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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

International yoga teacher-trainer and student of B.K.S. Iyengar, Patricia Walden, takes the second approach. Her classes are designed so that people leave feeling less depressed. For people suffering from a depression characterized by inertia and fatigue, or who are going through a period of loss, Walden recommends a practice of supported backbends and inversions. For those who experience depression with anxiety, she recommends a more active sequence of postures, modified according to experience and physical energy level, to keep them "out of themselves." The energetic postures she recommends include Sun Salutations, backbends, and inversions.

Inverted postures are particularly useful because they alter the blood flow, including lymphatic drainage and cranial sacral fluid, according to Dr. Karen Koffler, an internist who trained with Andrew Weil in the Integrative Medicine Program at the University of Arizona. "If there is increased blood flow to the area, there will be increased bioavailability of oxygen and glucose—the two most important metabolic substrates for the brain. It follows, then, that those cells bathed in a solution that is rich in the building blocks required for the creation of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, will be better able to produce these chemicals." In nonmedical terms, then, as we practice yoga, we may literally be feeding our brain with a healthy dose of our own self-generated neurotransmitters.

Walden tells her depressed students to keep their eyes open wide, and if they are brooding, she guides them from posture to posture without pausing in between, to generate life force and focus the mind on the body. Because people who are depressed are often shallow breathers, she encourages strong inhalations. And at the end of a practice, she suggests a brief cool down, with a pose like Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose) to elevate and open the chest.

Though Richard Miller doubts that you can prescribe specific asanas across the board for people with depression, he agrees that trying certain postures on an individual basis is a way to start. In his own work with depressed students, he might suggest several poses, then carefully observe the person in the posture. As he watches, he might see that a person's energy is blocked in areas of self-expression—perhaps the chin is tucked and the throat seems constricted. Here, he might guide the student through an asana that opens the vishuddha chakra. Or if he notices that energy is blocked around the heart, he might do heart-opening postures involving anahata chakra. Since low self-esteem often accompanies depression, postures that energize the solar plexus at manipura chakra might help. "The important thing," says Miller, "is to watch how the energy moves in the body. You might find the energy moving from the throat down to the heart because there's sadness that the person has been living in a false self and hasn't been expressing the true spirit inside."

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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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