Yoga for Mental Illness

By Andrea Tritschler

Depression is the most common mood disorder in the United States. Over 17 million Americans are diagnosed with depression, and Amy Weintraub is one of them. Weintraub is a fiction writer and TV producer. Despite having a successful career in television, Weintraub faced a lot of rejection as a fiction writer. She suffered from depression and anxiety and was medicated when she was diagnosed in the late 80s.

Depression or Major Mood Disorder (MMD) can have a severe impact on an individual’s life and can significantly affect daily life. It is characterized by low mood, loss of pleasure, fatigue, change in appetite, disrupted sleeping patterns, difficulty concentrating, low self-concept, feelings of hopelessness and guilt, and thoughts of death or suicide.

Mood disorders like depression are treated with medication in conjunction with psychotherapy, which is often an effective treatment. Most individuals with MMD report that allopathic treatments only decrease about 50 percent of symptoms. Although the cause for disorders such as depression and anxiety aren’t clear, studies have found that there is a correlation between stress and depression.

Managing stress can break the cycle of depression and multiple studies have shown that complementary therapies such as yoga, which help to modify stress responses, can be effective in the treatment of depression.

Weintraub had been meditating since the 70s, but didn’t feel that it reached her underlying depression.  It wasn’t until she started doing hatha yoga that she noticed changes in her mood.

“Once I had started doing a daily practice, my depression disappeared,” Weintraub says, “I started feeling better and better.”

Yoga focuses on the unification of the mind, body and spirit, and hatha yoga is considered to provide the path to that union. According to a study by Patricia Anne Kinser, PhDc, WHNP-BC, MS, RN; Lisa Elane Goehler, PhD, and Ann Gill Taylor, EdD, RN, FAAN, yoga can be helpful for depression because it can be adapted to modify and cope with daily moods through integrating practices that enhance spiritual, physical and emotional health; it can be self-administered; and is easily available. And studies have shown that yoga- the act of progressive muscle relaxation- was as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy in treating depression.

With her doctor’s supervision, Weintraub slowly titrated her off her medication while she continued to do her daily yoga practice. The process was a slow one; it took nine months before Weintraub was free of medication and using yoga to completely manage her mood.

Depression is more than just a feeling. It physically affects brain functioning and processing. Depression puts people in a constant state of stress, which can cause a weakened immune systems and cardiovascular stress among other things. Areas of the brain affected by mood disorders can be over- or under-active and can become inflamed or atrophied.

Studies of the last three decades show a correlation between physical exercise with psychological well-being, and often doctors recommend exercise to those diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Yoga practices not only incorporate physical exercise, but also promote positive self-image and love while encouraging mindfulness meditation and relaxation. Research demonstrated that yoga is better for brain functioning and mood disorders than regular physical exercise such as walking or jogging.  Studies show that yoga can actually reduce some of the inflammation caused by depression and anxiety. It elevates GABA levels (gamma-amino butyric acid, a neurotransmitter that can have anti-depressant effects) and lowers levels of cortisol, which is caused by stress.

Weintraub began teaching karmic yoga in 1992, after studying at the Kripalu center and practicing for many years. She has become well known in the field of yoga for mood disorders teaching classes throughout the nation and internationally.

“I wanted to share my transformation and what saved my life with others,” Weintrub says.

She then started collaborating with researchers and wrote an article for Yoga Journal- the first on the benefits of yoga on depression, and in 2004 she was asked to write Yoga for Depression, which is the first book released about yoga for mood disorders. Shortly after writing her book, she began the LifeForce Yoga Training.  Different than the average yoga teacher training, LifeForce focuses on other aspects of yoga that help people manage their mood in a short period of time and in a clinical setting.

“LifeForce meets the client where he/she is,” Weintraub says.

It gives practitioners calming or energizing tools to cope with their mental illness.  A LifeForce practice consists of a combination of breathing exercises (prânâyâma and kriyâ), visualization (bhâvana), intention (sankalpa), hand gestures (mudrâ), chanting (mantra) during postures (âsanas), and either a relaxation (Yoga nidrâ) or a meditation. LifeForce yoga is designed to be unique to the individual and where they are at in their practice and in their mind.

Weintraub says that it’s the combination that is so effective, and LifeForce tailors its practice to the individual, and ends every practice with two rounds of LifeForce chakra clearing meditation, which includes chanting ‘om’. Studies show that ‘om’ creates a sensation of vibration in the body and has the potential for nerve stimulation in the brain, and Weintraub says deactivate the limbic brain (where stress and depression are created) and opens up the hippocampus.

“They are affective at removing negative thoughts and allowing us to see that we can be so much more than our mood, than the story we are telling ourselves. And you really only need ten minutes,” Weintraub explains

Anxiety and depression can make the simplest of tasks seem like an impossibility, getting out of bed or changing the channel. Weintraub suggests starting small, “taking baby steps”. If you can’t get out of bed, she recommends trying to do some yogic breathing in bed.  And Weintraub adds that you have to get up to go to the bathroom, and you can take that opportunity to do three rounds of breath on the way back to bed, and maybe you won’t retreat back under the covers.

“Depression is really that feeling of isolation and feeling that we are alone, isolated and yoga gives us an immediate feeling of connectedness,” Weintraub says.

Although more studies need to be done on yoga and mood disorders like depression and anxiety, research shows that “mind-body therapies, such as yoga, can support pharmacological and psychological therapies by improving autonomic responses to stress and self-regulating coping behavior.”

Weintraub offers LifeForce yoga videos and audio on her site: http://yogafordepression.com/ and puts new videos up on her YouTube channel frequently: https://www.youtube.com/user/YogaForDepression.

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  1. Yoga for Mental Illness | aemcevoy - July 24, 2013

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