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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

Grief in the Tissues

International yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Richard Miller, founding editor of the Journal of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, says that most people he treats for depression have the belief that "I should be other than I am." The first step is to help people see how that belief manifests in their lives—in their thoughts, their breathing, and in their bodies. For example, a yoga teacher who was seeing Miller for the treatment of depression began, at his suggestion, to keep a daily journal where she could see her judging thoughts about herself.

During a therapy session, he asked her to do an asana. "She immediately saw that her interest in the posture was 'Am I doing it right?' So we now had a body-based knowledge of this on-going, chronic belief."

Initially, the emphasis in Richard Miller's approach with a depressed patient is to help him see what he is accepting and what he is not accepting in his life. Then, the emphasis shifts to the nature of acceptance itself. Sometimes, according to Miller, when we accept something we've been judging as bad or wrong, we're merely "rearranging the furniture." To get at the root of the problem and prevent the depression from returning, we need to see that our basic nature is "free of judgment, open, and clear-seeing." Through the cultivation of such vision, Miller encourages people to understand that they are not their emotions. He helps a depressed person see that "I'm not sad, but sadness is present in my awareness."

The kind of nonjudging self-acceptance that we talk about in yoga class and in various kinds of psychotherapies—what yogis have called "equanimity"—can be challenging but ultimately redemptive for a depressed person. In addition, according to Miller, depression is a somatic-based problem that has gotten into the tissues, and people who are depressed need bodywork. "Yoga is an exquisite form of bodywork that eliminates the residue that has become lodged in the tissue." The yogic view is that the samskaras (impressions left from emotional or physical trauma) are primarily retained in the subtle bodies and are subsequently reflected through physical symptoms of tension in the gross bodies. "Yoga postures can penetrate what Wilhem Reich, the founder of the science of bioenergetics, called 'character armor,' our unconsciously held patterns of physical contractions and defenses," says Cope in Yoga and the Quest.

But yoga teachers differ over the use of asanas in treating depression, and the source of that difference seems to be whether you believe the yoga mat is the appropriate place for working with the emotions. Some teachers take a "the only way out is through" approach that allows and even encourages the darker emotions to surface on the mat. Such teachers might guide a student into staying present with the emotions that arise in slow, deliberate movements and in longer holdings of postures. Other teachers assume the mat is the place where a student emerges from the darker emotions and begins to feel relief. These teachers might recommend a vigorous practice and discourage postures that could promote brooding, like seated forward bends and Savasana (Corpse Pose).

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Reader Comments


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


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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