Journey to Well-Being

Originally published by Huffington Post

By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.

New Light on Yoga for Depression and Anxiety

“Maintaining order rather than correcting disorder is the ultimate principle of wisdom.” — Nei Jing, 2nd Cent. B.C.

Do human beings have the capacity to cultivate happiness and emotional equilibrium by learning to fine tune mind and body, much as we can learn to fine tune a rare and refined musical instrument?

The ancient yogis believed so. They believed that the pathway to peace, in part, goes through not just our mind, but our physical body as well. If we know how, the body can be an important gateway for balancing everyday moods, establishing greater emotional resiliency, and for relieving anxiety and depression. Indeed, it is central to any system of natural health, such as Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, that restoring balance to the body through simple lifestyle changes offers a remarkably powerful approach to healing.

Amy Weintraub, founder of LifeForce Yoga and author of Yoga for Depression, has long been a leading advocate for the use of yoga to restore balance to mind and body and relieve depression. In her newly-released book, Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management, Weintraub offers up a series of simple mind-body practices targeting therapists working with clients in a psychotherapy setting. Essentially, however, the book is useful for anyone wishing to empower him or herself with tools to establish greater emotional resilience and/or relieve anxiety and depression.

Weintraub’s book comes at a time when an increasing number of Americans are seeking alternative treatments to antidepressant medications with limited effectiveness and disturbing side effects. Indeed, a growing number of studies question the usefulness of the traditional antidepressant medications for treating mild and moderate forms of depression. According to a recent meta-analysis published in JAMA, the benefit of antidepressant drugs may be minimal in patients with mild or moderate depression; in the study, only in the case of severe depression did medications have substantial effects over a simple placebo pill.

In this interview, Weintraub discusses her new book, as well as some of the yoga techniques she has found to be particularly helpful when using yoga to relieve depression and anxiety.

ENS: You have taught your LifeForce Yoga for Depression for more than 10 years now and have trained hundreds of yoga teachers and therapists. What was the main message you wanted to convey in your new book?

AW: Many people shy away from yoga because they think it involves challenging physical postures, which they won’t be able to perform. However, there are many, many yoga techniques that don’t require the ability to get yourself into challenging yoga postures, and which, in fact, don’t even require a yoga mat.

ENS: Many reviewers point out that even though the book targets therapists, it contains a wonderful compilation of simple mind-body practices that really everyone can benefit from. Was that your intention?

AW: Yes, the book really is for anyone wishing to empower themselves with more tools to deal with life’s ups and downs. If you practice yoga, you may already have become aware of the shift in mood that yoga engenders. Yoga helps empower us to be able to manage our own mood in so many ways. For someone who suffers from anxiety, depression or who has a history of trauma, this is crucial. It means they have more control in their lives, which research has shown is a key element in feeling better.
So in the book, I wanted to offer some simple somatic tools gleaned from the timeless teachings of yoga. In Western terms, you could describe them as emotional and biochemical self-regulating strategies. These include powerful techniques, which are not always included in yoga classes, including breathing exercises (pranayama), easy meditations, and hand gestures called mudras that empower one to self-regulate one’s mood and develop increasing feelings of self-efficacy and control.
So they differ from what you might find in an ordinary yoga class in that they don’t require the ability to practice yoga postures. Bu the fact that there is no mat involved doesn’t mean these techniques are less effective. In fact, most of these techniques date back much further than many of the common yoga postures commonly practiced in yoga studios today.

ENS: In your book, you say that “therapeutic yoga approaches the emotions from the doorway of the body, or more precisely from the residue left in the body by past trauma or even the stress of everyday living. It meets the constrictions held in the body and helps the client release them often without words.”
Has it been your experience that the body in some cases can offer a more effective avenue for releasing stress and long-held traumas?

AW: Absolutely. Often, when we have a history of trauma, it may have begun before we had the words to speak it. It may be pre-verbal, and talk therapy can’t get to those pre-verbal places that we have constricted. Even when we’ve been traumatized later in our lives, we may think we’re done with it, but the body remembers.
That is not just yoga talk. There’s a large field of somatic psychotherapy founded on this understanding. A somatic psychotherapist will also tell you that the body holds trauma from the past, even when we no longer necessarily remember it ourselves.

ENS: Do you feel there is a growing acknowledgment in the field of psychotherapy of the importance of the body in releasing trauma and balancing mind and emotions?

AW: In my experience, yes. In the book, I quote a former director of the Trauma Ceter in Brookline, Mass., who has said that he will not work with a trauma survivor who is not practicing yoga. “If you really want to help a traumatized person,” he notes, “you have work with core physiological states, and then the mind will start changing.”
Even cognitive-based therapy (CBT) has a mindfulness component and a body component and scans involving sensing the body. And CBT is probably one of the most researched and evidence-based models of psychotherapy shown to be effective for trauma and other less healthy mind states as well. But many other forms of psychotherapy-dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT), and even EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a model for working with trauma) engages the body as well.

ENS: In LifeForce Yoga, you particularly emphasize yoga techniques like Pranayama breathing techniques, chanting, and Kriyas (targeted movements with specific actions). Breath and Kriyas are often used to move energy blocks in the body. Do you think that stagnant or blocked energy is a factor in depression?

AW: Most likely. If you’ve noticed people who are depressed or if you’ve been depressed in the past, the posture is usually slumped and the belly is kind of dormant. There’s not much happening in the core of the body. So yoga practices targeting depression can help release blocks in those areas.

 

People who struggle with depression can use sound, or chanting, to energize and release blocks in the core of the body, which tends to get dormant and sluggish in people with depression. Also, Kapalabhati breath, which involves a vigorous pumping of the belly, is very useful for enlivening this area. What happens is that we’re actually stimulating those areas and releasing blocks of stagnant energy.

 

Another wonderful practice, just to get your energy moving and get you motivated to practice is Breath of Joy. Breath of joy is a kriya, a targeted movement practice, which is particularly effective in managing mood. It counters the shallow breathing that is so common in people who struggle with depression.

 

So basically any yoga, whether they’re Yoga Asanas, Pranayama, Kriya, or sounds like Mantras or chanting, have an effect with sustained practice over time. The key is to release whatever is compressed or constricted from those areas of the body. And this can be any kind of blocks — lymphatic, muscular, energetic, or emotional.

About the Author

Amy Weintraub

Amy Weintraub E-RYT 500, MFA, YACEP, C-IAYT, founded the LifeForce Yoga® Healing Institute, which trains yoga and health professionals internationally, and is the author of Yoga for Depression and Yoga Skills for Therapists. The LifeForce Yoga protocol is used by health care providers worldwide. She is involved in ongoing research on the effects of yoga on mood.

Sign up for our Research Newsletter

Cart

What People Say

“I integrate strategies like mantra tones and pranayama, but above all I invite myself and those I teach to cultivate svadhyaya, to practice self-observation without judgment.” — Barbara Sherman, RYT 200, LFYP, Tucson, AZ
“I feel profoundly transformed, both physically and emotionally. The connection between mind, body and spirit was clearly evident to me, but revealed to me through this workshop as an integrally vital link to overall health.” — Nadine Richardson, program manager at rehab agency, Monroe, CT
“This workshop helped me rededicate my energies and begin to work through some of the blocks I’ve felt creatively.” — Steve Mark, college professor, New Haven, CT
“I utilize the LFY techniques in both a class room setting and one-on-one environment. The skills have infused my teachings with compassion, mindfulness, and awareness.” — Kat Larsen, CYT, LFYP
“I gained perspective of who I am in the world and this will change my life significantly.” — Mary Ford, artist, Southport, CT
“I have been reminded that I am not on this path alone, that others are sharing the journey that sometimes seems so difficult. I have also been reminded of the importance of daily practice and I will do that. The whole program has been an incredible experience for me. Thank you!” — Lorraine Plauth, retired teacher, Voorheesville, NY
“I came hoping to learn to move past some of the obstacles blocking my creativity. Over the course of this weekend, I feel I’ve gained a certain measure of faith in myself and in my ability to change. I also had some realizations that I believe will be very helpful to me. I feel encouraged. Both the content and presentation of this program were so well-thought out that I can’t think of any way to improve it.” — Andrea Gollin, writer & editor, Miami, FL
“Yoga Skills for Therapists is the ideal resource for those who want to bring yoga practices into psychotherapy or healthcare. Weintraub, a leader in the field of yoga therapy, offers evidence-based, easy-to-introduce strategies for managing anxiety, improving mood, and relieving suffering. Helpful clinical insights and case examples emphasize safety, trust, and skillful adaptation to the individual, making it easy to apply the wisdom of yoga effectively in the therapeutic context.” — Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author, Yoga for Pain Relief, Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Yoga Therapy
“My personal practice will change, as well as my yoga classes. I have a better understanding of yoga!” — Andrea Gattuso, RYT, Yoga Teacher, Hackettstown, N.J.
“Words do not do justice to all that I learned. This workshop changed my life!” — Jen Nolan, Teacher, Cortland, NY
“I have gained an incredible opening and clearing of old obstructions. I hope to return to my life and fill this opening with things I love to do and that give me joy!” — Lisa Shine, administrative assistant, Ballston Lake, NY
I absolutely love this stuff! I have been using it with my clients and I am just finding it to be so incredibly helpful. There seriously something for everything. Although I am not as skilled as I hope to be someday, even at my level of training I’m finding that I am beginning to figure out what to do. It just blows my mind! - Christine Brudnicki, MS, LPC
“I learned lots of ways to reduce the anxiety and depression of my patients and myself.” – Aviva Sinvany-Nubel, PhD, APN, CNSC, RN, psychotherapist, Bridgewater, N.J.
“I have found the pranayama (breathing practices) especially easy to introduce in a clinical setting. Some people have benefited quickly in unexpected and transformative ways.” — Liz Brenner, LICSW, LFYP, Watertown, MA
“Giving my clients a strategy and permission to quiet their minds and rebalance the sympathetic nervous system has been very beneficial to them and in our work together.” — Sue Dilsworth, PhD, RYT 200, LFYP, Allendale, MI
“My patients can now have the same effects as many medications without having to actually take medication!” — Deborah Lubetkin, PSY.D, LFYP, West Caldwell, NJ
“This program changed my life in a significant way. It helped me connect with the spirit which is something you can’t get from psychotherapy and medication.” – G. W., artist, Pittsburgh, PA
“I gained tools for working with my own depression and with my clients’ depressions.” — Robert Sgona, LCSW, RYT, psychotherapist, Yoga teacher, Camden, ME.
“I began a fantasy during the meditation exercise... almost as if I’d been there. It’s now an on-going work of fiction.” — Serian Strauss, Tanzania
“I have gained a softer heart, more receptive mind, and tools to enrich both personal and professional aspects of my life.” – Regina Trailweaver, LICSW, clinical social worker, Hancock, VT.
“My life is already changed! I will use the tools I learned in my own practice and in my work. I feel safe and seen.” — Susan Andrea Weiner, MA, teacher/expressive arts facilitator, El Cerrito, CA.
“I have found the LFYP training to be incredibly useful in giving people specific tools to use in maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance, and further opening their intuitive abilities.” — Nancy Windheart, RYT-200, LFYP, Reiki Master, Animal communication teacher, Prescott, AZ
“This workshop has changed so much — my self-image and my life. My own heart’s desire is 100% clear. I gained tools to help myself and others to live life fully.” — Marcia Siegel, Yoga teacher, therapist, Carlsbad, CA.
“A client who returned said, "When I came before, you helped me understand and get where I wanted to go. Now you show me yoga practices I use to help myself understand and get where I want to go.” — Sherry Rubin, LCSW, BCD, LFYP, Downingtown, PA
Scroll to Top