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The Natural Prozac

The yoga mat is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants aren't enough.

By Amy Weintraub

Source of Suffering

Because of the stressful human and technological complexities of our age, we often assume that ours are the worst of times. But human beings have always suffered. "Living in the mortal body," the Buddha said, "is like living in a house on fire." In the yogic view, the source of our suffering is our ignorance—avidya. We have forgotten who we are. We create an identity out of what we do, who and what we love, how much money we make, and the things we surround ourselves with. From the classical yogic perspective, we are inviting disappointment, if not depression, into our lives because we have created an identity based on the five kleshas, or "afflictions"—ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the will to live—that keep us bound to gross apparent reality.

Cope says that much of our modern angst has arisen from our inability to soothe ourselves, because many of us have not been given enough of the soothing experience of being safely and securely held as children. If early trauma can disturb our brain chemistry, could it be that healing experiences in psychotherapy and on the yoga mat can actually balance the chemistry disturbed by such trauma? Many psychotherapists and yogis believe that it can. Or, if some of them prefer not to talk in biochemical terms, they do feel that yoga works well with people who suffer from depression. Perhaps the most convincing stories come from practitioners themselves, who feel that yoga gave them back their lives.

Take Tracy, for example, a 27-year-old yoga student in Cleveland whose depression began with an emotional trauma, the loss of her mother when she was 15. Since beginning to practice yoga in 1995, she says, "I see that my depressions have a purpose, and that the downs are sometimes rest periods from my constant struggles." Or Ram, who was doing heroin with his girlfriend Debie in the early '90s when the cancer that killed her was discovered. In desperation and grief, he went to his first yoga class, and after two months of regular practice, he was able to get himself clean and "for the first time...saw things as if I had been blind all my life." Ram is now a yoga teacher in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Or Penny Smith, a yoga teacher in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, whose depression is clearly biochemical. She, like a number of family members, has bipolar disorder and has cycled between mania and depression all her life. After her last hospitalization eight years ago when her doctors told her that she could expect to be in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life, she began to practice yoga. With the practice of pPranayama, says Smith, "I was able to eliminate panic attacks completely." Now, during her depressive episodes when she awakens at 3 a.m., the repetition of mantras and deep yogic breathing help her to fall back to sleep. Her pattern of severe depression and manic episodes has tempered into mild depression, and she has not been hospitalized. Yoga changed Smith's life. "Without it," she says, "I might not be alive today."

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Reader Comments

Lydia

This is the best article on depression I have read in a long time. Just what I needed. Thank you.

Valerie

Thanks, I always love yoga journal's articles so much! There are many ways of letting go, and sometimes it's just to BE.

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