Almost everyone has experienced depression on some level, either the fluctuations of mood with life’s ups and downs, or major depression, characterized by depressed mood or irritability most of the day, nearly every day. In the United States over 21 million people suffer from depression annually. According to current statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health between 6-10% of the U.S. population are suffering from depression at any given time. Adolescents are the most at risk. A study done by the Journal of Clinical Psychology reported that depression costs about $44 billion annually, which includes psychiatric care, lost work days, and decreased productivity. This does not include the 86 billion dollars a year that Americans spend on Antidepressants! These statistics are a few years old, and likely much lower than reality, because they only include reported cases.
The good news is that yoga can help all forms of mood disturbance. When you’re fully in yoga (union of body, mind and spirit) mood reactions to the events of life fade, because you’re present in the moment. Being present means flowing with life, versus judging it, so even the ups and downs don’t register as “good” or “bad” anymore. Events are just events and each one presents an opportunity. Our moods give us messages about our lives (such as “This isn’t working for me!”), and give us opportunities to make new choices that will make us feel better.
How do we bring this level of yoga into our daily lives?
To someone who is severely depressed, flowing with life might sound like an improbable fantasy. I know, because I used to be so plagued by my inner pain that I hardly made it through a day without wanting to die. I had all the symptoms of clinical depression including loss of pleasure in living; fatigue; anxiety; frequent feelings of worthlessness and guilt; difficulty concentrating, thinking clearly or making decisions; and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
With so many varied symptoms, depression is often difficult to recognize, even in people close to us, and especially in ourselves. Although some people may show a cloudy disposition, depression has many masks. My mask was excessive cheerfulness! How do we reach out to people like this? And how do we heal our own pain, which often feels confusing and irrational?
When we are coping with a difficult mood, we need to show compassion for ourselves, and nonjudgmental acceptance of our experiences.
The answer begins with compassion and acceptance. When we are coping with a difficult mood, we need to show compassion for ourselves, and nonjudgmental acceptance of our experiences. Compassion is a sympathetic consciousness of distress and a desire to alleviate it. This means not allowing ourselves to get so caught up in our stress or coping mechanisms (drugs, alcohol, caffeine, entertainment) that we forget what’s most important to us.
The next time you find yourself reaching for a headache pill, stop and ask yourself why your body is sending you the headache message, and what life changes could help alleviate the root cause of the pain. (More water? More sleep? Simplifying your schedule and making time to relax and meditate?) If we don’t nurture ourselves—mind, body and spirit—we create stress in our lives. When we focus our attention on the things that really matter to us, our stress will naturally lift. Acceptance involves recognizing that our moods and experiences are valid and hold messages for us. This is a first step to becoming present in the moment.
Likewise, we can show compassion to those people who seem sluggish, stressed or bothersome to us. Ironically, we can learn the most from these people. When someone bothers us, that person is usually mirroring a quality that we haven’t accepted in ourselves. For example, if you find yourself judging, or feeling irritated by someone who you find sullen or lazy, ask yourself what this reaction could teach you. Do you ever feel sullen, and are you not ok with this aspect of yourself? Do you go to great lengths to avoid feeling or appearing lazy? In this case it would be valuable to embrace and honor the part of you that’s sullen and lazy! (It might even be telling you to slow down and nurture yourself.)
After we have accepted our experiences we open our awareness to the lessons these experiences have to teach us, and we allow opportunities to come into our lives.
Just as we look to our physical symptoms and our reactions to others for messages, we can also look to our emotional states for messages, asking ourselves: What can this mood teach me? When we look at our states of being with compassion and acceptance, we open our awareness to the lessons these states have to teach us, and we allow opportunities to come into our lives.
The biggest lessons I receive from depression are that most things that I stress about are in my head, my life is actually good, and my spirit and physical being need nurturing. Sounds simple and obvious, but the overwhelming feeling I experience during depression is that my to-do list is mandatory, my life is a complete mess, there’s something terribly wrong with me, and I don’t deserve love or nurturing. Yoga shows us that we already have everything we need, including the love of pure spirit, which infuses every part of the universe. Depression is an urgent cry for connection with spirit that can be realized through practicing yoga and meditation.
When you practice yoga and meditation regularly, compassion and acceptance will develop spontaneously, because connecting with spirit unveils your inner teacher. Your inner truth will guide you towards nurturing choices. All that is required is developing a daily practice. The key is regularity. A consistent routine is more important than the amount of time committed to practice. Ten minutes per day is better than an hour once in a while. This is an important concept to understand. Consistency develops habit and ensures the benefits that will help you deepen your practice. Daily practice is good for everyone because it vastly accelerates the healing process and evolution of consciousness. Select a time frame that will realistically fit into your schedule, and then choose a program that you can commit too.
Watch for future articles with suggested yoga programs for balancing moods, and seek the guidance of a qualified yoga teacher to help you design a program to meet your needs.
Please see below for more information about depression, and helpful websites.
Photo Credit: Melissa Karolides © 2013