At the age of 50, Ann Clarke’s husband died and her daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness, all within the space of six months. Ann, who describes herself as someone who doesn’t quit easily, went to bed. “I pulled the blankets over my head, I couldn’t move,” Clarke recalls. “Eventually the doctor referred me to a psychiatrist and I was diagnosed with severe depression”.
That was sixteen years ago. Managing the depression with medication, but looking for other holistic options and a way of managing the stress of caring for her daughter, Clarke felt ready to try yoga two years ago.
After attending a class at Sydney’s Annandale Yoga in Daily Life centre, Clarke was hooked and immersed herself in yoga, practising one to two times a week with teacher Sevapuri Hurst. The results have been dramatic. “This year the psychologist I’ve been seeing said she doesn’t think I’m depressed anymore and I can start to reduce my medication,” Clarke says. “I’m so much stronger and have more confidence. I know that I can deal with issues, and I know that I’ll be able to relax in yoga class…the peace of mind it gives me is incredible.”
Depression is the leading cause of non-fatal disability in Australia—on average, one in six people will experience depression in their lifetime. Depression has many potential causes—hereditary, personality, medical issues, hormonal imbalances or by drug and alcohol addiction and it can also be a reaction to extreme stress. And often a combination of these can lead to depression. The good news is that depression is highly treatable and more and more people are seeking treatment as the social stigma associated with the condition lessens.
Yoga practice can be a beneficial exercise therapy for depression sufferers. It can help beat depression.
It has long been known that exercise is helpful in relieving depression. “Activity can help to distract from the ruminative thinking that people who are depressed often engage in,” explains Sydney-based psychologist Charlotte Whittingham, and adds that exercise gives depression sufferers a sense of achievement, as well as improving their energy levels and general fitness.
New research from the Boston University Medical School has found positive indications that yoga practice can be a beneficial exercise therapy for depression sufferers. Published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the study measured levels of the critical chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain of a group who practised yoga three times a week for 12 weeks, against a group who walked for the equivalent time. Low levels of GABA are associated with depression. The study found that GABA levels increased more in the yoga group than for the walking group.
While the study didn’t compare different amounts of practice in the week, the results lean towards the widely held belief in the yoga teaching community that regular practice is essential for any kind of physical or psychological improvement. “Regular asana, pranayama and relaxation practice can really work to keep depression at bay,” says Sydney-based teacher and founder of Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier. He notes that, “when depression rears its ugly head, perhaps it is the hardest thing to keep going with a regular yoga practice”, but that the practice itself, “gives you the tools to ride [depression] out.”
Starting a new activity when depressed does need to be done responsibly. Whittingham advises that the key is to start slowly and then build up the frequency. “If goals are set too high, this can lead to a further sense of failure,” she says.
For Clarke, the biggest challenge for her was just showing up for class. “I had to give myself a couple of hooks,” she says. Ann committed to a series of weekly classes as well as agreeing to volunteer at the studio’s reception desk. During practice, Clarke says, there is a distinct lack of pressure. “The teachers are kind, they praise you. We don’t always get enough praise in life,” she says. “Yoga doesn’t say you must do anything, it says, ‘come along and do as much as you can’.”
Clarke feels this is just the start of a lifelong journey with yoga. “Yoga encourages you to change a whole series of things about your life,” she says. Not only has she become vegetarian, but she also feels that her improved fitness and energy levels allow her to enjoy the sweeter things in life. “Because of yoga, I can sit down on the floor [and play] with my grandchildren.”
Tamsin Angus-Leppan has taught yoga for 10 years and runs the Yoga in Daily Life centre in Kensington, Sydney. www.yogaindailylife.org.au
Yoga To The Rescue
Try these four poses to help keep depression at bay.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Hold Balasana for 10 breaths and feel your breath in the spine and muscles of your back. This pose deepens the breath, nourishes the brain, massages the internal organs and calms the mind, bringing relief from anxiety and depression.
Salambhasana (Locust Pose)
Inhale as you raise your upper and lower body from the floor, exhaling as you return to resting. Repeat 3 times. This pose balances the Manipura (Navel) Chakra, invigorates the body and develops self-confidence. “A strong stretch like this tells the brain ‘I am here’ and gets you out of your head,” says yoga teacher Sevapuri Hurst.
Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
Hold for 30 seconds, breathing gently into the abdomen and lengthening the spine. Yoga teacher Simon Borg-Olivier says this pose manipulates the body’s bandhas (internal locks) that increase the flow of energy and information. “This pose really re-establishes the mind-body connection,” Borg-Olivier says.
Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose)
Relax in this pose for five to 10 minutes. “This pose invigorates the whole body, regulates the glands and reduces states of stress and depression,” Hurst says.
Related: How to cultivate a clear mind