In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was an invincible summer.
The Christmas and New Year holidays can be a challenging time for some people and experiencing a pre-Christmas slump is a thing for some people. As we come to the end of another year it might feel like it is a sprint at the end of a marathon and there is just not that energy left to sustain you to the finish line. So I had begun to notice my own mental health and well-being had been neglected a little. I have been doing all the usual practices that sustain me, yoga, meditation, walking in nature and keeping my gratitude journal. I kept telling myself and others that I just need to get through the next few weeks to have a holiday from work and teaching. I work in the area of mental health prevention, so I told myself surely I would recognise if I was just feeling depressed or have depression? You can find out more about depression on the Beyond Blue or Black Dog Institute websites.
Over my life I have had ongoing feelings of anxiety and Dru Yoga has given me a tool box of practices to manage anxious feelings and thoughts. That was why I started practicing yoga and meditation to calm the racing mind, slow down and reduce the worrying. I naturally gravitate towards calming and grounding sequences like the Salutation to the Earth. But I was not prepared for the feelings of depression that have slowly and gradually emerged over the last few months or maybe even longer. I have had situations in my life that have left me feeling depressed but the mood always lifted and the ups and downs of life’s journey continued. A recent challenging work situation recently brought these feelings of sadness and lethargy to a head this week and I realised it was time to reach out for help. I made an appointment with my GP and they prescribed me antidepressants which I was resistant to at first but agreed to try them to see if they can give me the boost of energy I need. I have downloaded a mood tracker from Black Dog Institute to check in on my mood twice a day as I start taking the antidepressants and I am going to start journaling my feelings each day as well. As Brene Brown states in her book Atlas of the Heart “the ability to name this emotion or experience is essential to being able to process it in a productive and healing manner.”
I have never experienced depression before and my best way of describing it is that I am living inside a dense fog. There is the brain fog, low mood, sadness but also a sore and heavy feeling in my physical body. A numb and flat feeling, like being on auto pilot. Emotional numbness can occur when the limbic system is flooded with stress hormones. Yet I really did not think or feel I was that stressed. Maybe it is the lingering grief of the loss of my Mum a few years ago, maybe it is the last 3 years of global pandemic, a rewarding yet heavy part-time job? Maybe it is age related, yet another gift of menopause? Is it something more genetic as I am the same age as my father who died by suicide and probably had some form of undiagnosed depression? But weirdly that was not what was concerning me the most!
It was that I really now felt like a fraud in my mental health prevention work and have “imposter syndrome” as a yoga and meditation teacher! Not only does my body type, and possibly my personality, not fit the stereotype of a yoga teacher I am now medicated for high blood pressure and depression! I was asking myself how come as a yoga and meditation teacher you could not prevent this depression? But it does bring a sense of authenticity, honesty and lived experienced to my yoga and meditation teaching. I credit my consistent daily yoga and meditation practice as a protective factor, things could be worse. I am still able to get out of bed in the morning, do my practice, walk in nature and go to work and teach classes, it is just harder work and feels like a lot of effort. I am grateful for having recently completed a Mental Health Aware Yoga Teacher course which is now proving invaluable for my own personal practice. Along with Amy Weintraub’s Yoga for Your Mood card deck and the Dru Yoga book A Dance Between Joy and Pain. All have given me insight into short, brief practices whether they be movement, breath or mudra practices along with positive affirmations.
In yogic psychology the concepts of the three gunas are introduced, sattva (positive psychological states), rajas (anxiety) and tamas (depression) and the aim of yoga is to cultivate sattva. As Amy Weintraub states in her book Yoga for Depression the aim of yoga “is not some ‘blissed out’ high, but a fully mindful state of stable equanimity.” To me depression feels like separation from self and yoga and meditation is a pathway back to wholeness and the self. Tamasic depression can present itself as lethargy, dullness and inertia which I have experienced as I would describe my main symptoms as feeling teary and tired. It feels like going inside, shutting down and that the life force, or prana has been locked away. All our energy and enthusiasm for life vanishes.
So how can yoga help? It can give us tools and practices to transform depression into self empowerment whether the cause is physical or emotional. Depression requires a multi-faceted treatment response and yoga can be a powerful complementary practice along with medication and support from your GP and mental health professionals. Please do seek support if you feel you may have depression because I have certainly found it can slowly and insidiously creep up on you. Taking antidepressants may give you the energy and strength to engage in health promoting activities, like yoga and exercise. Check out the Act Belong Commit website for more tips, ideas and an activity finder. From a yogic perspective antidepressants are neither good or bad, they are simply tools. The very helpful pharmacist when I filled my prescription with tears still in my eyes from the GP appointment helped normalise it for me by putting it this way, you are deficient in vitamin D so you take a supplement, same with antidepressants, you need a serontonin boost so you take a tablet that could help lift you out of depression.
We all experience depression to some degree in our lives. And yes, it can be a difficult emotion to break, as by it’s nature it’s introverted and self-focused. If you think of your posture when in a depressed state you’ll often find your shoulders round forward, you gaze comes downward toward the floor and your breath is often shallow and in the upper part of the lungs. In this state the upward flow of vibrant life-energy from manipura chakra around the solar plexus is restricted. This is the emotional ‘posture’ of depression. When working with our emotions it’s crucial we recognise how our physical posture effects our mind and emotions and be mindful and curious to change and adjust it as appropriate and feels right for you.
So begin your practice slowly, meet yourself where you are at, moving towards more energising and dynamic practices. Energising practices tend to be those that include chest opening and back bending practices. In Dru Yoga this might include the Salutation to the Sun sequence, Vitality sequence and Inner Fire sequence. Pranayama (breath) practices such as Ujjayi (Ocean Breath), Surya Bhedana (Right Nostril Breath) and Bhastrika (Bellows Breath) can be activating and energising. I have recorded some short practices from Amy Weintraub including Stair-Step Breath and Power Breath which if you click on the links of each you can try for yourself. Both of these practices are energising as they activate the area around the solar plexus, the manipura chakra, the centre of dynamism. Another favourite movement of mine is the “Cycle of Infinity” or figure of eight movement we often do as part of activations in class. Put on your favourite music and then move in this infinity symobol pattern in a way that feels right for your body. You might even like to visualise that you are holding the a ball of golden sunlight in your hands and as you move around the body it is infusing all the layers of your being with energy.
It is worth noting that sometimes depression or a predominance of tamas is a result of burnout, adrenal fatigue or chronic fatigue and in this case energising practices would not be appropriate. I am currently tuning into my own inner knowing and looking to be guided as to which I need to manage and shift my mood. Often what is needed is a balance of both gentle movement and deep rest. Current research is validating what yogis have known for thousands of years, when you learn to work with the breath you can impact your mood. There are also mood shifting mudras (hand gestures) and mantras. For me I feel stress is a big factor in my depression, it has been a big couple of years personally for me and for all of us in the world. I have also become disconnected with the joy in my life! It is time to find my joy again, I am not sure what that will look like yet but I will enjoy the journey. It is time to smile and laugh, put on a funny movie or play my favourite music and dance my way to emotional balance.
Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,
But sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
Thich Nhat Hanh
The holiday season can be a difficult time for many. Support Lifeline to Shine a Light on Mental Health this summer with your donation or by downloading a guide to raise awareness for yourself and loved ones. If you need to talk to someone or are worried about someone else call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or text 0477 13 11 14 for 24/7 support in a crisis. If you or someone else in immediate danger call 000.