By Amy Weintraub, M.F.A., E-RYT 500
I took my last antidepressant in 1989. Through the 1980s, I wore depression like a suit of armor, but you can’t exercise in a suit of armor, much less practice Yoga. I had meditated since receiving a mantra in 1970 and had even practiced Yoga postures from books and Richard Hittleman records, but it wasn’t until I took my first Yoga class, at Kripalu Center, and learned to breathe deeply that I felt myself step out of the armor. Something shifted. As I dove forward with a deep exhalation into a standing, forward-bending pose (Yoga mudra), after practicing a series of backbends with attention to sensation and breath, I knew viscerally—in a way I could not yet articulate—that the depressed fiction writer and poet was not all of me.
There were moments in that first Yoga class when, through my focus on sensation and breath, I had a glimmer of my true nature through the fog of depression. Of course, I wanted more, and I left with audio tapes to guide me through a home practice, returning to Kripalu often over the years.
Yoga didn’t push away despair or tamp down the numbing fog that often rolled in as I stumbled out of bed. In the early stages of my practice, my emotions flowed more, not less, even as I slowly began to welcome and accept feelings that had been repressed. In those days, I often cried on my mat, and the tears actually made me feel better. As my physical body was learning to let go of chronic tension through movement, breath, and sound, my emotional body was releasing too, without a story attached.
I still cry on occasion, and I love it when I do. Yoga practice is about clearing the space, releasing what blocks me from knowing who I am beneath the visiting mood or the story I am telling myself. Crying supports that release, stimulating the cranial nerves, which is one physiological reason we all feel better after a good cry.
In gratitude for my own journey through the darkness, I became passionate about sharing what had helped me begin to sense into the me I was beyond my depression. I became a Yoga teacher in 1992, collaborating with researchers, writing articles, and then books to let people know how Yoga practice freed me from the weight of my over-identification with my self-concept as an angst-ridden writer.
Support for Others
Over the past 25 years, I’ve studied with master teachers in India and the United States, and followed and contributed to the growing body of research on Yoga and mental health, keeping practices simple and safe for my students and clients. However, the most authentic knowledge of what works to manage depression comes from the laboratory of my own body and my one-on-one work with students. For all of those years, I’ve practiced daily and worked with people, closely monitoring the effects of breathing, mudra, mantra, meditations, or movements I’ve suggested. I have adapted and modified traditional practices. Even the language I use to introduce and guide those practices has changed, based on their effectiveness in empowering my students to manage their moods.
Here’s a simple practice that can meet depression, without denying its presence, and begin to loosen its grip. It combines a pranayama breathing exercise with a mantra, a mudra, and a visual image (bhavana).
Bellows Breath (Bhastrika) Variation*
First, let’s create a little more space around the depressed mood or lethargy, with a short, safe adaptation of a Yoga breathing practice called bellows breath (bhastrika). This breath is especially good for depression. The subjective experience is one of mild elation, followed by a feeling of relaxation. During practice, the sympathetic nervous system is briefly stimulated. However, following practice, the parasympathetic system is awakened. Blood pressure and heart rate usually drop to or below the resting rate, and the autonomic nervous system comes back into balance.
Various Yoga traditions teach Bellows Breath differently. But in all traditions, both inhalation and exhalation are deep and forceful. The breath is most safely instructed at the rate of one inhalation and one exhalation per second. Increasing the speed risks producing an over-stimulating effect that can actually raise anxiety levels. You might feel cranky and overheated. If you live with bipolar disorder 1 and have a propensity toward mania, too many stimulating practices like bellows breath can trigger a manic response.
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect. Bend your elbows and make fists with your hands, bringing fists to your shoulders so that the knuckles face out, with the forearms and upper arms hugging the torso. Take a normal, natural breath in and out.
- As you inhale through the nostrils, send your arms straight up, over your head with great force, opening your palms to face outward and spreading your fingers wide.
- Exhale with great force through the nostrils as you bring your arms back to the starting position again, making fists with your hands.
- Do this at a moderate pace 10 to 20 times, and then rest for 30 seconds. You may practice two more rounds of 20 each, pausing for 20 to 30 seconds between rounds.
- When you have completed the practice, sit for several moments, observing the effects. Sense into face, arms, palms. Feel the sensation in your palms.
- Inhale to the crown with the phrase, “I am.” Exhale to the sitting bones, “here.” Do this two more times.
Do you feel a little lighter? Is there a sense of more room inside? Notice the spaciousness. Maybe there’s an oceanic feeling or a sense of expansiveness. Enjoy that. Now from this place of expanded awareness, let’s move to the next exercise.
*NOTE: Please do not practice Bellows Breath if you have un-medicated high blood pressure. If you have low blood pressure, you might experience a little light-headedness afterward, so be sure to practice in a seated position. If there is shoulder soreness or injury, practice Bellows Breath with the arms coming forward and back in front of the chest…
Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2015 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.