As per the latest WHO stats, there are close to 300 million depressed people on the planet. And the numbers are rising fast. To bring in a bit more perspective, this is approximately 16 times higher than the number of COVID-19 cases globally going by the latest figures. And yet, because it is not infectious, it will not be declared a pandemic. Depression is not a loud, attention-seeking disease with an insatiable appetite for grabbing major headlines. Rather it is a smooth, silent, insidious operator. It shies away from the spotlight because it works best undercover.
It is now time to call Depression out. Time to see it for what it is. Depression is not a simple case of the blues that comes and goes occasionally. Neither is it something that starts overnight like someone turned something on (or off) inside the body. It is also not simply a case of few hormones that decided to malfunction inside the brain and sadly it can become a chronic, long-term part of people’s lives. There are several triggers or causes of depression. In many instances, depression starts slow, picks up pace and then snowballs into something that takes over life entirely. And therefore, it is insidious.
It needs to be paid attention to and understood. Once it is understood, it is possible to identify certain triggers early on that if dealt with may prevent someone from falling into chronic, long-term depression. While there are several factors, one of the major triggers for depression is chronic stress and the inability to cope with the same leading to anxiety. Persistent unmanaged anxiety may ultimately lead to clinical depression.
Arming ourselves with the ability to cope with stressful situations in life goes a long way in preserving optimal mental health. One of the tried and tested coping mechanisms that has proven most effective is the practice of Yoga and Meditation.
How does Yoga help cope with chronic stress and depression?
Yoga helps us tap into an in-built relaxation response within our body which we have forgotten exists. Our body’s own safety valve that automatically activates when the pressure within is too much to handle. Let us understand this a bit more clearly.
On perceiving a stressful situation or threat, in a normal person two systems work in tandem balancing each other out – Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) & the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is similar to the gas pedal in a car and triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy and adrenaline so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The PNS acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
Under the current circumstances, this balance has been lost. We are now unable to put the brakes on. We are so used to that adrenaline rush, that we keep the gas pedal constantly activated. It is like going days without sleep or years without a holiday! Or imagine being on a treadmill at high speed and being unable get off.
This means that the brain continues to perceive even ordinary situations as dangerous, prompting the release of high amounts of cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels are supposed to fall as the parasympathetic nervous system (the “brake”) gets activated. However, this does NOT happen for many, leading to Chronic stress. Global studies have now proven that unmanaged stress can cause anxiety, and unmanaged chronic anxiety can lead to clinical long-term depression.
Yoga with its combination of physical postures, mindful breathing and meditative awareness provides a perfect antidote. By synchronising postures with deep breathing, Yoga helps us redirect focus into areas within the body mind system that need healing. It tunes us to a different level of awareness bringing in a certain sensitivity towards our system. And this allows us to communicate with ourselves more efficiently, to start listening to our bodies and understand what it needs.
Yoga helps us develop this efficient dialogue with ourselves. A dialogue that focuses on slowing down, taking a pause, and stopping to smell the roses every once in a while. It teaches us to apply the brakes in a mindful, safe, and gradual way each time life gets onto the fast lane.
Traditional schools of Yoga such as the Sivananda Yoga lineage focus on a 5-fold path towards a healthy and fulfilling life that includes proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, and Meditation. In this article, we will cover all the aspects except diet, which is a large topic and needs a separate discussion.
While the overall practice of Yoga helps in stress and anxiety management, certain specific postures and techniques are particularly useful as they offer almost instant rest and relaxation. By moving the spine in different directions, they directly impact our nervous system. A few of these postures are outlined below:
1) Forward bend – Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Resting pose and helps relax the entire back and neck, also aides blood circulation towards brain, calming the mind.
- Avoid in case of pregnancy, diarrhoea or knee injury.
- Can modify by moving knees slightly apart if unable to bring forehead to the mat.
- Ensure the buttocks rest on your heels. Feel free to place a cushion or soft blanket between the of thighs and calves if you hold tension in your heels.
2) Backbend – Ushtrasana (Camel Pose)
Heart opener and allows expansion in the rib cage and lung cavities encouraging better quality of respiration. Releases congestion from the chest area, prevents hunching of shoulders and is a good emotional release.
- If knees are sensitive, place a soft cushion underneath.
- Can modify through a gentler version by placing hands on lower back for better support.
- Ensure the hips are directly over the knees, chest cavity is expanding, and shoulder blades are coming together at the back.
- Always follow it up with a child’s pose, which is a counter-pose for safety of the back.
3) Inversion – Halasana (Plough Pose)
Provides a wonderful length and decompression to the spine, directly impacting the nervous system and all the internal organs located along the spine. Stimulates thyroid and parathyroid glands helping regulate metabolism through hormonal activity. Symbolically the upside-down posture also offers a different perspective of viewing life.
- If your feet do not reach the floor behind head, place them on a block, bolster or chair at the back.
- Can modify through a restorative version by placing a firm bolster/ cushion under the buttocks and lifting feet up towards the ceiling. This also provides an elevation for the hips and is a gentle inversion.
- Avoid during the menstrual cycle.
4) Spinal Rotation – Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Spinal Twist Pose)
Provides a good rotation for the spinal column, massaging all the nerves that connect the spine to various parts of the body. Directly impacts the nervous system, relaxes and calms the mind.
- Ensure buttocks are seated as you twist. Keep the spine erect and let it hold its own weight.
- Practice spinal twist on both sides – right & left.
5) Shavasana (Corpse Pose)
Easy to practice. Gives relief, comfort and ease. Relaxes all muscles helping one deeply unwind.
- Feet are mat distance wide, toes relaxed and falling to the sides, arms are at a 45 degrees angle from the body & palms facing up. Eyes closed. Deep breaths.
- Practice between postures for max 2 min to release tension.
- Final relaxation can last between 8 to 10 min.
I saved the best for the last! A yoga practice without mindfulness and meditation is incomplete. Apart from a regular asana practice, one must incorporate daily meditation into the schedule. Start with 5 minutes and progress to more depending on how comfortable you feel.
Beginners Guide to Meditation
We are constantly conditioned to do something with our life, in our life and out of our life. Naturally the “just do it” culture is unable to “just be”. Meditation requires us to set aside all our ideas, narratives, conditioning and cultivate the ability to simply watch, observe, witness. Just like no one can teach us to sleep, no one can teach us to meditate. All we can do is sincerely create or build that comfortable environment around oneself that is conducive to meditation and which will allow us to slip in or fall into it.
Let us look at 8 simple steps to prepare for a meditation practice:
- Set intention & goal – Set a firm intention to begin a meditation practice. Firm intention is crucial to ensure consistency. Then set a realistic goal of 5 min each day to begin with, you may extend to 10 or 15 min or higher depending on how you feel or your time considerations.
- Set time – Ideal time is early morning before the day begins or evening around dusk when the day is drawing to a close. Try to stick to the same time each day, so your body and mind can anticipate the practice and prepare for it.
- Create space – Create a dedicated, clean and calm space – preferably a corner that no one else will use. Let the space be comfortable with a soft cushion or blanket handy if your body needs it. Feel free to light a candle or incense if that helps you. Always use the same space, do not change your location. Remember each time you meditate you are not only conserving your own energy but enhancing the energy of that particular place too.
- Comfortable and correct posture – Ideal posture is a cross-legged one that allows for a triangular, stable base. If this is challenging sit on a comfortable chair with a firm base and erect spine. You can also sit with wall support if that helps your back. Hands can remain comfortable resting in your lap. Posture is key in ensuring the body does not get restless. Restless body will create a restless mind.
- Grounding through breath – Start with a few rounds of deep, conscious breathing as preparation. Then proceed to rhythmic breathing – 3 breaths in and 3 breaths out with full awareness is good. This awareness on breath will help you disconnect from the external world and redirect all the outward flowing attention back inward. This will help ground you and help you stay present. P.S – Regular yoga practitioners will do well to begin with a few rounds of alternate nostril breathing to calm the mind and prepare for meditation.
- Turn on witness mode – Once your focus shifts inward, turn on the witness mode and start observing the mind. Remember your mind will function, just like every other part of your body such as heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. Do not try to control or stop your thoughts, as this will engage additional brain activity hindering meditation. Just watch them like you are watching an interesting movie or imagine you are in a nice train journey and watching the interesting scenery as it passes by. Let nothing stick to you and you hold onto nothing.
- Select focal point – Once the breath and mind are steady, select a focal point on which the mind can rest. For those who are predominantly intellectual, bring the focus between the eyebrows and for those who are on the emotional side, focus on the heart plexus. Do not change this focal point.
- Observe – Finally you may remain here and just observe the space within you quietly, peacefully. Each time mind wanders, bring it lovingly back and pay attention to the breath. Continue watching the space that is YOU.
P.S – For some of you this may be challenging initially, especially when sleep comes knocking each time the breath slows and mind calms down. In this case, when you wake up take a few deep breaths and get back to meditation.
As you create that space around and within you, allow yourself to fall into meditation. There is a beautiful saying that goes – “Quiet the mind and the soul will speak”. Listen.
Picture Credit: Deepa Hegde
Deepa Hegde is a resident of Dubai since last 13 years, she is an avid yoga practitioner since 2014 and a yoga teacher since 2017. The views expressed are the author’s own and not of SheThePeople.