Practice Kriya Yoga: Self-Awareness

Can kriya yoga help battle depression?

Patricia Walden, a senior Iyengar teacher, and Timothy McCall, M.D., author of the book Yoga as Medicine, prescribe Patanjali‘s kriya yoga as another way to bolster your awareness. Kriya yoga centers around three practices, tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (devotion), which are designed to develop new, healthier samskaras (subliminal activators), “the indelible imprints left behind by our daily experiences”—good or bad, conscious or unconscious—that dictate our behavioral patterns.

I struggle most with the first kriya, tapas, which means heat and is often interpreted as discipline. I would much rather sit in the sun all day eating blackberry pie and drinking a cool, refreshing lemonade than doing, well, pretty much anything. Even yoga. But by now I know that I have to move my body consistently in order to feel good. And I always notice a shift in my mood once I’ve been on my mat awhile. Sometimes it takes 10 minutes, sometimes it takes 40, but it always makes me feel better. I’m happier for all of the physiological reasons that any kind of movement provides—increased endorphins, changes in stress hormones, improved respiration—but I also feel better because I feel more in control of my health. Being disciplined gives me the confidence that I can do something productive to make myself healthier. But don’t mistake discipline for ambition. As Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., author of 30 Essential Yoga Poses, points out, “Discipline is not about achieving a 10-minute Headstand. It’s about consistency.”

With the second kriya, svadhyaya, Patanjali encouraged practitioners to study his text, the Yoga Sutra as a means for self-discovery. Over the years, I’ve become attached to one sutra in particular, “When harassed by doubt, cultivate the opposite mental attitude.” (Sutra II.33, translation Bouanchaud) On any given day I still notice moments in which I can easily get swept away by negative, if not catastrophic thoughts. For example, let’s say I’ve happily spent a Saturday afternoon with a close friend and her newborn baby. I might leave her house and think, with excitement, how much I want to be a mother someday. But that thought could easily turn into an intense worry about how I might be an incompetent mother. From there I might (unkindly) remind myself that I may never be a mother at all at the rate I’m going. At which point I can effortlessly spin into a headspace where I imagine that if I’m not a mother I will surely die alone, unloved, and in a gutter somewhere. Learning how to recognize those moments and counter each negative thought with a positive one is liberating. It’s also vital to my mental health. I now catch myself earlier, and can even laugh at my habitual thought patterns, which contributes to less anxiety in my everyday existence.

McCall suggests that self-study can also mean asking yourself the hard questions in order to get to the root of what’s distressing you. “It’s important to ask yourself, ‘Is there a lesson for me in feeling depressed? Is there something I’m ignoring that I need to change in my life? My job? My relationship?” It can be scary to ask questions like these, so once you ask the questions, it’s important to seek support either with a therapist or other trained healer.

A traditional definition of the last kriya, ishvara pranidhana is “to surrender all thoughts, words, and actions to the supreme teacher.” I was reminded of this kriya one day when, after reading every yoga and self-help book I could find, I still felt miserable. My mom suggested that I “just give it up to God.” I wasn’t sure that I believed in God the way of my Catholic upbringing, but in that moment it was a comforting idea. What if I didn’t have to do anything more, try any harder, or try to fix myself or my situation? What if I just surrendered for a little while and let the universe take care of things?

Recovering from depression can feel like the fight of your life. It is exhausting, the constant battle to feel better and do better and to figure things out. But, if you allow yourself to believe that some other force is taking care of things, you can stop fighting and allow your life to unfold. McCall agrees, “I like to think of ishvara pranidhana as giving up the illusion that I’m in control all the time. Then I can go with the river of life.”