Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health concerns in our society. They are often experienced as a complex set of emotional and functional challenges and while they are not the same, they often occur together. It is not uncommon for people with depression to experience anxiety and vice versa.
Lao Tzu said that anxiety derives from living in the future and depression keeps us chained to the past. The question he therefore asks is how do we find contentment in the present?
What does it mean to live with anxiety and depression?
A little bit of fear/anxiety or stress is normal, just like salt in our food, it is needed so that we remain disciplined, focused and dynamic.
The problem starts when this fear becomes persistent and so intimidating that it starts interfering with our everyday life. Then it becomes an anxiety disorder, a state of excessive uneasiness, worry, or fear of the unknown, which needs to be alleviated and this is where yoga can help.
But how exactly can yoga help you?
Yoga asana practice and meditation teaches us the act of returning to the present and helps counteract anxiety AND depression.
Yoga helps to reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and inducing what’s known as the relaxation ‘rest and digest’ response.
Once the relaxation response kicks in, most people feel that instead of trying to escape their feelings, they can stay with them, which is essential to identifying the psychological factors that trigger their anxiety and depression.
Our mind is like a pendulum; swinging from past to future, regret, and anger to anxiety and fear, happiness to sorrow. It is ‘Yoga asana’ that enables us to maintain equanimity. Yoga asana is not merely a workout or exercise!
As described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra -“sthira sukham asanam”– this means yoga asana is a balance of effort and ease. We give the effort to get into the posture and then we relax.
Yoga asana brings that balance in every aspect of our life. It teaches us to put effort and then let go, get detached from the result. Yoga asana increases our physical flexibility but also can expand the mind.
Four Yoga Poses To Help Relieve Anxiety And Depression
Downward Facing Dog
Effects: Combats anxiety and energizes the entire body.
Come on to all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Tuck under your toes and lift your hips off the floor as you draw them up and back towards your heels.
Keep your knees slightly bent if your hamstrings are tight, otherwise try and straighten out your legs while keeping your hips back. Walk your hands forward to give yourself more length if you need to.
Press firmly through your palms and rotate the inner upper arms towards each other. Hollow out the abdominals and keep engaging your legs to keep the torso moving back towards the thighs.
Hold for 5-8 breaths before dropping back to hands and knees to rest.
Effects: Releases spinal muscles after backbends and calms your nerves, allowing you to focus inwards
Start on all fours then bring your feet together, big toes touching and knees slightly wider than your hips as you sit your hips back to your heels and stretch your arms forward.
Lower your forehead to the floor (or block or pillow or blanket) and let your entire body release. Hold for as long as you wish!
Standing/Seated & Wide-
Legged Forward Fold
Effects: Brings relief from despondency or anxiety, energizes your whole body, calms the nerves and makes you feel more alive.
Stand in Tadasana or Mountain pose, hands-on-hips. Exhale and bend forward from the hip joints, not from the waist. As you descend draw the front torso out of the groins and open the space between the pubis and sternum.
As in all the forward bends, the emphasis is on lengthening the front torso as you move more fully into the position. Release any tension in the neck, grab opposite elbows and allow gravity to help you stretch.
Bring your hands back onto your hips and reaffirm the length of the front torso. Then press your tailbone down and into the pelvis and come upon an inhalation with a long front torso.
Start seated with your legs together, feet firmly flexed and not turning in or out, and your hands by your hips. Lift your chest and start to hinge forward from your waist.
Engage your lower abdominals and imagine your belly button moving towards the top of your thighs. Once you hit your maximum, stop and breathe for 8-10 breaths. Make sure your shoulders, head, and neck are all released.
Start in Tadasana or Mountain pose. Bring your hands to your hips. Turn to the left and step your feet wide apart along with the mat.
Turn your toes slightly in and your heels slightly out so the edges of your feet are parallel to the edges of your mat. Align your heels. Inhale and lengthen your torso, reaching the crown of your head up toward the ceiling.
Exhaling, fold forward at the hips. Keep the front of your torso long. Drop your head and gaze softly behind you. Bring your hands to rest on the floor between your legs. Keep your elbows bent and pointing behind you.
If your hands do not come to the floor, rest them on yoga blocks. Shift your weight slightly forward onto the balls of your feet. Keep your hips aligned with your ankles, then walk your hands back even further.
Work toward bringing your fingers in line with your toes (and eventually with your heels), and bringing your elbows directly above your wrists. Strongly engage your quadriceps and draw them up toward the ceiling. Lengthen your spine on your inhalations and fold deeper on your exhalations.
Bring the crown of your head down further, resting it on the floor if possible. Hold for up to one minute. To release, bring your hands to your hips. Press firmly through your feet and inhale to lift your torso with a flat back. Step your feet together and return to Mountain Pose.
Legs Up the Wall
Effects: Relief from anxiety, headaches, mild depression and induces a calmed nervous system. Ancient yoga texts claim Viparita Karani will destroy old age!
There are two ways to practice Viparita Karani: using props as a supported pose, or without props. Both options will provide the same benefits, but the supported version may be more relaxing for some people. Both versions require a wall or sturdy door upon which you can rest your legs.
If you are practicing the supported version, set a bolster or firm, long pillow on the floor against the wall.
Begin the pose by sitting with your left side against the wall. Your lower back should rest against the bolster if you’re using one. Gently turn your body to the left and bring your legs up onto the wall. If you are using a bolster, shift your lower back onto the bolster before bringing your legs up the wall. Use your hands for balance as you shift your weight.
Lower your back to the floor and lie down. Rest your shoulders and head on the floor. Shift your weight from side-to-side and scoot your buttocks close to the wall. Let your arms rest open at your sides, palms facing up.
If you’re using a bolster, your lower back should now be fully supported by it. Let the heads of your thigh bones (the part of the bone that connects in the hip socket) release and relax, dropping toward the back of your pelvis.
Close your eyes. Hold for 5-10 minutes, breathing with awareness.
To release, slowly push yourself away from the wall and slide your legs down to the right side. Use your hands to help press yourself back up into a seated position.
Although many forms of yoga practice are safe, some are strenuous and may not be appropriate for everyone. In particular, elderly patients or those with mobility problems may want to check first with a clinician before choosing yoga as a treatment option.
But for many patients dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, yoga may be a very appealing way to better manage symptoms. Indeed, the scientific study of yoga demonstrates that mental and physical health are not just closely allied, but are essentially equivalent. The evidence is growing that yoga practice is a relatively low-risk, high-yield approach to improving overall health.