Recent research from Boston University School of Medicine is showing Yoga to be more beneficial than other forms of exercise in improving mood. Their studies relate to Anxiety and Depression specifically and measured increased and rising GABA levels (low levels of which are associated with depression and anxiety disorders) in the brains of their test groups. In another study Yoga and deep breathing taken twice a week was shown to effectively reduce the symptoms of depression. It’s promising and reassuring to hear the science emerging on the relationship between Yoga and mood, particularly as I have personal experience of how profoundly Yoga can change the mind… and with it the physical body…
As a yoga teacher I watch people leave my classes every week with a glow, facial tension having eased and often standing taller. Feedback from clients is showing that a weekly class can effectively manage back pain as well as stress. Many clients report improved sleep after classes too. These are benefits I can relate too.
It’s harder to share the benefits which relate to our inner landscape though. Particularly if that landscape is damaged, suffering or is seemingly at odds with the world around us.
Having spent many years looking around me and seeing women who seem happy in their jobs, able to balance work and home life or coping happily with young families, I’m very aware of the sense of shame this type of comparison can cultivate. My own struggles with anxiety and depression have often stemmed from comparison. Taking these thoughts on board as my own truth and beating myself up constantly in order to reach impossible ideals has been mentally exhausting, resulting in crashes in mood or anxiety to the point of panic attacks. This has been my inner landscape for many years. Talking therapy and CBT gave me coping tools, but didn’t change the inner landscape I was experiencing. It wasn’t until I took on a regular Yoga practice that things really changed. Not only did I have a physical outlet for the way I was feeling, I also had an opportunity to stop and breath, I found inner space for the first time in my adult life. With this sense of inner space came greater perspective on my mood and the thoughts that fuelled it. The landscape didn’t change, but the horizon seemed much wider, my perspective broader.
Going to Yoga classes gave me a lift. I wanted to refine and improve my physical ability in classes, and in doing so I came up against my own tensions, resistances and habitual patterns of movement. As I held my attention with these physical sensations I felt comfortable in asking my body for greater flexibility or strength. As I worked through these physical sensations I began to notice that I was either free of, or better equipped to work through emotional and mental situations I found myself in. There too my perspective was broader, and the landscape seemed less terrifying or less hopeless, if only a little bit. It’s taken a committed practice over several years, but I’ve recently found myself in a place of direct relationship with my thoughts and emotions. I am free of fear and subsequently anxiety too. I am able to feel depression, hold it close and provide the attention it needs, which is usually a rest, in order for it to pass freely.
My own practice (inner and outer) is the result of commitment and determination, I know how hard it is to acknowledge what it is we are truly thinking and feeling, but I can safely say that there is nothing more terrifying in facing our thoughts, than the thoughts themselves and in the process of doing so we build a lasting strength and resilience which really does begin to change our inner landscape and the possibilities of our lives.
I wonder how low my GABA levels were when I was beating myself up, and how they’d look on MRS imaging now? I suspect I’m experiencing exactly what the test cases from the Boston University research is showing. I’m not a Yoga teacher because I’m good at Yoga. I’m a Yoga teacher because I was very very bad at Yoga, physically and mentally, and if Yoga can turn my life around, then there’s hope for us all!
Yoga Poses for Depression & Anxiety
My favourite yoga poses to lift the mood have become heart openers. These are strong and require the guidance of a confident teacher, but the simple action of lifting the heart, or lifting the sternum at the front of the chest, I have found can also lift the mood.
- Urdhva Danuransana ‘Wheel Pose’
- Ustrasana ‘Camel Pose’
- Anjaneyasana ‘Low Lunge Pose’
My favourite yoga poses to combat anxiety are those which challenge focus and balance. These poses require an inward focus and help to ground the senses and energies.
- Garudasana ‘Eagle Pose’
- Vrksasana ‘Tree Pose’
- Tadasana ‘Mountain Pose’
Read more about recent research: