Amy Weintraub, a senior Kripalu teacher and mentor, is widely known and respected for her work teaching Yoga to those suffering from depression and anxiety. In this interview, she discusses the comprehensive training program she developed to help Yoga teachers and psychotherapists utilize Yoga in treating mental health problems. (A review of her book on depression follows the interview)
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How can a daily Yoga practice help someone struggling with depression and other mood disorders?
Amy Weintraub (AW): Just as the immune system is strengthened against the common cold and other viruses with daily practice, the emotional body is strengthened as well. The highs, the lows, the extremes of all the emotions are brought into balance by the practice. A daily Yoga practice will bring the physical body and the emotional body into balance, restoring a sense of well-being and energy.
IYM: You’ve referred to Yoga as “the science of positive mental health.” What do you mean?
AW: Yoga begins, not with the question, “What is wrong with me?” But “What is right with me?” The approach taken by the ancient Yogis teaches us to ask, “Why do we suffer when our natural state is sat-chit-ananda, the intelligent awareness of bliss?” This is not some “blissed out” high, but a fully mindful state of stable equanimity, informed by intelligent awareness. Beneath even the chaos of mania, the agony of depression, Yoga says, you are whole or, as yogi, psychotherapist and author Stephen Cope puts it, “We are vaguely aware that, at least in some parallel universe, we are unutterably fine just the way we are.”
IYM: Can you talk a little bit about the teacher training program you developed and lead on “Yoga for Depression”?
AW: The LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training (LFYP) is designed as a post-graduate course. It assumes the practitioner has already done a 200-hour program or is a psychotherapist who already has a Yoga practice. The training builds on the foundational knowledge Yoga teachers receive in their basic teacher training. The LFYP Training has two levels, each 42 hours that include CEUs and mentoring.
Approximately 15 million people now practice Yoga in the U.S. The popularity and acceptance of Yoga means that more mental health professionals and physicians are now recommending Yoga to their patients. People are coming to Yoga with serious chronic issues: chronic pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, structural issues, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson disease, depression, anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Students are coming with hope that Yoga can help them manage their symptoms. A 200-hour level training is not sufficient to serve all these special populations. If Yoga teachers decide to study special populations, they need to know more about how to serve that population.
The LFYP Training helps teachers understand how to adapt Yoga to those with mental health problems. For example, I address how to sequence the asanas for someone who is depressed and lethargic. This individual is not likely to roll out a Yoga mat at home and start with sun salutations. If an individual has anxiety the sequencing is totally different—this individual might be bored stiff watching their breath for ten minutes before beginning a practice. The course helps the teacher find the sequence and practices that will help to address the unique needs of each individual with whom they are working.
IYM: The LFYP Training is for Yoga therapists and clinicians. Are more clinicians seeking this type of training?
AW: Most of the trainings have been for both Yoga teachers and psychotherapists. I talk about which aspects of Yoga are appropriate in a clinical setting and what aspects are just good to know about so they can refer clients to a qualified Yoga teacher or therapist. I am not teaching therapists to teach Yoga, as this requires a lot more knowledge than can be acquired in 42 hours of training. Many psychotherapists have experienced firsthand the benefits of Yoga and want to know why this practice is so effective. Yoga and psychotherapy can go hand in hand. In Yoga there is an emotional release, but there is no story. The narrative, the story, is the role of the psychotherapist. The LFYP training helps both Yoga therapists and clinicians understand how these healing modalities can work together.
There is so much richness in the tradition of Yoga. Patanjali says, “Where there are unwholesome thoughts, substitute wholesome ones.” This sounds like cognitive therapy. Yogis were ancient psychologists; they used visualization, intentions, breathing, kriyas, Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation), mantra, asanas and Nada Yoga (the Yoga of sound). These are the tools of Yoga therapy.
IYM: One of the things I loved about your book, Yoga for Depression, is its heartfelt emphasis on a daily Yoga practice. How do you help students understand the importance of practicing every day?
AW: Students do not need to beat themselves up if they are not practicing an hour and a half every day. Take baby steps. If you are doing nothing, then 10 minutes makes a difference. In the CD I created, “Breathe to Beat the Blues,” there are 5- and 10-minute practices. There is even a 20-second practice that is designed to help create a shift in mood. We don’t take Prozac or other medication once or three times a week and expect it to work; we take it daily. The key is cultivating your practice in a way that makes you love it—so that it really serves you.
IYM: What is the yogic understanding of depression?
AW: Every one of us has tiny seeds of the belief, “I’m not good enough,” or “Something is wrong with me.” This is part of the human experience. We may unknowingly nourish these ideas, continuing to give ourselves negative self-talk in the form of “We’ve got to improve this,” or “Fix that.” This unfortunately happens in Yoga classes as well. If a Yoga class is about fixing yourself, it feeds the idea that, “I’m not good enough; there is something wrong with me.” We have those seeds, but we don’t have to nourish them. Beneath our current mood, beneath our judging mind, beneath our needing to fix ourselves, beneath the roles we play or the masks we wear—when we dive deep enough—we are whole. Our true nature is bliss. To me this is the essence of what we, as Yoga teachers, need to be teaching people. At the deepest level there is no shame, there is no grief, depression or anxiety. We are whole and healed and there is nothing that needs to be fixed.
The Yogis believed that depression originates from a sense of disconnection. We are born into wholeness, but we feel separate and alone. This separation may be due to insufficient parenting, traumas or losses. These experiences start to separate the individual from his or her sense of wholeness. We are not talking about a healthy separation; we are talking about a withdrawal from the world. Many of us carry this sense of separation and withdrawal into our lives in the form of depression. When we begin to practice Yoga, we have a visceral sense of connection. I am always cueing back to sensation, back to breath. When we bring our attention to sensation, we become the presence that we seek. The goal of Yoga practice is to create a sense of willingness and connection; this comes about once there is a feeling of safety.
IYM: How do you facilitate safety in your classes?
AW: Safety is important whether I work with someone individually or I am facilitating a very large workshop. The entire first session is devoted to creating a safe container. What I mean by this is that people need total permission to express and release their emotions. A safe and harmonious space allows us to open our hearts, minds and bodies. We want to bring people into their hearts, to a sense of connection. For this to happen there needs to be safe boundaries, confidentiality and a sense of connectedness between participants.
One way of cultivating safety is through sankalpa, or intention and affirmation. Intentions allow that which we are yearning to manifest more fully in our lives to become apparent. Intention needs to come from the individual; it cannot be layered on from the outside. If there is a lot of chaos in the mind, the student might resist a teacher’s suggestion to become more peaceful. If someone’s mind is chaotic and they want to be more peaceful, I might suggest an affirmation something like, “Peace breathe through me now.” From the clear space of safety we are more resilient in the face of life’s challenges. We all have challenges, whether these are in the form of betrayals, personal losses or financial losses. We all lose people who are meaningful to us. If we can allow these experiences to flow through us instead of resisting them, we are better able to see that grief and joy are always there.
I teach a lot of partner exercises, as it is important that students connect with each other. Together we engage in an emotional process that is intended to remove the obstructions that keep us isolated and alone. In any Yoga class people need to leave more connected than when they arrived.
About Amy Weintraub
Amy Weintraub’s work is also featured on the CDs, Breathe to Beat the Blues. Level 1 and Level 2 and the DVD, LifeForce Yoga to Beat the Blues. She is a key figure in bringing Yoga to the community of psychologists and clinicians; she has worked in conjunction with the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, the American Holistic Medical Association Annual Conference and the Integrative Psychiatry Conference. To find out more about Amy go to: Yogafordepression.com.
Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Fall 2008
A Review of Amy Weintraub’s book Yoga for Depression
Back in 1985, Amy Weintraub’s therapist told her that, psychically, she would always have empty pockets. “And I visualized myself, like Virginia Woolf,” she wrote, “filling those empty pockets with stones and stepping into the river.” Instead, through yoga practice, she filled them with fresh air and divine light, and slowly pulled her way out of her chronic depression, an accomplishment that transformed her and changed her life.
Books on Yoga and meditation offer us age-old insights into the nature of suffering, together with time-tested techniques to alleviate that suffering. Depression and self-help books provide a more contemporary focus. Amy’s new book, “Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga,” proves the twain of Patanjali and psychology can meet. Amy is a Kripalu-trained senior Yoga instructor and writer who has thoroughly researched depression.
“Living in this mortal body,” she quotes the Buddha, “is like living in a house on fire.” We suffer. “Depression,” says psychologist and yogi Stephen Cope, “is the common cold of the deluded human being.” Don’t take this personally – we’re all deluded, including your psychiatrist and therapist. But we’re also all divine, or at least we’re connected to the divine. Yoga is about establishing this sense of oneness. It is probably fair to say a good many people take up yoga simply as a proven stress-buster or alternative to Richard Simmons, but they may also find themselves reaping unexpected rewards, such as beatific inner calm or heightened awareness. Some also find it helps their depression.
In a UCLA study published in March 2004, 28 mildly-depressed young adults attended two one-hour Yoga classes twice a week for five weeks. Midway into the course, subjects “demonstrated significant decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and trait anxiety,” which they maintained to the end. Subjects also reported decreased negative mood and fatigue following class.
What is going on in the body, says Amy, is muscular relaxation, restored natural diaphragm breathing, improved oxygen absorption and carbon monoxide elimination, and increased alpha wave activity.
Yoga is an eight-limbed path which uses postures, breathing, and meditation as both a means and an end. Back bends, which open up the chest and increase lung capacity, are especially useful for depression. So are inversions such as headstands and shoulder stands, which stimulate the brain (but which should not be attempted without the guidance of a qualified yoga instructor). Some positions are meant to be calming and others energizing. Anxious types are advised to employ calming positions while energetic positions are de rigor for those who find it hard to get out of bed. (Since reading this book, I find myself doing a short energizing routine in the early afternoon to get me through the rest of the day and a longer calming routine ending in a short meditation at night.)
Breathing exercises follow the same energizing/calming dichotomy. One reason so much emphasis is placed on the breath is that most of us have forgotten how to breathe. Instead of using the diaphragm, we use the chest, which is not as efficient since the lower portions of the lungs are not exposed to air. The yogis imbue the air we breathe with a spiritual quality called Prana (with a capital P). “When we restrict the breath,” writes Amy, “we are diminishing the spirit. When we relearn to breathe fully and deeply, we are enlarging the spirit and reconnecting with the Self.” She cites an Indian study that found reduced violence and disciplinary infractions in a juvenile prison population that had been practicing a specific breathing technique for eight weeks.
What may be going on, speculates Amy, is the release of the anterior pituitary (“feel good”) hormones, including oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin.
If posture can take us into breathing, breathing can take us into meditation, which, says, Amy, “can create a calm, healing state in body and mind.” Pain doesn’t go away with meditation, she advises, but through the practice of mindfulness we learn not to identify with the pain. For people with major depression, she cautions, meditation may be counter-productive at first, as depressed people tend to be stuck in their negative thoughts. Since meditation may also bring up flashbacks and bad memories, learning under a skilled instructor is strongly encouraged.
Amy’s breakthrough came in a yoga class while holding the bridge pose, suppine with pelvis and chest thrust upwards She released the posture ten minutes later to a flood of sensations and a “time-out for the rational mind, a few moments of deep rest, a glimpse of samadhi [cosmic consciousness].”
What if, she asks, that intelligent awareness of bliss is not an altered state but your natural state? “Eventually, through practice,” she informs us, “those moments of samadhi expand until they are firmly established in your mind and you are living with your eyes wide open.”
There goes that pesky common cold.