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Yoga for Depression

4 Poses and a Meditation to Ease Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

Try these calming, empowering poses to ease the stress of post-pregnancy life.

A sea of red lights appears before us. My pulse quickens to the point that it feels like my heart is leaping out of my throat. I reach my arms wide, as if I could save my entire family with the span of my mama-bird wings. I then squeeze my eyes shut and brace for impact. The car comes to an abrupt stop.

“Are you okay?” my husband asks, more annoyed than concerned.

I open one eye first and then the other, before looking around. We are much further back from the line of braking cars than I first imagined. In fact, we are nowhere near them, but my anxiety and intrusive thoughts had created a future I wanted no part of—one where I could almost feel the broken glass caught in my hair. Though I was consciously aware that we were nowhere near getting into an accident, my nervous system was experiencing an entirely different reality.

I take a deep breath and reach back for our baby. He puts my finger in his mouth and bites down. It hits me like a splash of cold water, bringing me back to the present. 

Postnatal Depression is Not What You Think 

When my doctor told me that I was experiencing Postpartum Depression (PPD), I balked. I thought it was just my lifelong anxiety rearing its unwanted head. Sure, I would cry at the drop of a hat and my husband’s mere breathing made me want to scream. Okay, maybe I had set off alarm bells at both my OBGYN’s office and my son’s pediatrician when I took the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and had a high score. 

In my mind, PPD meant not being able to get out of bed, feeling low or sometimes nothing at all. I was almost feeling too much. Everything was overwhelming. From crossing a busy San Francisco street, which was somewhat understandable, but even more benign experiences, like someone asking me a simple question or deciding what to eat. I also mistakenly believed PPD only occurred right after birth. Apparently not; my son was almost 9 months old when my symptoms began.

Helping Ourselves is Helping Our Children

While many new parents experience what is commonly known as the ‘baby blues’ in the first two weeks after giving birth, due to the rapid drop of hormones, when symptoms continue beyond two weeks or there is an onset further down the road, it is more likely to be Postpartum Depression (PPD). In fact, it can occur anytime in the first 18 months after having a baby.  And 10-20% of mothers experience PPD. It also occurs in fathers and adoptive parents, but many believe it to be underreported amongst all three groups, since symptoms can vary so widely and are sometimes felt to be shameful.

A number of parents face Postnatal Mood Disorders, but with the right support, many of them are able to find relief. Please remember that you are not a “bad” parent. You are not broken, and you are definitely not alone. The best thing we can do for our children, is to reach out and ask for help ourselves.

Yoga and Postpartum Depression

Before seeking professional help, I felt like I was at my limit most of the time, like I was going to break. The two lifelines that could carry me out of my fog and helped me feel grounded were hugging my baby and my yoga practice.

Numerous studies have shown the efficacy of asana in alleviating postpartum depression symptoms (studies show it lowers stress hormone cortisol, and eases depressive symptoms). I experienced the support of yoga firsthand in my body.  Sometimes just moving my body with breath for ten minutes meant the difference between being able to go into a store or being frozen in the parking lot crying.

It is super important to note that PPD may require medical intervention and that yoga is not a substitute for treatment. In addition to my asana practice, I worked with a therapist weekly and chose to go on medication. But my practice was (and continues to be) my anchor. Over time, I discovered that specific poses could influence certain symptoms. 

Even if practicing yoga only takes the edge off a little bit, it is worth it. I hope this sequence helps you feel supported. Start with a few rounds of energizing Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation). Moving your body dynamically helps you get out of your head, into your body and breath, and can calm intrusive thoughts. Then move through the rest of the postures, and try the meditation at the close of the practice to experience deep rest and rejuvenation. 

Uttana Shishosana (Extended Puppy Pose)

Set up two blocks on the medium setting toward the top of your mat. Come to Tabletop Pose, then place the backs of your elbows on the blocks, with your palms touching. Begin to melt your chest toward the earth. Keep your lower ribs pulling up toward your back body to isolate the opening to your upper spine—your heart region. Root down through your shins and the tops of your feet. Keep your head down, aligning your ears with your biceps, and lengthen through your crown. 

You may only be able to stay a few breaths at first. Honor that. Over time, as you get more comfortable, perhaps stay for 10 full breaths. To exit the pose, lift your head up slightly and then use your belly to support you as you place one palm flat to the floor and the next, returning to Tabletop. Pause before sinking back into Balasana (Child’s Pose) to rest. 

Benefits: Opening your heart may feel like the last thing you want to do when battling any form of depression, but one of the basic premises of Ayurvedic medicine is that opposites heal. This concept has also been proven in Western science as effective with dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which encourages people to take the opposite action of their emotion when in a depressive state. This posture, also known as Anahatasana, is a great starter backbend, because it is within a forward bend and you are face down, so you can feel safe while beginning to re-open.

Virabhadrasana II, variation (Warrior Pose II) 

From Tadasana, turn to face the long end of your mat and step your feet out wide. Turn your right leg out and slightly angle your back foot and hip inward. Align your heels. Bend your front knee over your ankle. Inhale your arms wide. On an exhale, clasp your hands behind your back, interlacing your fingers. If you are unable to clasp, use a strap or keep your hands on your hips. Inhale and lengthen your spine. 

As you exhale, twist your torso open away from your front inner thigh. Draw your shoulder heads back, opening your collarbones. Align your chin with your sternum. Breathe deeply for up to 10 breaths. To exit the pose, release the clasp of your arms and bring your hands to your hips. Straighten your front knee and parallel your feet to the long edge of your mat. Repeat on the other side, remembering to clasp your opposite thumb on top.

Benefits: The warrior poses remind us of our inner strength. They are also grounding, anchoring us to the present and what is real, and interlacing the arms behind the back acts as a mild heart opener as we edge toward the next pose, which is a deeper backbend.

When every little thing feels like too much, it can be easy to forget our power. To forget the fact that we are raising a human being. What is more powerful than that? 

Pigeon Pose

From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), inhale and lift your right leg up. Exhale, step your right foot forward and lower your back knee to the mat. Wiggle your right foot toward the left side of your mat and ease your right shin down to the mat. If your front hip does not reach the floor, roll a blanket or place a block under the top thigh. 

Pause with your torso upright for a few breaths, with your palms or fingertips propped up the mat or blocks. Begin to bend your left leg and reach back with your right hand, to hold your foot or ankle. If you cannot reach your foot or ankle, use a strap as a lasso around your ankle. Continuing to hold your back ankle, lower your left forearm, resting your forehead either on your arm or on a block. Engage your lower abdomen by drawing your belly button toward your spine. 

Reach your heart toward the front of the mat. You might try closing your eyes. Feeling the support of the floor, but also your own hand holding you. Stay for 20 breaths. Release your left leg for a few moments and lower your torso down to pause in Pigeon. Walk your hands toward your body and lift your torso up. Curl your back toes and pass through a three-legged Downward Dog, eventually returning to Downward Dog. Repeat the posture on the other side.

Benefits: This pose helps release your psoas, the muscle most intimately connected to our primal fight, flight, freeze response. This is the deepest muscle in the human body, and it tends to be chronically tight during anxious and depressive periods. Part of why I felt so on edge, is that my nervous system was in a perpetual state of fight, flight, or freeze. Everything felt like a threat, even my own family members. This pose can offer soothing relief. 

Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath)

Come to sit on a blanket in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) position. Lift and reach your arms out to create a high v-shape. Point your thumbs up and curl your fingers in toward your palms. Sit up tall. Close your eyes and begin to take short exhales through your nose, as you pull your abdomen into the spine. Think of your belly as a pump, squeezing the breath out. Your inhales will occur naturally after the exhales. Take 20 rounds and pause, switching the cross of your legs, before repeating one more time. Please note: If you are pregnant or on your period, a long and slow ujjayi breath is a great substitute. 

Benefits: This pranayama practice is a great way to reinforce proper breathing patterns, which do not only get disrupted by pregnancy and birth, but also when we are feeling anxious or depressed. The arms overhead are also naturally invigorating and empowering (think of Ann Cuddy’s TED Talk on power posing, which showed scientific evidence that how we hold our body influences how we feel emotionally). It still boggles my mind how 10 months of pregnancy and 48 hours of labor completely rewrote my body’s ability to coordinate my breath with my pelvic floor, but it did! This pranayama technique (also known as Ego Eradicator)  has helped me. 

Savasana (Corpse Pose) with Yoga Nidra Meditation

In this Yoga Nidra, you will scan your body, bit by bit, noticing each body part for a few seconds before gently moving on to the next. Read through the description below, then guide yourself through it as best you can. Feel free to get more detailed than this description. If you need to come out early, honor that. If there is no sensation in a given space of your body, simply move onto the next part.

Start in Savasana by lying on your back. If your low back is tender, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor with your inner knees touching. Close your eyes or cover them with a towel or eye pillow. If closing your eyes creates more anxiety, keep them softly open. 

Begin by becoming aware of your left foot, left ankle, shin, thigh, hip, left side of your pelvis.  Come back down to your right foot, ankle, calf, top thigh and hip. Notice the right side of your pelvis. Sense your bum. Notice your lower belly and lower back. 

Travel your awareness up the left side of your torso, to your left top chest and shoulder. Now notice your right side, along your right ribs, up to your chest and right shoulder. Feel into your lower back, mid back, and upper back. Notice your left hand, forearm, elbow, and upper arm. Then sense your right arm, hand, forearm, elbow, and upper arm. Feel your throat and the sides of your throat. Notice the back of your neck. Left ear, jaw, cheek, eye. Right ear, jaw, cheek, eye, forehead. Feel the back of your head and scalp. 

And now see if you can become aware of the whole body. Remain for a few moments, before coming out of your Savasana slowly. Roll to one side, press up to sitting, and sit quietly for a moment.

Benefits: Another common symptom of PPD is difficulty sleeping. Studies have shown Yoga Nidra, a form of progressive relaxation, to be extremely effective at not only alleviating anxiety and elevating mood, but also regulating hormone levels. And some believe this practice to be even more effective for the brain than regular sleep. As new parents, it may be hard to carve out time for a full-length yoga flow. If you only do one thing today, practice this body scan, and you will still receive enormous benefits. 

Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher trainer, mama, motivator, and writer. Based out of San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, son, and their dog, Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com