8 Ways that Yoga can be an alternative treatment for anxiety and depression
The 5000 year old practice of Yoga is considered by its most experienced practitioners the world over to be an exact science of health and wellness. Ancient and modern Yogic literature reports that physiological and psychological health are so closely interconnected that neither one should be treated independently of the other.
Western medicine has an emphasis on medicating for ailments that come our way, including those of a psychological nature. Whilst medication may alleviate the physiological symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, at the root of both of them is emotional discomfort. Depression and anxiety, in all of its complexity can be completely debilitating and difficult to treat.
Thousands of studies have been undertaken, testing the success rates of drug and psychological therapies and various combinations of the two. Individual responses to such treatments are hugely variable and the effectiveness is influenced by endless factors, such as age, gender, culture, genetic predisposition, the treating doctor and their recommendations; the list goes on.
With its basis in mindfulness, Yoga can be a highly beneficial tool, which may help treat depression and anxiety. Mindfulness based therapy is a relatively new treatment becoming more widely adopted by Psychologists because of the positive results they are starting to see from it.
The eight steps below explain the ins and outs of how and why a regular Yoga practice can completely change the way you live your life.
- Move into the present moment
This is easier said than done and particularly challenging during a panic attack or in the depths of a depressed state. It’s the times when things feel a bit more manageable that working on being present and building towards that presence becoming the predominant state of being can be most beneficial. The present moment is the place of least suffering. It is the place where there is no concern for past actions that cannot be undone and no anticipation for future events of which the unravelling can never really be predicted. Yoga is a moving meditation, which involves disengaging from thoughts and feelings and becoming aware of the breath and the body. The more that awareness is cultivated, the more it is possible to create a space in which to live, which isn’t governed by external factors beyond control and negative internal dialogue.
- Allow yourself time; be patient
It takes time to get used to using your breath with movement and for some, it’s completely alien to move the body into the unusual shapes. Practicing Yoga won’t work as a quick fix like taking an asprin for a headache but some people do notice immediate positive effects after their first session. Yoga works on an incremental scale, bit by bit, renewing, refreshing, re-acquainting ourselves with our bodies and our hearts. Over time, as awareness builds it can become easier to notice the earliest, most subtle signs of depression and anxiety. The tools and strategies that are gathered in a regular Yoga practice, for dealing with pressure and intensity enable early signs and symptoms to be addressed before they become extreme. Every minute spent simply synchronising the breath with some movement, being mindful of how it feels to be in our body is one more step towards unwrapping the many gifts that a regular Yoga practice will deliver.
- Accept that you may never be “cured”
Western medicine solved some serious health issues such as death from tuberculosis, treatment of bone fractures and operating to remove life threatening infections such as appendicitis and tumours. However, there are many areas where it falls short and mental health is increasingly being identified as one of them.
What do we do when the drugs don’t work? One of the contributors to the cycle of anxiety and depression is the attitude that it isn’t OK to feel down and that there’s something wrong with you if you do. There is a tendancy to want to “fix” ourselves because this part of our human experience is unacceptable.
Some people will move in and out of depressed and anxious states their whole lives. Rather than applying more pressure to be ‘normal’ we can start to accept that sometimes feeling down or anxious is a part of life. When we accept that some of the internal dialogue and fluctuations in moods are a part of us and learn how to let these come and go without interacting with or reacting to them, we can develop a great sense of freedom.
There is a notion of handing over the reins to the doctor and psychologist to “fix” us when we are unwell. A great psychologist will facilitate clients to re-write their internal script but ultimately it is the client who does the work. Similarly, a Yoga teacher can guide us through a practice but ultimately we are our own teacher and eventually become the master of our own experience. We become the expert on what is best for us, our bodies and our hearts and facilitate our own lives rather than leaving it in the hands of others.
- Become comfortable with the discomfort
During Yoga practice as we move through the different shapes we find out which ones are pleasant and blissful, which are unpleasant and which ones make us want to run screaming back to bed. As humans we generally gravitate towards what makes us feel good and repeat the things that we are good at because it validates us. In Yoga, more often than not it is the poses that we find the most challenging that will give us the most insight, healing and potentially lead us to a break through.
When we tap into this part of the practice, stay present with our breath, resist the urge to struggle or avoid the feeling, we cultivate a remarkable tolerance and resilience. The building of tolerance and resilience in Yoga is not just physical but very much emotional and psychological as it is the mind that gives us the most resistance, not the body. When we fight and struggle with what feels unpleasant, we create more tension and suffering for ourselves. Instead, if we surrender to what the pose is attempting to offer us we can release tension, find space and feel a great sense of relief. The process of releasing tension in the body by being able tolerate and work with discomfort offers another dimension that we take back into our daily lives – psychological tolerance and resilience.
- Be less reactive
Yoga is a moving meditation. When we synchronise our body’s movement in and out of shapes with our breath, we move into a meditative state where we are extremely aware but our mind is quietened. In this state our true behavioral nature is revealed to us. Our reactions to how each pose makes us feel or to the thoughts and feelings that emerge as we move through the practice mirror our behaviours and reactions in our daily life. Yoga teaches us how to remain cool, calm and collected, sometimes even with a smile on our faces when the intensity of the pose peaks and challenges us at the deepest level of our being. Rather than reacting to the pose by coming out of it, scrunching our faces up or crying out with discomfort, we attempt to remain completely present with our breath, enduring the discomfort, allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is that we are feeling.
This same principle can be adopted in our daily lives when life gets tough or when our moods and mind states fluctuate. Rather than engaging with feelings and thought trains that are intense or unpleasant we can choose to acknowledge them and breath through the intensity until it inevitably passes. When the chaos and drama of life approach us we can take our time, formulating a response that is aligned with our true values and morals rather than react to how the events in life make us feel. In doing this we protect our integrity, our representation of ourselves to others and our relationships. We don’t have to be enslaved to the ebs and flows of the mind and our emotions. We don’t have to believe every thought that comes into our minds nor do we have to respond to them.
- Identify with your true self, not your illness
We are not our thoughts. We are not our emotions. We are awareness. We have a mind which is a fabulous and necessary tool but we do not need to be using it 24/7 in the same way that we do not need to be using our limbs 24/7. There has to be a mode of idle or we will drive ourselves insane.
When we are chronically unwell, not only with a psychological condition but also with a physical illness we are at risk of our identity being over-run by the illness. We make room in our lives for the illness and its treatments. We create a comfort zone of operation that meets our limitations and submits to the requirements of the illness or disability. Then commences the vicious cycle of believing that we can’t do something because of our illness and then feeling dissatisfied with our quality of life which leads us to feel more depressed and less motivated to attempt alternative options. It becomes incredibly easy to assume that we only have the options that are obvious to us and in resigning ourselves to the limitations of the disability we can start to adopt an identity that is in essence the illness.
As we move deeper into our Yoga practice the many sides of our personality are revealed to us. Some of these traits are considered by us as appealing and others not so much. A large component in gaining the full benefits of a Yoga practice is the cultivation of acceptance. Acceptance of where our bodies are at, acceptance of our weaknesses and disadvantages and acceptance of the sides of us that we don’t particularly like. The more we become comfortable with who we are, the more we can connect with our authentic selves and start to reclaim our true identity. In connecting with the heart space and disengaging from the mind and our emotions we begin to represent ourselves honestly. In turn, the relationships we engage around us and the decisions we make about our lives are more likely to support what is truly best for us.
- Change your unhealthy habits; replace them with healthy rituals
Still to this day I find myself making excuses not to do my Yoga practice or excusing myself for unhealthy eating habits. The excuses range from how much sleep I’ve had to the temperature of the air outside, all completely irrelevant to the issue in question. We are creatures of habit and these habits, the majority of the time are fabricated by a repetitive thought pattern or internal dialogue. Just the act of exposing ourselves to regular change so that we are not attached to things being a certain way all the time can give us great flexibility to cope with the many curve balls that life throws our way. Even mixing up our good habits such as alternating the days that we exercise from time to time can benefit our psyche. What story do you tell yourself about why you can’t break the habit that’s most detrimental to your health?
A regular Yoga practice can offer a ritualistic element to our lives. When we adopt a ritual of setting a clear intention to provide something supportive to our wellness, we feel like we have the courage to approach the day with a positive outlook. Over time both the act of participating in a ritual and the gifts from the Yoga practice itself can lead us to develop a great sense of significance and self-worth overall. We find we are more equipped to face our fears rather than hide away and avoid them.
- Stop searching for happiness and discover contentment
Instant gratification is at the centre of most corporate marketing campaigns. It’s all about feeling good instantly, looking the best, having the most up to date car/phone/house, being the envy of others, getting the most attention from potential sexual partners, escaping, avoiding and getting out of responsibilities or being given VIP treatment. All of this excites us and makes us feel awesome. For about 8 minutes. Until we need our next hit of instant gratification to elevate our emotional state.
Instant gratification serves only the mind (the ego) and as I mentioned earlier, we are not our minds. The act of chasing our next high, seeking validation for our opinions on disputes or the excuses we make to justify our actions can become completely, energetically depleting and ultimately dis-satisfying.
The body is wiser than the mind will ever be. Think about it. The body is a vessel for thousands of complex chemical reactions that go about their day performing tasks to keep our internal environment at a state of equilibrium. Scientists are still mystified by puzzling questions about how the brain functions. When we adopt a regular Yoga practice we start to become more in tune with our bodies because the mind is quietened enough for us to start listening.
Happiness is a word that has been attached to emotional states such as excitement, satisfaction, pleasure, joy, cheerfulness and many other positive emotions. Happiness most definitely includes all of the positive emotions you can ever experience but it also includes the negative ones. Happiness is about being content and comfortable in our day to day life whether it is blissfully joyful, impossibly dreadful or downright boring. We can be living a happy life but still encounter circumstances that make us feel awful and sometimes for more than a day or two. All we can do is accept and be OK with whatever comes our way in life that we cannot control and seek out options to make changes to circumstance that are in our control. This philosophy is at the very base of a Yoga practice and the more we practice the closer we come to contentment and wellness of mind, of body, of heart.
“Practice and all is coming.” Shri K Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga.