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Yoga: The natural anti-depressant

Yoga represents a body of practices with an ancient history originally derived from the Indus – Sarasvati civilisation in Northern India over 5,000 years ago. In Sanskrit, the word ‘yoga’ derives from yug, meaning to yoke, referring to the discipline of aligning the mind and body for spiritual goals. Yoga has been practiced historically for its health benefits, with an increased attention in popular culture aimed at using yoga to prevent illness and treat disease. Yoga encompasses a variety of practices, including postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), mantras, meditation, spiritual beliefs, rituals, and lifestyle changes (such as, diet, sleep, and hygiene). Different yoga styles utilise and emphasise different practices, reflecting the varied practice of yoga worldwide.

My mum and I used to have very different ideas about yoga. Mum has always been big on practising yoga, but I thought the idea of striking poses for lengthy periods of time while controlling your breathing and simultaneously clearing your mind of any thoughts to be too difficult. It wasn’t until I began my honours year that my lecturer spoke of the importance of self-care (and placed a heavy emphasis on mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation) that I decided to give it another shot. There are various kinds of yoga, which range from beginner to advanced levels and can even be practised in a heated room or from a large hanging ribbon in the air (yes, you heard that right – it’s called antigravity yoga). I tried the most traditional and widely practised type of yoga – Hatha yoga. Like many new experiences, I found yoga challenging. Trying to breathe in a particular way (Ujjayi breath) and holding difficult poses that put my body in weird positions took some time to get used to. I found that after 10 sessions, I was improving. I was able to keep my mind clear, and noticed positive changes in my daily functioning. Of these changes, the most significant was my mood. I found that I could switch into ‘relaxation’ mode whenever something stressed me out (usually my thesis!) This allowed me to create an ‘escape’ and learn to breathe and relax through difficult times.

I am not the only one who has enjoyed the benefits of practising yoga. Studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise seem to indicate that in both healthy and diseased populations, yoga may be as effective as or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcome measures. The benefits of yoga after prolonged use (6 months, practising twice a week for an hour) include improved brain function, lower stress levels, increased flexibility, lower blood pressure, improved lung capacity, anxiety relief, steady blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, reduced chronic neck pain, stronger bones, and a lower risk of heart disease.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is a common and disabling mental disorder (affecting 3% of the population). MDD is associated with increased disability, reduced quality of life, and increased healthcare costs. Some people who experience depressive symptoms (but do not meet the criteria for MDD) are more likely to suffer from MDD in the future. Mind-body medical interventions, with the most popular type being yoga, focus on the interactions between the brain, the rest of the body, the mind, and behaviour. These interventions are commonly used to cope with a wide range of depression symptoms.
 
The primary benefit of yoga for me was increasing my mood and allowing me to relax even during the most stressful times. Since stress is often a big factor in depression, part of yoga’s effectiveness comes from its proven ability to release tension and to lower cortisol levels (people who are depressed tend to have elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone). Studies have shown that simply improving your posture through practising yoga can improve your mood and lower depression levels. A growing body of evidence supports the belief that yoga benefits physical and mental health via down-regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). In layman’s terms; yoga makes you happy.

By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This in turn decreases physiological arousal — for example, by reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga helps increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly. Questions remain about exactly how yoga works to improve mood, but preliminary evidence suggests this process is similar to that of exercise and relaxation techniques. Yoga classes can also be very activating because they are vigorous and often occur early in the morning. This might give those who accomplish a difficult pose in their practice the experience of enhanced feelings of mastery, while getting up early helps to encourage getting you out of bed to get your day started.

So why not give it a go? Get your asanas moving, channel your inner chakra and pledge your bhakti to the practice of yoga, to help clear your mind, relax your soul and be at peace with yourself.

Namaste!

Stefanie – ADAVIC Volunteer

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