Healing Depression with Yoga and Ayurveda

MossLiebler In response to dire statistics showing the high incidence of recurring bouts of depression, Nancy Liebler and Sandra Moss dedicated themselves to the mission of teaching people how to stamp out depression using a holistic approach. This collaboration resulted in their book, Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way: Creating Happiness with Meditation, Yoga and Ayurveda. They explain the essence of what Ayurveda teaches as, “Redirecting our life choices so we can manage our mental, emotional, spiritual and physical energies.”

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What do you see as the common boundaries between psychology and Ayurveda?

Nancy Liebler (NL): Psychology is about helping people be the best they can be, feel as good as they can and behave in their best interest and the best interest of others. Ayurveda has the same goal of helping people reach their highest potential. However, Ayurveda emphasizes the unity of mind and body. Psychology is evolving and becoming more holistic. We believe that, over the next few years, the Ayurvedic perspective will be integrated into psychology because Ayurveda fills in a lot of the gaps and offers the holistic approach most people need. It considers the body-mind-spirit as one seamless energetic system. Wherever we intervene in this system, we affect the entirety.

IYM: In your book, you talk about manovaha srotas?

Sandra Moss (SM): According to Ayurveda, our physiology is a manifestation of the intelligence underlying the natural world. At our essence we are energy. The energy is infused through the chakras and the nadis and then the srotas—the energetic channels through which our life force flows. One of the concepts in Ayurveda is that if the channels get blocked by the build up of physical or emotional toxicity (ama), then the flow of prana will be impeded. If we have a blockage, energy will not flow freely. Without this, where will we get the mental strength to fix our thinking? How will we get the spiritual strength to elevate our consciousness? We need our prana to flow unimpeded. When physiological channels become blocked, a defective space is created that permits the doshas to become depleted or to accumulate and this can create problems of all types, including depression.

NL: Human beings are, as are all aspects of nature, the manifestation of natural intelligence. We are part of nature and, when we violate natural law, our health is compromised. Ayur is a Sanskrit word meaning life and veda means knowledge. Ayurveda is the science of life which informs us how to live in order to maintain health and well-being. According to Ayurveda, happiness is our birthright and is the direct result of a healthy physiology filled to the brim with vitality.

SM: For example, according to Ayurveda we should eat our largest meal at lunch. That is when our metabolism works most efficiently. If we eat heavy food late at night on a regular basis, we will cause blockages in our physiology.  When the life force becomes blocked, it will lead to problems in whatever are our particular vulnerable areas. For some, that will be at the mental level, so they will suffer from depression. The main concept is that there is a spirit shining through us but, like when clouds block the sun, it may not shine through if there are blockages in the flow of prana. Ayurvedic interventions are geared to increasing our physiological balance and flow of prana.

IYM: You identify types of depression based on the doshas.

NL: There are five elements and these combine to form what modern science calls the superfields and Ayurveda calls the doshas. The doshas are expressed in every aspect of the natural world, including the human body. Each individual has a unique distribution of doshas, which is one’s constitutional type. The doshas are vata, a combination of the elements of space and air, pita, a combination of the elements of fire and earth and kapha, a combination of the elements of earth and water. Based on our particular doshic distribution, we are more vulnerable to certain types of depression.
SM: Airy depression is caused by an imbalance of vata dosha and it’s coupled with anxiety. This anxiety depletes the body of its vitality. It is common, in this type of depression, for the mind to have racing thoughts and for insomnia to kick in. As the imbalances increase, the body has to deal with a deluge of bio-chemicals that stress the system and that further feeds into the vicious cycle of unhealthy behavior.

NL: Burning depression is caused by a pita dosha imbalance and often cause feelings of jealousy, anger and hostility. Those with this type depression have an overriding feeling of sadness lurking behind a wall of frustration, anger or hostility. Their depression often goes undiagnosed, as they don’t report feeling depressed. They are often high-functioning. The more frustrated and thwarted they feel, the more they push which results in a depletion in neurochemicals and an excess of cortisol.

SM: Earthy depression occurs from a kapha dosha imbalance and is the classic picture of someone who feels hopeless, helpless, stuck and lacking in motivation. It’s characterized by physical and mental lethargy, dullness and a lack of interest and motivation. Those with this imbalance often eat and sleep excessively, which only adds more blockages to the system.

IYM: You say we need to awaken the “inner physician.” How?

NL: The human body contains a whole pharmacy. The body has an inherent wisdom, an ability for self-repair. If you cut your finger, it starts to bleed. You can watch the process of clotting, of healing. The body will heal itself, if given the opportunity. Unfortunately, once we become imbalanced, we tend to lean toward our imbalance. Similarly, a person with a vata imbalance may opt for light foods and salads, but for this type of imbalance, that diet will only make things worse. It’s not that running or eating salads is bad! It’s that jogging strains the already strained body and salads or other light foods brings additional lightness to the physiology. People with airy depression need to create a sense of groundedness. They need to bring the quality of heaviness to their bodies and minds in order to regain balance and vitality..

SM: We have to get out of the way of the body’s healing and repair mechanisms and respect the laws of nature so the body can do what it needs to do. For example, our body has an internal clock and if we stay up night after night, we’ll get sick. If we eat processed foods, we are filling the body with undigestible gunk. Awakening the inner physician is about making lifestyle choices that nourish and nurture our physiology and keep the physiological processes in balance.

IYM: How does food affect the different types of depression?

SM: Ayurveda teaches us that food should be our medicine. We see food as packets of energy. While Ayurveda promotes fresh, wholesome food, it also focuses on using the qualities in different foods to restore balance. If someone with burning depression goes out to a wonderful Mexican restaurant serving organic, but spicy food, that would not be good because pitta is balanced by foods with cooling qualities. If you have airy depression and feel anxious, we would want you to eat heavier foods to balance the lightness you feel. Ideally food brings vitality and good health to our physiologies.

IYM: Would you give us an overview of your seven strategies for coping with depression?

NL: The first is to understand that your physiology is a manifestation of consciousness or universal intelligence.

SM: The second is to learn to identify your unique manifestation of depression. For those of you who have a mixed type depression, we suggest you begin with balancing vata, because this dosha will move other doshas out of balance.

NL: The third is to optimize digestion, not only of food, but also of experience. We suggest meditation as a way of offloading stress. In an effort to undo depression, you need to maximize your digestive capacity for food and life experience. When we eat food, our body goes through a process of breaking things down, assimilation and elimination. Similarly, with all our experiences, we need to learn to eliminate those that no longer serve us. When life experiences come at us fast and furious, we need a way to offload stress.

IYM: The fourth strategy is rest, something of which we seem to get less and less.

SM: Rest is so important. Fatigue is the primary reason for depression. We have a fairly vata-deranged society. We’re all racing and not sleeping. We have high rates of depression among kids and teens due to exhaustion. For maximum health, we should go to bed by 10 pm and get up by 6 am. This schedule fits with our internal biological meter. However, we are so used to feeling tired that it’s becomes normal to feel chronically fatigued. The “Energizer bunny” is a cultural icon! We’ve seen such a rise in chronic disease and depression and a major reason is not enough sleep. Ayurveda gives us suggestions that enhance sleep and create powerful rest—the sleep that rejuvenates us.

IYM: Next is asana and pranayama, your fifth strategy.

SM: We suggest undertaking Yoga in a particular way. It’s not about the type of Yoga you do but how you do it. We use our musculatures to influence the workings of our nervous systems, to create neuromuscular integration. If we think about coming into a pose, we are guiding the architecture of our bodies. As with a building, the architecture will influence how that space is used. Our bodies are containers of our vital energy. Each asana affects this container and influences our energy in one way or another. We can focus energy on the lower chakras and related organs or the higher ones. We turn our awareness inward during the poses. Our awareness is like water to a plant and is healing.

In our book, we talk about specific poses and how they affect the body physically. With airy depression, we recommend more restorative poses, moving more slowly and not pushing. With burning depression, we recommend poses that are more cooling. Those with earthy depression, can move more vigorously through the practice. Choosing the way to mold the body to channel the energy in the direction we want is the focus of having an asana practice.

NL: Yoga is a wonderful way of creating body-mind unity as it increases our awareness, and joining the asanas with breath is so important. We all can do tree pose, but it’s all about the way we breathe in tree pose. Our nervous system communicates to us the state it is in. We can read it like maps of our bodies—the tight shoulder, the lower backache. Our nervous system tells us, with our pattern of breathing and how we hold our body, what we are experiencing. The value of asana and pranayama is that we are restoring a bi-directional communication through the ways we are molding our bodies, through the patterns of our bodies and through what we are telling our nervous systems. Through the practice of Yoga, we’re telling our body-mind the state it should be in—that it could calm down, that everything is okay and clarity is coming to us.

IYM: You’ve already addressed the sixth strategy, which is using food as medicine. Is there anything else about diet?

SM: There are a million diet books out there but our strategy is to focus on lifestyle and how to eat: how to create a ritual out of eating so it can nourish you. So much of your ability to digest food has to do with the state of your nervous system. This is often disregarded. You could be eating whole grains and sprouted sandwiches, but, if you do so on the run—even grabbing healthy foods to eat while on the phone, in the car—the nervous system is not in a state to help you digest. So, there is every likelihood that these behaviors will get in the way of the physician within and our ability to heal and rejuvenate.

NL: Our seventh strategy is using meditation as medicine. We recommend Transcendental Meditation (TM) because it has a lot science backing it and it isn’t attached to a belief system, so it is more widely accessible to the general public. Over 600 studies have been done to show the efficacy of the TM technique. It has been shown to be very effective in helping alleviate depression: It calms the central nervous system, decreases the stress hormones and causes serotonin to rise, helping the body to have a chemistry of joy. When the nervous system is in a calmer state, every parameter of human functioning is affected positively. Think of the processes going on in the brain like an orchestra tuning up before playing a symphony—it’s discordant but, when we meditate, it’s like when the conductor comes in and suddenly it all comes together in harmony.

IYM: Do you have any closing thoughts?

SM: Ayurveda is considered a consciousness-based system of medicine. It goes beyond the systems, organs and bones to how the vibrations of nature are being expressed in your body. It’s very profound. What is the difference between calisthenics and Yoga? Consciousness. If you look at food from a pranic point of view, you see things differently. If you look at sleep as a time to purify consciousness, you will consider doing what is needed so you can get high quality rest.

NL: When we meditate, using a properly prescribed mantra, the mind settles down and we move into a state of restful alertness during which we can connect with your origin and essence. The goal of Ayurveda is to increase awareness and to help us act in such a way that we don’t impede the inherent wisdom in our physiology. Ayurveda helps us in the process of evolution.

About Nancy Liebler & Sandra Moss

Nancy Liebler, PhD is a clinical psychologist, professor and lecturer. She teaches at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology and practices in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Sandra Moss, MSPH, is an Ayurvedic practitioner and a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, practicing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. An active researcher and writer, Sandra lectures and consults nationwide. For more information, visit their website: depressionproofyourlife.com

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Summer 2009

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