By Francine Kelley – Originally published on the Temple of Kriya Yoga website
Amy Weintraub, who recovered from years of depression when she began practicing yoga nearly 25 years ago , has dedicated many years to refining the techniques for mood management, which she has shared through workshops around the world and through her popular book Yoga for Depression. Her new book, Yoga Skills for Therapists, will be available in 2012. LifeForce Yoga is an evidence-based practice that has given countless individuals the motivation and tools they need to manage and even to overcome the pain of depression and anxiety.
Peg Duros and I, both yoga instructors and psychotherapists at the Center for Contextual Change, attended the LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training earlier this year in Tucson. We both had such positive experiences at the training that we were excited and honored to assist Amy with her weekend workshop at YogaView Wilmette this fall. For yoga instructors and yogis who are mental health or healthcare workers, the Tucson training and retreat is a great opportunity to learn how to help your students and clients and also have a personally transformative experience. Trainings are held three times a year, in Tucson, at Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, and at Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas.
The weekend workshop at YogaView, from Friday evening to Sunday morning, was for anyone who felt that yoga might help them to manage difficult moods or stress-related issues as well as for yoga and health professionals. Ken Oba, who attended the Friday evening workshop, commented: “As a yoga novice looking for relaxation, LifeForce Yoga suits me well. The warmup and breathing exercises were relaxing and fun. Amy’s voice was very calming as she guided us through the exercises. I appreciated her concern for my high blood pressure.
Friday evening’s workshop was offered either as a stand-alone or as part of the entire weekend. Amy explained that her goal was not to simply teach us asana, but to give us tools to complement an existing practice or to help get one started. LifeForce Yoga is based on meeting the body where it is. As Amy explains, it’s not likely that someone who is feeling depressed will want to get up and do sun salutations. But this person might be willing to do a restorative pose or a quiet breathing practice. Once the body and mind are engaged, they could then gradually transition to more energizing practices. Similarly, if someone is feeling anxious, a restorative pose might feel intolerable. But starting with vigorous breathing, active kriyas (breath combined with movement), or strong poses would more likely meet the mood. Once some of that extra energy is discharged, the body can slowly transition to more quieting poses, breathing practices, or even meditation.
LifeForce Yoga uses the yogic tools of sankalpa (intention), bhavana (imagery), asana (yoga poses), pranayama (breathing), nada (chanting/sound), mudra (hand gestures), meditation, and yoga nidra (yogic sleep, or deep relaxation). The practice includes “attention to the breath, safe attention to body sensation, cultivation of both compassionate equanimity and self-awareness, and the cultivation of a witness consciousness.” Very much rooted in current research into the effects of yoga, the handout for the weekend describes the cultivation of witness consciousness as “engaging the cerebral cortex in self-regulating the emotional limbic brain.” As a psychotherapist who works with trauma survivors, I appreciate that this language takes the mystique out of yoga and recognizes it as a scientifically sound practice.
Amy’s emphasis on yoga as a life-affirming practice was evident from the very beginning of the workshop. She introduced the archetypes of Shiva and Kuan Yin, which she carries with her as tiny figurines. These archetypes represent self-awareness balanced with compassion. The first practice was tratak (candle gazing), during which we were encouraged to allow the light of the candle to shine at the brow point and then in the heart. Amy described these types of practices as “throwing the mind a bone,” that is, giving an overly active mind something of substance to “chew” on, rather than simply focusing on the breath. With attention to the heart, the group was then invited to allow their “heartfelt prayer” (sankalpa) to arise along with an image of calm strength (bhavana). Sankalpa and bhavana also give the mind an active and empowering focus.
A lively warmup for the joints to the music of Krishna Das, followed by introductions in which we paired off, was a great ice-breaker. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously when “your hips are leading the dance.” The joint warmup is also a great way to get the body moving in the morning or whenever you’re feeling stiff or lethargic. Amy takes special care in her workshops to create “a safe container.” These informal introductions gave participants an opportunity to connect in a nonthreatening way.
On Friday evening, the group was led in a series of pranayama that is appropriate for both energizing and calming the body. The kriyas known as power hara, pulling prana, and breath of joy were helpful for releasing pent-up anxiety and cultivating a positive awareness of the body. These were followed by more quieting practices. One of the simplest LifeForce Yoga practices, which has been proven to shift mood, involves exhaling while dropping the chin to the chest and turning up the corners of the mouth (smiling!) and then lifting the head on an inhale. (LifeForce Yoga practices are available on video and CD/mp3 download from yogafordepression.com and are described in Amy’s book Yoga for Depression).
The evening ended with shanmuki mudra with brahmari (bee breath). Amy described how this combination helped one of her students, a psychologist who is now a LifeForce Yoga practitioner, to manage his symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The mudra assists in pratyahara (sense withdrawal), while the sound focuses the mind. This inward focused practice can also be very effective for rumination. The homework was to try three of the practices before breakfast the next morning. As Amy suggested, even if you’re depressed, you could practice breath of joy on the way back to bed from your obligatory morning visit to the bathroom. Just that might be enough to help you meet the day.
Saturday morning’s practice was a self-inquiry exercise done with a partner. This practice was meant to help deepen our awareness of ourselves as more than we appear to be, moving beyond illusion through a partner’s simple inquiry, “Who are you?” This is a very powerful practice through which deep truths can emerge. As Merari Fernandez, a bilingual psychotherapist and yoga instructor, remarked, “The exercises and techniques used in the workshop helped us find answers to simple but yet profound questions such as who we really are. These questions confront our shadows and reveal how our past insists on determining our present. The practice of yoga acknowledges the past but also provides the space to break free from it and be reborn to a present moment of safety and compassion.”
The morning ended with a pranayama practice and a delicious yoga nidra, offering participants the opportunity to settle into a state of deep relaxation riding the soothing waves of Amy’s gently calming voice.
Saturday afternoon’s practice was designed to meet the tamasic (depressed) mood, starting quietly and building to more active asana. One of my favorites is the Victory Goddess, which is a graduated (standing) goddess pose combined with the energizing chant “Di-Ri-Ha!” There were lots of victorious smiles after that one! This practice included energizing bija (seed) mantras and other chants that stimulate the body and mind. Another favorite of mine is “Ma-Ha-Ha!” chanted enthusiastically with heart lifted to the sky in Front Warrior. We ended with the energizing version of the LifeForce Yoga chakra (energy center) clearing meditation.
Sunday morning’s practice, designed to meet the rajasic (anxious) mood, started strong with energetic kriyas including pulling prana and power hara. Active standing asana eventually transitioned to slower, mindful poses on the floor, accompanied by the cooling bija mantras. A quiet yoga nidra allowed gentle self-awareness and compassion to arise. Coming out of deep relaxation, we performed the cooling version of the LifeForce Yoga chakra-clearing practice, and then participants shared in triads what gains they would take with them into their own yoga practice.
The workshop ended with a circle and Amy calling on those who have preceded us, taught us, guided us, and challenged us, as we repeated for each: “Look at what I am doing with my Life!” After the weekend with Amy, we could truly say those words with self-compassion, joy, and enthusiasm.
Francine Kelley, LPC, RYT, is a psychotherapist at the Center for Contextual Change whose practice is focused on Mind, Body & Spirit Healing, which provides clients with a whole-person approach to mental health therapy including LifeForce Yoga ® , mindfulness, creative therapies, body-centered psychotherapy, EMDR, and Reiki as well as traditional talk therapy. Francine also teaches yoga at Bloom Yoga Studio and Galter Life Center in Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.