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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

For Stephen Cope, it's not the asana itself that's important, but the quality of attention we bring to it that can make a difference for someone who's depressed. "Slow, deliberate movement anchors the mind in sensation and allows a deep relearning to happen." The practice of postures is intentionally meant to create the physiological foundation for the "steadiness and relaxation" of which Patanjali spoke 2,000 years ago.

From the Viniyoga perspective, depression is an energetic condition in which tamasic (meaning dark or sluggish) qualities of mind and emotions prevail, says Gary Kraftsow, founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute, and author of the book, Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga (Penguin, 1999). The ayurveda">Ayurvedic tradition provides the two governing concepts of Viniyoga therapeutic treatment. The first is langhana, embodying techniques that reduce, eliminate, calm, and purify. The second is brahmana, referring to techniques that nourish, build, tonify, and energize. So, for example, a person with depression characterized by lethargy may benefit from postures that are more brahmana, like Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose). But Kraftsow reminds us that each individual is unique and that all techniques should be adapted to the needs of the individual body's structure. For example, he says that though many people with depression have a rounded upper back and sunken chest, there are those whose upper backs are flat, so the postures that address the structural needs of that person might be different from those that work best for someone whose spine curves forward, though both individuals may be depressed. "Viniyoga's view is that the job of the teacher is to provide the appropriate method for the student and not be fixated on one modality."

In treating a person with depression, Kraftsow tries to meet the person where he is and to pace the yoga session accordingly. With someone who has little motivation to move, he starts progressively. He may start with the person lying on his back, then move toward more vigorous standing postures. Vigorous standing postures might be beneficial for someone who feels too lethargic to exercise, "but first you have to have a strategy for getting them off the couch. The best strategy may not be asanas, but simply inviting them out for a walk." In my own experience, when I'm feeling that lethargic, even a walk takes more energy than I can muster. So what do you do if you don't feel like practicing? Sometimes I play an audiotape and let another teacher lead my practice. And there are days when simply stepping outside my back door and raising my arms can lead me into strong, vigorous breathing and a pranayama practice. But occasionally, none of this works. Those are the times when Richard Miller says, "let the yoga come to you." He recommends taking one pose, or even half a pose, and doing it slowly and with great attention so that, for instance, your right arm "feels wonderfully delicious, and then perhaps you'll want your other arm to feel that way, and your leg and the other leg." At these times, it's especially beneficial "to empty out the feeling of needing to do it right, to let go of rigidity and to practice so you really enjoy doing it." When self-judgment comes up in yoga, simply observe it. Miller says it's part of the eliminative process and is to be expected as we become aware of our old ways of thinking.

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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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