Ashtanga Yoga Cured My Depression

Ashtanga Yoga Cured My Depression

Ashtanga Yoga cured my depression. I know that sounds like an info-mercial. But I’m convinced it’s true.

I stumbled into my first yoga class with Richard Freeman in 1992. His studio had been approved by Naropa University, and I earned required elective credit toward my master’s degree in psychology for my studies with him. I’d suffered from anxiety and depression during my undergraduate studies, and spent many hours reading about psychology and working with therapists, trying to sort through my own confused states of mind leftover from my parents’ divorce when I was a child.

Slowly, yoga practice—and Richard’s presentation of yoga practice— changed me. During his classes, Richard had a way of helping me access parts of myself that were dormant. I cried each and every time I attended his class—sometimes I simply shed tears of gratitude during the final resting posture while he chanted with his hauntingly beautiful harmonium. Often during backbends I would touch something deeper and spend twenty minutes in racking sobs, sitting on the curb out in front of his studio until I could collect myself enough to drive home. I didn’t know what was happening, but I did know that I was feeling stronger, more grounded, more sane. Yoga practice gave me a confidence I had never felt before, and helped me access these feelings directly.

Purification Practice

What was happening in these classes was purification. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was being purified, but I left feeling lighter, stronger, more settled. I stumbled by chance on a practice that led me out of this awful cycle of depression: Ashtanga Yoga. I never once took a tablet for depression, and can now report that I have not descended into its grip in over 20 years.

This is not to say that I never experience sadness, or grief, or despair. But the debilitating lethargy that used to sometimes wreak havoc on my life is a thing of the past.  The tools I’ve learned through steady, disciplined yoga practice have taught me how to recognise the early warning signs and intervene before things get serious. It made me get curious about how the chemistry of the body is affected by lifestyle choices, and to become a scientist of my own body. I started paying attention to how foods, activities, environments and relationships affected my well being.

Recently depression has caused waves in the news, with high profile suicides causing us to look more closely at this tricky emotion. I call it an emotion. Whether clinical depression is different than the label we often give to angst or hopelessness or sadness gone on too long, I don’t know. But if e-motion is energy in motion, then depression is like an anti-emotion. Depression is energy that has gotten stuck. The best way I know to unstick it its to move. Ashtanga Yoga is a fantastic way to get that energy moving.

Some might argue with me that clinical depression is a chemical imbalance that needs medication to correct that imbalance. I would argue that the body knows how to do this naturally. We have a veritable storehouse of chemicals in the body that can be released by yogic practice under the supervision of a qualified teacher.

How Ashtanga Yoga Cured My Depression: the Essential Features.

• Physical Movement: If depression is stuck energy, Ashtanga gets the energy moving. Releasing stagnant energy is the quickest way to change your state of mind.

• Pranayama: Deep breathing with awareness changes the subtle energy systems in the body. When we work with prana, we are directly manipulating the life-force energy, increasing, revitalising or balancing it as necessary. This has profound affects on the entire psycho-physical structure.

• Community: Practicing with the same people every day – even if you never speak to each other – creates a strong sense of bonding. I’ve made lifelong friends through Ashtanga Yoga who continue to be a source of support through all of life’s challenges.

• Schedule: When you show up every morning (or afternoon) for practice, you develop a sense of discipline that can do wonders for self esteem. Depression cannot thrive where self-esteem is strong. Simply showing up is a practice in itself.

• Routine: The Ashtanga practice is repeated every day. When we do the same practice every day, we have an opportunity to look at how our mind changes from day to day. We learn to identify subtle changes from day to day, and see our growth.

• Relationship: Ashtanga is taught under the supervision of a teacher who guides you to develop the practice appropriate for your unique circumstances. Having a witness to your experience can be a powerful way to view your process through a different lens. It’s like borrowing someone else’s eyes to see with a new perspective. You start to see that whatever you are going through is OK. I learned acceptance through practicing Ashtanga Yoga.  

• Diet: Because yoga is practiced on an empty stomach, you start to be more aware of food intake. You also notice how diet affects practice. When I first started yoga, I was a big Ben and Jerry’s fan, and my then-boyfriend and I would polish off nearly a pint each evening. I remember the morning when I discovered that my ice cream habit was affecting my yoga practice: we had skipped our evening B & J’s the night before, and my body felt light, energised, and capable of amazing feats. Every thing we put in our bodies has an affect. It’s up to us to monitor how we want to feel. Food is medicine.

• Increased Body Awareness: When you maintain a daily physical practice, you can’t help but be more aware of how you walk, stand, sit, and how you transition from one position to another. This also carries over to your meditation practice, so your meditation becomes more stable and settled. If we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, then it makes sense to be deliberate and aware in our physicality.

. Meditation: Ashtanga Yoga is a step by step path to meditation. Each aspect of the eight limbs helps settle the body, breath and mind into a state of quietude, so that our experience may be observed more clearly. Once you have learned to witness your own process in the moment as it is happening, you have a choice about how to participate in that process. You no longer have to be swept away by emotions. This is one of the greatest freedoms I know.

 The power of yoga

In hindsight, I realize that those first few years of yoga were like a purge for my system. I had so much pain and confusion stuffed into my journals, or simply ignored, that were craving to be released. Those feelings needed a safe space (the Mysore room), a caring guide (my brilliant teacher, Richard Freeman), and a powerful vehicle (the practice of Ashtanga Yoga) to move forward –they needed permission to come out. But the funny thing was that often the feelings themselves never made themselves known. I frequently had the experience of working through an emotion during a yoga practice without even really knowing what the emotion was—like a half-emotion, or an almost-emotion, or something that might soon become an emotion but was still in its infancy. It was as if a whole layer of experience existed just under the conscious awareness, and the intense physical practice of Ashtanga effected changes working on this level. Since I had so much junk to work with, so much sadness and self-bashing, this practice had huge and far-reaching benefits for me, that I now share with my clients and students.

When I learn of suicides in the news, it breaks my heart and really touches a nerve because I too doubted whether life was worth living at times. This is not a fun place to be. I was incredibly fortunate to discover the benefits of Ashtanga Yoga in working with intense states of mind, and to overcome my depression. Even if I no longer practice in such an intense way, I am still passionate about sharing and advocating the practice for anyone who works with intense and difficult states of mind.

Have you struggled with depression? Did yoga help? Share your insights in the comments below.

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6 Responses to Ashtanga Yoga Cured My Depression

  1. I also believe yoga can be a complete system for mental health recovery. Between the movement, concentration practice, emotional release, relationship building, and overall physical and mental cleansing, it just plain works. Especially if you can incorporate it in an outdoor setting to get the benefits of nature, fresh air, and sunlight. It worked for me.

  2. Dear Kim: Great article! I’ve practiced yoga now 10 years full time, mainly Vinyasa with some Kundalini and Ashtanga peppered in. Early on somewhere I’d read/heard “yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory,” so I hadn’t dug far into the theory until I wrote my Doctoral Qualifying Paper in 2012 at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (now Sofia University; you might know the school, being a Naropa alumnus). I’d proposed Hatha Yoga’s efficacy on culture shock related anger in expatriates–people who work overseas–but just yesterday in my practice (May 9, 2015) I remembered the concept of the ‘anger umbrella,’ which proposes that beneath anger are core feelings like guilt, shame, and fear. So–myself now an expat living in Scotland, struggling with culture shock–I began to reflect on yoga’s role in helping me address–on conscious and unconscious levels–what was under my anger here, and indeed it’s been fear; fear of embarrassing myself in public, fear of crossing the roads, fear of not finding work in this new country, and so on. In assertive, active types, I see fear manifesting initially in angry out-lashings or criticism of others, but over time, the anger begins to congeal into depression, which an Adlerian Psychologist (such as myself) would recognize as anger one doesn’t have a right to feel . . . hence the ‘stuck-ness.’ Energy can get stuck during and after all major life transitions, or periods of change, such as the teenage years (a major transition period!), job changes, love partnering, breakups, bereavements, natural disasters. The minimally somewhat aware person–the person who knows lashing out won’t solve the problem–or the person who begins to feel inept following repeated failure (cf. ‘learned helplessness’) will bottle the anger. Now, bottled anger can be grist for the midnight-of-the-soul mill–if one has the tools and basic needs covered–otherwise, that’s a pretty dark abyss . . . For me, with yoga I’ve helped myself through countless ‘dark nights’ in the last 10 years, as I’ve moved house five times and progressed through psychotherapy school, worked as a psychotherapist, and then completed a doctorate in transpersonal psychology while navigating the first 5 years of marriage and losing an infant child to sudden death. Without my yoga practice, who knows?! Yoga is ‘autopsychotherapy’–with yoga I treat myself, and when I come out the other end I treat others better, too, whether that means succoring the needy or leveling the prideful (compare with Cervantes’s character Don Quixote). Along with the physical releases and revitalizations, so often I’ve gotten insights and solutions to current problems during yoga that when my wife asks me “How was yoga” (and I typically practice at home), I usually now cut to the chase and say “You know, I pulled through some difficult stuff today” or “I went really deep today” or “Man . . . I feel so much better.” So . . . when I read BBC’s “Mindfulness Based Therapy Shows Promise” I laugh at the “shows promise” because I know mindfulness practices work–I mean, they require effort–but they work, and at the same time–seeing myself as both ‘subject and object’–I can recognize my own impatience with reductionist science, the very same impatience I’ve reached the ‘other side’ of during yoga . . . and other side I reach, Amen.

    Hear, hear! to all schools of yoga; may we continue to find unity in diversity, and vice versa. Blessings from Glasgow

  3. Thanks Sam! Wow, what a journey! I appreciate your insights and yes, I also had to laugh (albeit a bit sarcastically) when I read that Mindfulness Based Therapy Shows Promise. But I guess it’s better to show up late to the party than not at all. My only concern these days is that while much is being brought to the table to bring awareness to the effects of mindfulness medical science, there is still much resistance to bringing these insights to the science of mental health. Which is perplexing to me. Mindboggling. Stay tuned this week for my take on that…wish you all the best and keep up the good work. blessings and love.

  4. Hi Kim, these are good tips for treating anxiety. As a yoga trainer in Delhi, India, I was being being treated with depression for the longest time and ever since I started practicing Yoga in my mid twenties (I am 35 now) I can safely state that Yoga has helped me become a better person. I also feel that the process of curing depression through Yoga is to ensure that one practices regularly, even when one don’t feel like it. The key thing to remember that even a small amount of yoga practice is better than nothing. The more one practices, the better one feels. Regular practice of Yoga can calm and focus one’s mind and help relax the body, while at the same time strengthening the body inside out. Yoga also challenges our balance ever so slightly so we can have a little fun! Do it daily!

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