Journey to Well-Being: New Light on Yoga for Depression and Anxiety

Weintraub's book comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans are seeking alternative treatments to antidepressant medications with limited effectiveness and disturbing side effects.
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"Maintaining order rather than correcting disorder is the ultimate principle of wisdom." -- Nei Jing, 2nd Cent. B.C.

Do human beings have the capacity to cultivate happiness and emotional equilibrium by learning to fine tune mind and body, much as we can learn to fine tune a rare and refined musical instrument?

The ancient yogis believed so. They believed that the pathway to peace, in part, goes through not just our mind, but our physical body as well. If we know how, the body can be an important gateway for balancing everyday moods, establishing greater emotional resiliency, and for relieving anxiety and depression. Indeed, it is central to any system of natural health, such as Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, that restoring balance to the body through simple lifestyle changes offers a remarkably powerful approach to healing.

Amy Weintraub, founder of LifeForce Yoga and author of Yoga for Depression, has long been a leading advocate for the use of yoga to restore balance to mind and body and relieve depression. In her newly-released book, Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management, Weintraub offers up a series of simple mind-body practices targeting therapists working with clients in a psychotherapy setting. Essentially, however, the book is useful for anyone wishing to empower him or herself with tools to establish greater emotional resilience and/or relieve anxiety and depression.

Weintraub's book comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans are seeking alternative treatments to antidepressant medications with limited effectiveness and disturbing side effects. Indeed, a growing number of studies question the usefulness of the traditional antidepressant medications for treating mild and moderate forms of depression. According to a recent meta-analysis published in JAMA, the benefit of antidepressant drugs may be minimal in patients with mild or moderate depression; in the study, only in the case of severe depression did medications have substantial effects over a simple placebo pill.

In this interview, Weintraub discusses her new book, as well as some of the yoga techniques she has found to be particularly helpful when using yoga to relieve depression and anxiety.

ENS: You have taught your LifeForce Yoga for Depression for more than 10 years now and have trained hundreds of yoga teachers and therapists. What was the main message you wanted to convey in your new book?

AW: Many people shy away from yoga because they think it involves challenging physical postures, which they won't be able to perform. However, there are many, many yoga techniques that don't require the ability to get yourself into challenging yoga postures, and which, in fact, don't even require a yoga mat.

ENS: Many reviewers point out that even though the book targets therapists, it contains a wonderful compilation of simple mind-body practices that really everyone can benefit from. Was that your intention?

AW: Yes, the book really is for anyone wishing to empower themselves with more tools to deal with life's ups and downs. If you practice yoga, you may already have become aware of the shift in mood that yoga engenders. Yoga helps empower us to be able to manage our own mood in so many ways. For someone who suffers from anxiety, depression or who has a history of trauma, this is crucial. It means they have more control in their lives, which research has shown is a key element in feeling better.

So in the book, I wanted to offer some simple somatic tools gleaned from the timeless teachings of yoga. In Western terms, you could describe them as emotional and biochemical self-regulating strategies. These include powerful techniques, which are not always included in yoga classes, including breathing exercises (pranayama), easy meditations, and hand gestures called mudras that empower one to self-regulate one's mood and develop increasing feelings of self-efficacy and control.

So they differ from what you might find in an ordinary yoga class in that they don't require the ability to practice yoga postures. Bu the fact that there is no mat involved doesn't mean these techniques are less effective. In fact, most of these techniques date back much further than many of the common yoga postures commonly practiced in yoga studios today.

ENS: In your book, you say that "therapeutic yoga approaches the emotions from the doorway of the body, or more precisely from the residue left in the body by past trauma or even the stress of everyday living. It meets the constrictions held in the body and helps the client release them often without words."

Has it been your experience that the body in some cases can offer a more effective avenue for releasing stress and long-held traumas?

AW: Absolutely. Often, when we have a history of trauma, it may have begun before we had the words to speak it. It may be pre-verbal, and talk therapy can't get to those pre-verbal places that we have constricted. Even when we've been traumatized later in our lives, we may think we're done with it, but the body remembers.

That is not just yoga talk. There's a large field of somatic psychotherapy founded on this understanding. A somatic psychotherapist will also tell you that the body holds trauma from the past, even when we no longer necessarily remember it ourselves.

ENS: Do you feel there is a growing acknowledgment in the field of psychotherapy of the importance of the body in releasing trauma and balancing mind and emotions?

AW: In my experience, yes. In the book, I quote Bessel Van der Kolk, director of the Trauma Ceter in Brookline, Mass., who has said that he will not work with a trauma survivor who is not practicing yoga. "If you really want to help a traumatized person," he notes, "you have work with core physiological states, and then the mind will start changing."

Even cognitive-based therapy (CBT) has a mindfulness component and a body component and scans involving sensing the body. And CBT is probably one of the most researched and evidence-based models of psychotherapy shown to be effective for trauma and other less healthy mind states as well. But many other forms of psychotherapy-dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT), and even EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a model for working with trauma) engages the body as well.

ENS: In LifeForce Yoga, you particularly emphasize yoga techniques like Pranayama breathing techniques, chanting, and Kriyas (targeted movements with specific actions). Breath and Kriyas are often used to move energy blocks in the body. Do you think that stagnant or blocked energy is a factor in depression?

AW: Most likely. If you've noticed people who are depressed or if you've been depressed in the past, the posture is usually slumped and the belly is kind of dormant. There's not much happening in the core of the body. So yoga practices targeting depression can help release blocks in those areas.

People who struggle with depression can use sound, or chanting, to energize and release blocks in the core of the body, which tends to get dormant and sluggish in people with depression. Also, Kapalabhati breath, which involves a vigorous pumping of the belly, is very useful for enlivening this area. What happens is that we're actually stimulating those areas and releasing blocks of stagnant energy.

Another wonderful practice, just to get your energy moving and get you motivated to practice is Breath of Joy. Breath of joy is a kriya, a targeted movement practice, which is particularly effective in managing mood. It counters the shallow breathing that is so common in people who struggle with depression.

So basically any yoga, whether they're Yoga Asanas, Pranayama, Kriya, or sounds like Mantras or chanting, have an effect with sustained practice over time. The key is to release whatever is compressed or constricted from those areas of the body. And this can be any kind of blocks -- lymphatic, muscular, energetic, or emotional.

To learn More: Download Amy Weintraub's Free Talk:
Yoga to Support Optimum Mental Health.

Join Amy Weintraub for a 2-Part Online Course: Yoga Techniques to Lift Your Mood

For more by Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., click here.

For more on yoga, click here.

Flickr photo by anthrovik

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