression is rumination, going over the same thought over and over again. Yoga teaches us to let go of thoughts, to let go of physical tension, and to let go of blame, shame and guilt. We become aware of the release that occurs with every breathin, when we come out of a posture that challenges us, and in the sense of wellbeing that comes from releasing old patterns of behaviour.
Stillness and focus
The rumination described above can lead to minds that are very noisy and overwhelming. It can be hard to think straight. Through breathing and meditation practices, the stillness of the postures, and relaxation practices, we find stillness and focus, training the mind to be calmer and less overwhelmed. In that stillness, we find the space to think straight, and begin to create new, more positive neural connections in the brain, creating new patterns of behaviour and thought.
Make you feel good
GABA is a neurotransmitter, a chemical produced in the brain that makes us feel good. Alcohol mimics the effects of GABA, which is why we think it makes us feel good when really it is just an illusion. Yoga, on the other hand, actually increases the amount of GABA in the brain, creating a real, physiological sense of wellbeing that can last for hours after the session. Research has shown that just one session of Yoga can create this feeling of wellbeing.
The first of the Yamas of Yoga is Ahimsa, or non harming (or harmlessness). This teaches us to endeavour to live a life that creates as little harm to ourselves, other people, other creatures and the planet as possible. The best place to start to practice compassion is to yourself, to think about ways you can be kinder to yourself. The ‘Three Rules of Yoga’ that I learned on my first day of training, ‘Don’t Judge, Don’t Compare, and Don’t Beat Yourself Up’ are an excellent motto to carry through life to remind us to let go.
The depressed mind can be very negative in its outlook. Yoga offers a range of tools that help to create a more positive outlook on life. Developing a regular gratitude practice, consciously focusing on the good things in life, however small they may be, has been shown to ease depression and lead to improved mental and physical health.
Pratipaksha Bhavanam, the yogic concept of replacing the negative with the positive, helps us to strengthen the gratitude practice, and see lessons and opportunities, and become aware of negative patterns and change them.
Balance nervous system
Yoga brings the whole being into balance, body, mind, emotions and spirit. One of the key ways it does this is by balancing the central nervous system, and creating a more harmonious balance between the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The breath is a vital resource for this balancing of the nervous system, pranayama is a powerful practice that can transform life in many ways, including reducing symptoms of depression.
Developing a regular yoga practice creates a vital wellbeing routine in life that can, in time, become a safety net in times of difficulty. Deciding to practice at a particular time of day, and sticking to it, turns that into a priority and means that you will do it no matter what else you have to change to do it. When I began my training, I realised that I had to do my practice in the morning before everyone else woke up, which meant I couldn’t stay up till the early hours of the morning drinking, smoking and brooding on my unhappiness.
Tapas, the 3rd Niyama, teaches discipline and self rule, and is a powerful tool in the battle against depression.
Good sleep is vital for good mental and physical health, but unfortunately, illnesses such as depression interfere with the ability to get good sleep, a catch 22 situation if ever there was one!
Yoga is excellent for promoting good sleep. All the previous point will contribute to improved sleep, assisting both falling asleep and getting good quality sleep. If you struggle to sleep, the relaxation here will help you to relax your body deeply, this pranayama practice with help to quieten your mind and soothe your nervous system, and practising gratitude before bed will help to take the focus away from the negative thoughts that might keep you awake. Creating a regular routine in which yoga is part of your morning or bedtime routine will create a shift in the energy of your day.
As you can see, there are many reasons why yoga can and will help you in the battle against depression. All these benefits help to combat stress as well, there really are so many reasons why yoga is a powerful, transformative practice.