Anxiety, Depression…and Yoga?

Anxiety, Depression…and Yoga?

The benefits of yoga and how it affects individuals living with anxiety and depression have been around for ages.  Thankfully, the appearance of yoga in the Western culture, along with its increasing popularity, has generated several medical studies which not only toot the proverbial yoga horn but offer physiological explanations and benefits of the practice itself.  Long story short,  yoga is great for anxiety and depression.

Ask anyone (or better yet, Google it yourself) and you’ll find as many different kinds of yoga as ice cream flavors.  Which, understandably, can give great cause for anxiety to begin with.  How to choose?  Your mind is already busy. “ What if I choose wrong?”  “What if I can’t do it?”  The “what if” flavor is in a bottomless tub, let me tell ya.

It might help to understand just a little bit about anxiety and depression and then explore the intention or effects of yoga on our bodies & minds.

When we see individuals sad and depressed and unable to dress or leave the house, our generous hearts and compassionate feelings naturally soften and sigh.  We want to hug those people.  Help them off the couch, drive them on errands and literally become the responsibility of bringing the sunshine to their lives.  We share a common mantra “By the power vested in me, I WILL make you happy and cheerful.”  Or strain my back trying, right?  On the other hand, we all know an individual that never. stops. complaining.  NEV-ER I say.  These people will not be ignored in the customer service department.

They probably don’t back up and hold the door.  Why?  Because THEY ARE FIRST, that’s why.  Your mat is usually in THEIR spot in class. Frustration and impatience are the security blankets they drag around and pop in your face.  Ooooooh, not much sympathy there, my friend.  Sorry.  No ice cream for you.  Get in back of the line.

It might be surprising to know that these are all signs of depression.  Depression presents itself in several ways.  The two more commonly recognized are lethargy and anxiety .

For those of you that want to understand more about different types of depression, Chemistry of Joy is a great book.  One of the big Catch 22s of anxiety/depression is the constant tape playing in our heads.  “I’m anxious so I don’t want to think about why I’m anxious because it makes me anxious.” Um, yeh.  There’s that. Sometimes acknowledging a fear gives it less power.  That might sound strange but very often our perception of reality is what makes it scary.

One place that is not meant to cause fear or increase anxiety is the yoga studio.  Think of yoga like a 108 flavors of frozen treats store.  Something for everybody. I ’m going out on a limb here and offering the following suggestion:

If you try yoga and don’t like it – try a different teacher.  Try all the teachers in a studio based on your experience level.  If you still don’t like yoga, try another yoga studio. 

Amy Weintraub has written a very medically accurate and practical application for yoga in her book Yoga for Depression.  It explains why we feel better after folding forward or doing gentle backbends.  Amy’s book, along with several others, offers understanding on how we form certain neural pathways in the brain and how to make NEW PATHS.  It’s a jungle in there, folks, let’s walk softly, offer ourselves a break and accidentally on purpose end up feeling better.

One of the reasons we feel ‘better’ is the balance yoga brings to the body and mind.  Our bodies naturally seek a state of homeostasis.  An untethered, frenzied brain is hard work to maintain.  It’s exhausting.  An understimulated, dull brain doesn’t always remind us to circulate blood properly, to fuel our bodies, how much to sleep…equally exhausting for the nervous system to figure out what the heck is going on in here?

A complete yoga class will usually contain some breath work, some type of movement and relaxation.  The breath work part of the class helps harness those random thoughts. Slowing down the breath stimulates calming reflexes in the brain.  The mind can’t remain stuck when we offer a distraction in the form of breath awareness.  Simply put – yoga helps the brain forget to be worried.

The physical portion of class is designed to stimulate and apply pressure internally to different glands in the body.  Twists offer a way to massage the internal organs and encourage healthy digestion & elimination.  Heart openers and light backbends stimulate areas around the throat (thyroid) and chest (thymus) for active immune systems.  Reversing the blood flow and how hard the heart has to work by including inversions or light pressure to the top of the head greatly benefits the pituitary & hypothalamus glands. Understanding the reasons certain poses are offered in class can make them less intimidating.  Modifications and props are available to accomplish the end result or intention of the asana.  The final relaxation or savasana portion towards the end of class is intended to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.  The rest and digest part of the brain that allows for normal function and behavior.

Some of the best things in life simply cannot be explained, they must be experienced. Just like there is no one size fits all yoga class, there are just as many responses and experiences within a yoga class. We all experience the same thing in different ways.  Give yoga a chance, release all of your fears (real or imagined) and show up. Have fun.  You can wear stretchy clothes that don’t match.  Just remember a smile matches anything.

And go get some ice cream after class.

The opinions in this article are not meant to replace any medical advice or conflict with a current program of medication.  Yoga has been proven to be affective as another method to help with mood management.  Yoga can compliment current treatment plans and offer yet another option towards the path of health and wholeness.

Phot0 –

BJ Neubauer

Billie Jo is a blogger and LMT, 500RYT with extensive training in the Oncology direction. She has additional certificates in Yoga for Depression & Anxiety as well as Yoga for Addictions & Recovery. "I love all those applications and think it's great that the public is becoming more aware of the therapeutic aspects around yoga. I'm a massage therapist when I'm not on the mat" says Billie Jo.