Yoga Therapy for Depression

Much has been written about the therapeutic effect of both meditation and yoga to alleviate symptoms of depression. Although the clinical research trials have been small to date, the evidence is clear. Focus directed toward the postures of yoga, in addition to or as a complement to meditation techniques, serve to balance the relationship between the brain and the body.

Neither are a quick fix, by the way. Although benefits can often be noted within a day or so, both meditation and yoga require a long-term commitment since they, very often, do not produce fast results. But if persistent, these practices of self-acceptance and calming of mind and body can be wonderful complementary remedies to get at the root of depression and aid in the healing process.

It has been estimated that fully 10% of the population will face a major depressive disorder during their lifetime. Older people are particularly at risk, as are teenagers. People with chronic illness and cancer also may fall prey to the illness. It is important to understand some of the causes of depression, and the types of depression, as well as their symptoms. 

Understanding Depression – Symptoms
1. Decreased or increased appetite
2. Weight gain or weight loss
3. Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much
4. Agitation/restlessness or the exact opposite – no energy, listless, chronically fatigued
5. Lack of concentration/inability to make decisions
6. Feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope, low self-esteem
7. Suicidal thought

The types of depression are categorized by their symptoms and the length of time that symptoms have persisted. Medical conditions and substance abuse may cause depression, and must be taken into consideration when diagnosing a depressive condition,

The most common type of Depression is called Reactive Depression (also called Adjustment Disorder)
This type of Depression may be due to a single traumatic event or life
circumstance (called Reactive Depression). Symptoms of this type of
depression are similar to other depressive disorders. The treatment may
involve talk sessions with a therapist or behavioural modification therapy. Due to the relationship between the symptoms and a specific stressor, there is more emphasis put on resolving the problem that created the stress. (Donald J. Franklin, Ph.D.) This may involve making concrete changes in the way one manages one’s life, and may require specific actions and decision making. (e.g. If job stress is resulting in depression, one may need to decide whether changing jobs is the most appropriate solution.) Often, people become depressed in reaction to psychosocial stressors when they don't believe a solution exists to their problem. In such cases, developing a reasonable solution is a key part of the treatment process. 

This is where yoga comes in! We often are so wrapped up in following the same old routines and ways of doing things in our lives (called Samskaras in yoga) that we resist change no matter what. Better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know...or so we think. When we get quiet, and become still, our minds clear...and we are better able to ‘see’ areas of our lives which are creating stress and anxiety, fear and depression. The first step in change is to notice. The postures of yoga require our focus and mental concentration, and in so doing, they cause the Samskaras of the brain patterns to slow....and begin to bring about change.

A less common type of Depression is Bipolar Depression
This type of Depression is a complicated disorder complicated by episodes of depression alternating with manic episodes. Each individual has a unique pattern of mood cycles, combining both types of episodes, and for those patients and their families, it is a most distressing illness. Professional help is always advised in these cases. Bipolar depression tends to run in families, although a genetic link has not been found to date. While yoga may have a place in the long-term management of this disorder, chemical treatment and psychotherapy are the mainstay of the treatment regime. The symptoms of a manic episode are extreme irritability, feelings of euphoria, bizarre behaviour, extreme risk-taking, poor judgment and more. Patients are almost always in denial. It is important to note that this disorder CAN be successfully treated.

Interestingly, there is new research to support that the practice of the physical postures of yoga (as opposed to breathing alone) brings about an elevated level of a naturally-occurring neurotransmitter in the body called GABA (gamma amino butyric acid.) GABA is the primary neurotransmitter known to counterbalance the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which in the case of anxiety and depression, is over-active. According to a study published recently in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, asanas increase GABA levels in the brain. Anxiety is associated with low GABA levels. 

The study found that yoga participants had greater reductions in anxiety and greater improvements in mood than people who did other types of exercise, eg walking.. These mood improvements and reductions in anxiety were correlated to changes in GABA levels. The increase of activity in the GABA system found using yoga postures are similar to those found with medications.

This research is new, and is preliminary. However, its positive results not only warrant further research but begin to explain why yoga improves mood and decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression.

On a personal note, as many of you know, yoga has been a virtual life-saver for me, as depression has been a life-long struggle for me. It has helped to keep my mood lifted and light.

As always, if you have a personal story to share, we would be happy to hear. Depression is real. And it affects not only the person with the disorder, but everyone else in her or his life. It is time that it came out of the woodwork, and onto the mat!

by Maureen Rae, RN, E-RYT