Everyone feels down at times—but if you’ve ever experienced the pervasive, persistent, profound sadness that characterizes depression, you know how debilitating this condition can be.
Doctors try to help, but often treatment falls short. Therapists may not be available 24/7…and antidepressant medication can cause unacceptable side effects or fail to bring sufficient relief. That’s why we were heartened to learn that there are additional safe, effective options—namely, meditation and yoga.
We spoke with Kelly McGonigal, PhD, an instructor of yoga, meditation and psychology at Stanford University, who has extensive experience in this area. She said, “Certain meditation and yoga techniques have been shown to be particularly effective in restoring energy, enthusiasm, focus and self-esteem to people who are depressed… and you can practice them almost any time.”
Admittedly, it can be hard to summon the motivation to do these techniques when depression robs you of physical and emotional energy. But give them a try—you have absolutely nothing to lose…and so very much to gain.
THE HEALING POWER OF MEDITATION
Among the most effective mood-elevating meditation techniques are those that focus on the breath. “In Sanskrit, prana means not only breath, but also energy and life force. Depression makes a person feel disconnected from life…reconnecting with your breath helps you reconnect to life,” Dr. McGonigal explained. Practice one or both of the following techniques daily, breathing slowly and deeply throughout…
Breath-focus meditation trains you to guide your mind, helping you disengage from depressed or destructive thoughts. Sit or lie comfortably in a safe, secure place. Dr. McGonigal suggested that you breathe in a relaxed, natural way (without trying to breathe especially deeply or otherwise alter your breathing), observing the natural cycle of inhaling and exhaling. Then focus on silently counting your breaths in cycles from one to 10. After your tenth exhalation (or if your lose track of your count), begin again at one. Alternative: Repeat a calming mantra in your mind, such as, Now I inhale…now I exhale. If your mind wanders, don’t berate yourself—simply return your attention to your breath. Continue for five to 15 minutes.
Sun breath is a “moving meditation” that helps restore energy. Sit or stand with arms at your sides. Inhale through your nose, and lift your gaze skyward as you slowly raise your arms on either side of your body (elbows straight and palms up) until they are overhead…then, exhaling and lowering your gaze, slowly bring your arms down (palms facing down). Repeat for 10 breaths.
MOOD-ENHANCING YOGA POSES
Different yoga poses alleviate depression in different ways—so before each yoga session, assess your energy level and mood, then choose the order in which to do the three types of poses below. “When you are feeling anxious or wired, start with standing poses, which are more active…if you are feeling drained, start with restorative poses,” Dr. McGonigal recommended.
If you are new to yoga, try the simple poses described below. If you have experience with yoga, also do the more advanced poses suggested below. Practice for 20 minutes per day, remembering to breathe slowly and deeply…
Standing poses help shift a depressed mind-set. Dr. McGonigal explained, “These provide momentary experiences of inner strength and courage—emotions a depressed person has not felt in a while—and so serve as reminders that there is hope.” For photos: Visit http://www.YogaJournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories/standing.
Yoga novices: Try the Tree pose. Stand with your right hand on a counter for support. Keeping your right leg straight, bend your left knee and place the sole of your left foot on the inside of your right leg, just above or below the right knee. If you can keep your balance, place your palms together in prayer position in front of your heart. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
More advanced: Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 poses.
Backbends challenge the physical expression of depression by lifting a dropped gaze… straightening a slumped spine and opening the chest…and relaxing tension in the belly. “When you have embodied depression for a long time, experiencing its physical opposite can be powerfully healing,” said Dr. McGonigal. For photos: Visit http://www.YogaJournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories/backbends.
Novices: Try the Bridge pose. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart, arms on the floor at your sides. Lift your buttocks, low-back and mid-back off the floor, supporting your weight on your feet, arms and upper back. Gaze skyward and hold for 15 to 30 seconds…lower yourself to the floor. Repeat.
More advanced: Locust, Camel and Upward Bow poses.
Restorative poses help the body relax deeply. “A depressed person might feel exhausted yet have few opportunities to truly rest. Restorative poses are especially healing if you use supportive props, such as pillows and blankets,” Dr. McGonigal said. For photos: Visit http://www.YogaJournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories/restorative.
Novices: Try the Supported Relaxation pose, a modification of the traditional Savasana pose that uses a folded towel, a rolled-up towel and a blanket as props. Lie flat on your back, the folded towel under your head…the rolled-up towel under your slightly bent knees…feet shoulder-width apart…arms at your sides…and the blanket over your body. Relax completely. Hold the pose for five minutes.
More advanced: Practice Child’s pose and Legs-Up-the-Wall pose.