The Natural Prozac
Despite the evidence gleaned in a multitude of studies in Canada, Wales, England, and the United States that a mindfulness-based meditation technique, combined with hatha yoga and diet, is beneficial in treating depression and preventing relapse, many practitioners say they cannot meditate when they feel depressed. For people suffering from severe depression, sitting in stillness and watching what comes up can become unbearable. On the other hand, some meditation techniques may work especially well when one is feeling depressed. For someone who has depression accompanied by low self-esteem and self-critical thinking, Gary Kraftsow recommends a technique in which the meditator focuses on his own positive qualities, what a psychologist might call cognitive reframing.
Hatha yoga is more accessible than meditation for most Westerners as a way of learning self-soothing, says Cope. "First of all, it is absolutely impossible to be obsessing about anything when you're fully in your body. The mat becomes a kind of external anchor for the self." A yoga practitioner can have "a regular, systematic experience of well-being and sense that everything is absolutely okay, and that I am absolutely okay. This can be very self-building, especially when done in the context of relationship with a class and teacher."
In fact, says Cope, many of our depressions are caused by a breakdown in relationship in our early years. We simply didn't get enough of that holding and soothing that a loving relationship provides. In the teacher/student connection, yoga can provide a mode of healing through relationship. "The contemplative traditions," says Cope, "share two fundamental premises with the world of Western psychotherapy: That which is damaged in relationship must also be healed in relationship, and character can only truly be transformed through relationship, not through solitary practice."
The language used by the teacher in a yoga class can help create that "relational container" psychologists talk about. Language also has the capacity to help students reframe their experience and move away from depressive thoughts. Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a health psychologist and yoga practitioner in Tucson, Arizona, talks about how his yoga teacher gently and repeatedly encouraged him to do what he could until he found he was assuming postures he previously "knew" he couldn't. "I broke the frame of my old beliefs through encouragement and small steps. This parallels cognitive approaches for treating depression."
According to Shauna Shapiro, M.A., a doctoral student in clinical health psychology at the University of Arizona and coauthor of several recent mindfulness studies, the language a teacher uses in class "creates the intention behind the yoga practice," and our intentions play a crucial role in our well-being.
A Sacred Circle
When we're feeling depressed, we long for genuine connections with others who accept us as we are, and we often can find that in a yoga class. Richard Miller thinks that the ideal class for someone coping with depression would provide an opportunity for folks to share their stories in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. In her daily classes at her center in Rhode Island and on her retreats in Mexico, yoga teacher M.J. Bindu Delekta creates a "Sacred Circle" where such sharing is possible. Bindu Delekta might ask the circle of students, "How are your bodies feeling today?" Then she lets the energy of the sharing determine how the class will move, which she believes is more important than going through a prescribed sequence of postures. She fosters the relational community that the students are building for themselves with their sharings by using partner postures. The students build a community of trust as they learn to assist each other, touching and being touched in the process.