Yoga Postures for Depression
Battling depression can feel like a fight for your life. Yoga can help you stop struggling.
It happened 11 years ago, but I remember the night I had my first full-fledged panic attack as if it were yesterday. I was sitting in the cramped balcony of the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco with my then-boyfriend, watching a devastatingly sad and incredibly long play. By hour three my mood had plummeted. I fidgeted in my seat as I desperately wished that the performance would end. Then, suddenly, I felt my breath get stuck in my chest. I thought I was having an asthma attack. I put my hand on my heart and willed some air into my lungs, but it wouldn't go. I braced myself against the arms of my seat as I tried harder to suck the air in. Nothing. Even though my chest was completely expanded, it felt empty. Then I really started to panic; I became convinced that if I didn't take in a big breath soon, I was going to die.
With my heart pounding in my throat, I pushed through a row of irritated people and bolted out of the dark theater. As I stumbled down the stairs and onto the street, I felt faint and completely disconnected from my body.
The rest of the night is a series of blurry snapshots. I remember the stunned look on my boyfriend's face when he came out of the theater and saw me. I remember him dragging a woman out of a cab and ordering the driver to take us to the hospital. Then I recall a moment of comfort when, at the hospital, a nurse sat me down, put her hands on my shoulders, and said gently, "Just breathe, sweetheart. You can do it." In that moment, the terror dissipated and I felt a split second of relief as I realized that I was not going to die. But the relief was quickly replaced by overwhelming sadness. Sobs welled up from deep within. They didn't stop that night. They rarely ceased for several weeks.
When I returned home from the hospital later that night, my mental state worsened. Along with the anxiety that I still felt after the panic attack, I was joined by another visitor: depression. In the weeks that followed, I was completely unable to soothe myself. I cried constantly and felt detached from the world. I awoke every morning dreading opening my eyes and grew frightened of crowded places like movie theaters, airplanes, and buses. Then one day I was afraid to leave my apartment. The thought of looking up at the vast expanse of sky above while being surrounded by strangers was too much. I'd heard about this condition, agoraphobia, but I couldn't believe it was happening to me. At that point I knew I needed to find help, and I did.
This might be the part of the story where you think I'm going to say that yoga saved me. That I traveled to India and meditated for 40 days in an ashram, which helped me find the true meaning of life and live happily ever after. I wish I could say that, but it was antidepressants and psychotherapy that initially helped me manage my anxiety and depression. When I did start practicing yoga three years later, it helped me feel happier—more whole and connected. Yoga didn't "cure" me, but it has transformed my life over time. In the past eight years, yoga helped me create new thought patterns, feel self-love, and return to the present moment when my mind wanders off into a fearful future. It's also taught me to trust that life is good, whether or not things are going well. All this just from practicing asana? Well, not exactly. Practicing yoga has altered my inner landscape in many ways. I offer some of them here not as a definitive guide—depression and anxiety are complicated and different for everyone, and it's important to get a personalized diagnosis and treatment plan—but in the hope that someone else might find support and solace too.
Know Your Depression
For me, anxiety and depression have always gone hand in hand. Over the years I've noticed that a panic attack or prolonged periods of anxiety can trigger depression in me. Although no one knows why, most anxiety disorders—including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and phobias—are accompanied by depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Asana practice helps counteract anxiety-driven depression because it reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, inducing what's known as the relaxation response. Once the relaxation response kicks in, many people feel that instead of trying to escape their feelings, they can stay with them, which is essential to identifying the psychological factors that trigger their anxiety and depression. But the path to getting to this relaxed place varies by individual.
Patricia Walden, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher, and the physician Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine, who together teach workshops on yoga and depression, categorize depression based on the gunas—rajas, tamas, and sattva—which, according to ancient yogic texts, are three types of energy that manifest as behavioral patterns. Rajas is often characterized as dynamic and excitable; tamas by inertia, sloth, fear, or confusion; and sattva as pure "beingness" and lucidity, a state of equilibrium. Walden and McCall refer to an agitated, anxiety-infused depression as "rajasic" and a more lethargic, despondent depression as "tamasic."
If you're feeling rajasic, that is, agitated, anxious, and fearful, you might assume that the best yoga practice for you would be one made up of calming poses such as forward bends or restorative poses. But if your mind and energy are out of control, being completely still and willing yourself to relax may make you feel worse. In those situations, Walden recommends starting your practice with dynamic, invigorating poses such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), or Sun Salutations to burn off nervous energy and to give your buzzing mind something to focus on. If those poses are too difficult, Walden suggests that beginners try Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). If you find Downward-Facing Dog too stimulating, use a bolster or block under the head. From there, supported backbends such as Viparita Dandasana can then lift the spirits without overly stimulating the nervous system, provided you focus on your breathing and don't aggressively work the pose. Walden recommends backbends because they open the chest, which is essential for relieving both anxiety and depression. For depression, Walden suggests focusing on the inhalation, which draws life force into the body; for anxiety, it's best to focus on the exhalation, which promotes a calm, peaceful mind.
Once you feel more balanced and calm, restorative poses such as Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) or Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) can offer much-needed rest. Walden also recommends keeping your eyes open in Savasana (Corpse Pose), since closing them can often intensify feelings of restlessness and anxiety.