How Yoga Can Help With Depression

It's sometimes very useful, as a yoga teacher, to have personal lived experience of some hard stuff.

It makes it easier to understand what our students might be going through. For example, while I have extensive understanding of what it's like to live with PTSD and anxiety, until this year, I'd never really run into depression, except the situational kind, caused by things like the loss of a loved one.

Then, earlier this year, I had hormonal problems which caused, among other things, a long and severe bout of depression. Until then, I had never really, properly understood the isolation that people with depression feel.

It's horrible.

But I do want to tell you, you aren't alone, even though you feel that way.

There are lots and lots of people who suffer from depression and they know how you feel.  

The only way you will find them, though, is to speak up. Share your story. There's no shame in suffering from depression. It's an illness just like the flu, only often more persistent.

Too many of us keep it all inside. It really is OK to talk about it to your friends and family. You may need to educate them a bit on appropriate ways to respond (for example, it is NOT helpful to tell you to think positively) but the more we destigmatise mental illness, the easier it will be to get help.

Yoga also offers some helpful tools.

A fairly vigourous asana practice, even though it might be the last thing you feel like doing, will often help your body release endorphins (our own happy hormones) and boost your mood. It's useful to focus on stretching some of the muscles in your side body and chest that tighten when we hunch too (hunching affects our breath and to some extent our mood, so it's something to work on).

Here's a sequence I created a few years ago that works quite well for me: 

Yoga Sequence to Ease Depression

Clockwise from top left:

  1. Begin in Down Dog.
  2. Inhale to lift your left leg up behind you.
  3. Exhale, curl your left knee in towards your left elbow. Hover there for a while, in three-point plank, breathing and working your core, then place your left knee on the ground.
  4. Inhale to pivot your left foot out to the left, allowing your body to open up to the right. If it feels good, stretch your right arm to the sky and gaze up. If you would like to take the pose into a backbend, start to lift your heart to the sky and open your right shoulder and arm behind you. Keep lengthening through the sides of your body so you don’t crunch into your lower back. When you feel ready, inhale your spine to neutral.
  5. Exhale to raise your left arm off the ground, and see if you can bring your hands to touch. This is quite a challenge, because you have to be both flexible and strong! Stay a few breaths, with your core engaged and your shoulder muscles as relaxed as possible. When you are ready, exhale to release your left arm to the ground and stretch your right hand to the sky again.
  6. Now, the super-challenging part (for me, anyways). Inhale to prepare, and as you exhale, raise your right leg out to the side and keep it up! If you can't manage that, no problem, just practice lifting the leg. If you want even more challenge, see if you can lift your left hand off the ground too! Stay a few breaths then exhale, release your right leg to the ground, windmill your right hand down, and step back into Down Dog.

Also try this meditative practice

I learned it from Kelly McGonigal many years ago, is really helpful, although it can be challenging at first.  

It's a reminder that we are all breathing the same air, and that connects us in a very real way. 

Sit or lie comfortably (you could even ask your yoga teacher to do this during savasana). Breathe naturally, with your awareness on your inhale and exhale.

The Breath of Connection. Great practice for depression.

PS: Join us for Light Up Your Life. All these practices, and more, in a 30-Day Yoga Challenge with a difference. (And it's 50% off for newsletter subscribers)