More than 16 million cases of depression occur each year in the United States. Depression is scientifically linked to having lowered levels of serotonin, one of the primary chemicals produced in the brain that affects our happiness. A regular yoga practice is known to increase serotonin. Imagine that? One in six Americans take some form of medication to help reduce depression or anxiety, myself included. Yet something as holistic as yoga can raise serotonin similarly to how antidepressants can. I’m pro-medication in every respect, but it isn’t a cure-all. A multitude of other methods are often recommended to combine with medication to dispel those feelings of gloom and distress that mental illness can elicit.
I am a 29-year-old female who suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, ADHD and Major Depressive Disorder. I also struggle with agoraphobic tendencies, resulting in a fierce panic when I leave the confines of my home. I took my first yoga class eight months ago. I’ve since attended 4 to 7 times weekly, as consistency is key. The studio is conveniently located one mile from my home, which comforted my apprehension. Midway through my first class, I felt at ease. My anxiety drifted away like a paper airplane in the wind. My first month of yoga practice was the beginning of my spiritual epiphany.
That mindfulness I experienced on my mat would stay with me for the remainder of the day. My perspective on life became more optimistic, my mood was uplifted with decreased daily anxiety, and I was actually leaving my house more frequently without the usual hesitation and panic attacks. As a woman who formally found it problematic to exit my front door, I am now a yogi leading a life that is filled with gratitude, peace and acceptance. These feelings of positivity aid me in facing my agoraphobia and fighting my depressive propensities. I find it is easier to accomplish tasks when I’m in a healthy mindset. I genuinely believe yoga is therapeutic based on my personal experience.
To help me clarify just how beneficial yoga is, I’ve conducted an an interview with Kanjana Hartshorne, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist and Reiki Master. In her work with clients Kanjana offers an evidence-based blend of traditional Western psychotherapy and neuroscience, as well as ancient Eastern comprehensive yoga therapy. Kanjana happily agreed to partake in this article to inform readers that yoga can be a powerful treatment option for many mental illnesses.
Q. Do you believe yoga can help balance the state of a person’s mental status?
A. Yes, I strongly believe that yoga and meditation can help to balance a person’s mental state. For me, the most powerful aspects of applying yoga for mental health (and how yoga helps us live) are:
- Increased awareness about our bodies, minds, and selves. Because if we aren’t aware of where we begin, how are we supposed to make a shift?
- Adding yoga skills to our toolkits for both emotional regulation (our ability to manage and respond to an emotional experience) AND down- or up-regulation of the nervous system (our ability to move from fight/flight to rest/digest or vice versa, as needed.)
- Increase our ability to tolerate stress in all facets of life. Every time you practice tolerating discomfort on the mat or meditation pillow, whether it’s in a pose, being silent, or witnessing uncomfortable thoughts, you are practicing distress tolerance! The more you practice, the easier it gets. Just like riding a bike. And, eventually, you can ride that bike or tolerate lower levels of stress without much effort at all. Of course riding up a mountain or tolerating a higher level of stress will be more challenging and require more effort. But if you’ve been training for a while, you’ll have the confidence that you can use the skills you’ve built to get up that mountain.
Q. Have you had any past or present patients that practice yoga? If so, can you describe to me how they’ve relayed their experience?
A. I’d say the majority of my clients practice yoga or meditation. This is mostly because I’ve found it to be so impactful that I’ve built my career around it. My niche is yoga therapy as a modality for trauma and anxiety. I’m currently researching its impact as an add-on to traditional talk therapy. So this means I mostly work with people interested in bringing yoga into session. And it doesn’t hurt that I get to wear yoga pants to work everyday!
There are a wide range of experiences, but a few themes tend to come up again and again. People share how they now have the tools they need to manage their stress or anxiety on their own. They now have a better understanding of who they are and what they value and can use their values to live their best life. They are able to better tolerate uncomfortable emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness. When they practice yoga, whether that’s in little one minute practices throughout the day or an extended home/class practice, they notice an impact on their ability to tolerate stress and regulate mood. When doing deeper, long-term work with clients I hear things like, “I finally can be on my back without flashbacks to my assault”, “I feel safe enough to now bring up my trauma in therapy and start to process it”, “I am kinder to myself and my body both in my thoughts and actions.”
I feel so lucky that I am able to use yoga as a modality for mental and emotional wellness. It’s been years, but I still hear feedback that blows my mind and reminds me of the power of a somatic (body-based) approach to mental heath.
Q. In what ways do you believe living a yogic lifestyle can help uplift a person’s mood and reduce anxiety? Are there any other benefits you can think of that we haven’t touched on?
A. I believe a yogic lifestyle can help people to balance their mood. That could look different person to person, day to day, or even moment to moment. From helping to bring a little more energy and inner strength to a tough day to decreasing a racing heart and racing thoughts. Practices from yoga can help people with a variety of mental and emotional concerns. The wonderful thing about yoga is that it’s so holistic. It addresses the body, mind, emotions, intuition, and spirit, whatever that is for each individual. How can yoga cover all that? Those new to yoga may think it’s all about the poses. And while that’s a part of it, there’s so much more. There’s meditation, philosophy, nutrition, and unity — with self, body, beliefs, and community.
Q. Depression is known to also produce physical symptoms such as stomach discomfort, stress headaches, fatigue and digestive problems. Can you name a few poses that you would you suggest to someone suffering from these matters as a result of depression?
A. I always recommend ruling out a medical cause first. So hit the doctor’s office to make sure nothing else is going on. If the symptoms are then attributed to anxiety or depression, there are several practices from yoga that can be helpful. I have to be honest and say that I feel this is very individualized, and if someone has a history of trauma, often poses that are helpful to others can be triggering for them. Having said that, many people find the following yoga poses helpful. For sluggish digestion, many find wind-relieving pose and gentle spinal twists to help get things moving. For stomach pain, “legs up the wall” with a meditation for pain relief can be extremely powerful. For fatigue, gentle heart-openers such as reclined bound angle can be helpful. And for tension headaches, many find opening up the back, neck, and upper-chest area to be helpful. Some poses for this include cat/cow, thread the needle, eagle arms, cow-face pose. And I know we are talking strictly asana (yoga poses), but there are a LOT of other practices from yoga that can also be helpful for these concerns. If you feel lost or have a history of trauma or a health condition, I’d recommend working with a yoga therapist to figure out a practice personalized to your needs.
Lastly, I want to add that an ongoing study in the Netherlands has proven that yoga and meditation are linked to having a smaller right amygdala volume. The right amygdala is the part of our brain that sends out negative emotions within us, such as fear-inducing stimuli. The researchers conducted multiple MRI brain scans of 3,000+ participants over time. These scans are resulting in solid proof that the right hemisphere of our brain can actually shrink in size with something as natural as regular yoga and meditation practice. With that being said, I urge anyone who has been contemplating taking a yoga class to give it a try. The internet also offers wonderful tutorials for those on a low-income budget. I truly believe anyone who is skeptic will be highly impressed with just how glorious a yogic lifestyle can be, if they step out of their comfort zone and test the waters.