Yoga Teacher Magazine interviews Amy about her personal journey through depression to become a yoga teacher dedicated to helping others heal from depression, and then an author, researcher and trainer of yoga and mental health professionals in the use of yoga to manage mood.
We spoke over the phone in February, a day of snow falling in Tucson, Arizona, where Amy lives. We talked about the climate change situation and then began talking about Amy’s journey to yoga.
YOGA TEACHER MAGAZINE: Could you describe your journey from acute depression to managing your depression through yoga practice?
AMY WEINTRAUB: Well I was on anti-depressants for many years, Ivan, and just saw myself as a depressed fiction writer. I was in treatment with a psychiatrist who also saw me that way. She told me I was one of those people who would always have empty pockets, who would always need medication. I had actually been meditating in my twenties, but the depression didn’t really shift until I began the physical practice of asana and pranayama breathing practices. It was the pranayama and a little bit of chanting, which of course affects the lungs and the diaphragm and brings more oxygen in as you’re deepening the breath. You must take in the breath in order to chant. I really began to feel differently.
This was before there was any such thing as yoga for depression. It was just yoga. People who were practicing yoga were mostly fit. Yoga was just a form of exercise, or young people were drawn to a spiritual path looking for enlightenment. Yoga wasn’t thought of as a therapeutic intervention for mental health conditions. As I began to feel better and better, I went to my psychiatrist and said, “You know, I don’t think I’m a candidate for medication anymore, I feel so good.” Because I felt abundant, I didn’t feel those empty pockets she told me I would always have. She continued to see me through the lens as a depressed person whom she had finally stabilized on medication.
After a little bit of time I went to a friend’s psychiatrist who slowly titrated me off the medication, while I continued my daily practice. That’s really an important issue for folks, especially with SSRI’s [a type of anti-depressant, e.g. Prozac – Editor], that you slowly withdraw, with supervision, because if you haven’t gone slowly enough, once that medication gets out of your bloodstream you can have severe withdrawal symptoms. It’s very important to go slowly and not go cold turkey.
So that was in 1989 and my own personal saga is that I haven’t been on medication since, and I manage my mood with my practice. Initially it was my medicine and now it’s just my tool for staying awake.
I became passionate at that point, Ivan, not only about doing my own practice, but sharing with others what had made such a huge difference in my life. I wrote an article for Yoga Journal in 1999, the first article on yoga and depression, and a few years later wrote a book about it, Yoga for Depression, and started collaborating with researchers and doing extended trainings. I had been doing trainings in India with various teachers and putting together a protocol that works with mood disorders, not just depression but for anxiety and trauma. In 2004, I was asked to put together a training and now we have the LifeForce Practitioners Training, for mental health and yoga professionals. The training offers yoga and health professionals ways of weaving in practices that are specific to mood, in therapeutic settings, clinical settings, health care settings, as well as yoga classes and individual yoga sessions.
YTM: Did you yourself have training in mental health practices?
AW: I’m not a clinician; I’m not a licensed mental health practitioner. I come from a yoga background, but I’ve done training. I’m trained as an Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist Level Two, and also back in the days when I was depressed, my primary relationship was with a clinical psychologist and I did all the ordering from the American Psychological Association book club .
So I’m a bit of an autodidact but I’ve done some training. Still I’m really coming from a yoga perspective. However a lot of the faculty members on the LifeForce Practitioner training are mental health practitioners. If a yoga teacher is not a licensed mental health practitioner, it’s important to know when to refer, and to have a clinician with whom you consult who understands yoga. I certainly have that – a mentor for me is the psychologist Richard Miller, a yogi and the founder of iRest. I think it’s important to have that backup, to know what your scope of practice is and to refer when someone comes to you who is beyond your scope of practice.
YTM: That makes sense. Just to talk a bit more about yourself, what is your background in yoga, and what sort of training have you had?
AW: Yes, my first yoga 200 hour teacher training was in 1992 at Kripalu. Prior to that I’d been practicing yoga and meditating. I spent a month with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the Seventies. But then I went to India and studied at the Lakulish near Baroda in the state of Gujarat, which is Eight Limbs Ashtanga training, but it’s not Ashtanga yoga in terms of the vinyasa flow, but rather the Eight Limbs of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. And in addition I studied with an Advaita Vedanta teacher, Nitya Chaitanya Yatri, who was my spiritual mentor in the Narayana tradition. Although he came to America in the early Seventies, he is not that well-known. He’s no longer in his body, but he was a well-known Sanskrit scholar and a translator of the Upanishads and is well-known in India. I’ve also trained with the Desikachar family.
I’ve been working with clients for many years, doing yoga sessions, so I’m really familiar with what kinds of practice meet a depressed mood and bring it into balance and what kinds of practices meet an anxious mood and bring it into balance, and what is safe to do in terms of working with someone with a history of trauma. My students have been my teachers. Over the years, they’ve helped me see what is safe and what works. In a way, I’m simply doing what yogis have done for thousands of years, using my own bodymind as a laboratory, and then working cautiously and slowly and carefully with folks and seeing what works.
YTM: And speaking of what works, I wonder if we could speak about the various tools for treating disorder that you mention in your work? For example breath, sound mudras, intention practice (sankalpa), meditation, yoga nidra, self-inquiry. So, starting with breath, how do you work with that?
AW: Sure. First of all it’s important to be present and, if we are working with an individual, attuned with that individual. We’re not just using a formula. I’m not going to say to you to do “ABC” for anxiety, and, you know, “GHK” for depression. The attunement is essential. We create that safe and sacred container together. Secondly, I work with someone with an assessment form filled out in advance so I have a sense of what they’re dealing with, but I meet the person where they are when we’re together. Because anxiety and depression are co-occurring disorders 80% of the time, someone who is depressed may also have anxiety and vice versa, so it’s really about being present and attuned. The real healing element is the love in the room, anyway.
Let’s say the person is an upper chest breather and this is the first time we’ve met and they’re really having trouble getting their breath down to the bottom of their lungs so they can breathe fully and deeply. It would seem logical to invite them to breathe down to the bottom of the lungs to take a deep breath, to use a yogic three-part breath. In some situations you might suggest that the student use the hands to feel the belly moving. You might invite the student to lie down in order to facilitate the felt sense of the breath moving. However it’s also important to know – sense – whether there’s a lot of constriction around the story, whether there’s a lot of tamping down of feelings and emotions. This is important because when someone has not been breathing deeply, even a simple breath like three-part breath can trigger emotional flooding. Now that can be a wonderful thing, most of us have cried on the yoga mat. It’s a relief.
But if this is the very first session and the client doesn’t understand that crying is one of the highest spiritual practices (as Swami Kripalu once said, “One who knows crying, knows yoga”), it can be scary when emotion surfaces unexpectedly. If the student doesn’t understand that yoga doesn’t always bring up feelings of joy, then he or she might feel ashamed of the tears that may have arisen. In such a circumstance, the client might say, “I don’t like yoga, it brought up too much emotion for me.” So when working with people with mood disorders there are nuances to working with something even as simple as yogic three-part breath.
One example would be my client Jacqueline Jackson. I can talk about her because she signed a release and I’m including her story in the next printing of Yoga Skills for Therapists. She was present at the shooting in Tucson in which Gabrielle Gifford was wounded and six people died. Jacquelyn lost colleagues and friends. Right after the shooting she did some good work with a grief counselor, a social worker who helped her work with her feelings. And then a year later her brother died unexpectedly of a brain tumor. She had been close with him, and all of her PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder – Editor] symptoms were back. She had read my book Yoga for Depression and she had practiced yoga before. So when this second event happened and she felt really gripped by it, she decided to try yoga therapeutically to work with her symptoms.
When she came in, even though she’d done yoga and yogic breathing before, she was just breathing from her upper chest. I started with yogic three-part breath. I said, “Let’s place the hands on the belly,” but her hands didn’t move. When she tried to breathe deeply, she couldn’t. Rather than invite her into a prone position, where the risk of flooding was strong, I invited her to stand. We did joint warm-ups with the music of Krishna Das, we did prana pulling [an energizing breathing practice – Editor], we centered, we did some sun salutations, and then she was able to relax a bit more. We met the anxious mood with a little bit more active practice. We did what I like to call stair step breath, which is Anuloma and Viloma krama [forms of pranayama –Editor], which meets that short, upper-chest breath. If you’re anxious and your breath is really held in your upper chest, you can’t take a deep breath and you can’t let it out slowly. But if you meet that anxious mood with stair stepping, then the breath naturally releases slowly, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Every time you do that you’re sending calming messages to the bodymind and the brain itself. You’re calming the limbic brain which is overstimulated in trauma reaction and anxiety.
So in terms of working with the breath, to get back to your question, it’s meeting the mood. Just because someone’s depressed I’m not going to give them, say, Bhastrika or Kapalabhati, rapid-breathing. I’m going to meet them where they are and then gradually invite them into something more stimulating. On the other hand if someone is a Type A personality or anxious, what would be considered a rajasic [overactive, excited – Editor] state, if we were to put them into a restorative pose and have them breathe down into the bottom of their lungs, they could easily get more anxious. It’s really important to meet that mood with the breath, for example stair stepping or prana pulling. There are a lot of techniques in both my books. You meet that with a little bit of energy, and then bring them into a quieter, soothing, calming breath practice like yogic three-part breath, or Nadi Shodana, alternate nostril breathing, or Anuloma Viloma, which is alternate nostril with breath retention.
YTM: Going back to where we started, it seems that the most important skill in your toolkit is the ability to truly perceive the person in front of you, without preconceived ideas getting in the way.
AW: Absolutely. In fact one of the keys in working with trauma is setting that safe container and that’s about attunement, about permission, giving the student or client permission to put on the brakes, to modify. And also permission to touch. I don’t make an adjustment or give someone a back press or soothing touch unless I have permission to do so. So what you want to be doing is empowering the student or client, because often when people are depressed or have been traumatized there is a lack of self-esteem, a lack of empowerment, and in everything you do you want to empower your student rather than be the “expert.” So it’s not about fixing but about giving people tools to empower themselves, putting them in the driver’s seat, taking off that expert’s hat and just being there as a holding container, creating that safe container through ritual, through permission, through empowerment.
Too often people who are in our field are prescriptive. It’s different in India, where the guru or doctor says, “Do this practice.” And you take it home and you do it, you comply; it’s just the nature of the culture. In our culture we’re always looking for a second opinion, we’re not going to do it just because the yoga teacher or doctor or therapist tells us to do so. And there’s good reasons for that, it’s a whole different cultural thing, and also the folks who have been disempowered by trauma, by domestic violence, they need to breathe, to feel that they have a hand in their healings, because they do.
All we’re doing as yoga professionals is empowering them by letting them know that beneath whatever story they are telling themselves, or beneath whatever mood is present, they are whole and healed. They receive those moments of feeling connected with who they truly are, that wholeness, their own true nature, when we give them a tool, like a pranayama practice, and then cue to direct sensation afterwards. For example, we direct them to feel the sensation in palms and fingertips, because the body is always present. The mind, on the other hand, is a time traveler. You will hear many people who have been traumatized say, “I don’t have any feelings in my body, I’m just living from the neck up.” That’s because it hasn’t been safe to do so, they’re not safe living in their bodies. When we can allow them to have that window into direct sensation, through whatever mood is visiting, it can become a moment of reconnection with Self, as whole and healed. These moments give them the power to take ownership of their body again.
YTM: So I’ve been asking yoga teachers if they consider themselves healers, but what I’m hearing from you is that it’s more about facilitating the person to take part in their own healing, finding their own power.
AW: Absolutely, I don’t use words like “healer,” it implies power over. I heal you. We’re simply providing tools, but also teaching them to use those tools, which they can take home. We’re giving people the experience of accessing their own inner healer. The two bottom line things that heal are the love in the room and that access to the client’s own inner healer.
YTM: I noted that phrase “the love in the room” in Yoga Skills for Therapists and I was thinking about that in terms of how spiritual practice plays a role in treating disorder. Maybe it just starts with the love in the room.
AW: I have to give credit to Sharon Salzberg for that term. I believe it starts right there because we have been wounded in relationships, that’s usually where the trauma occurs, the disappointment, the betrayal and the loss. That’s typically why we become depressed.
But people say, “Well, what about biochemical reasons?” Our biochemistry shifts because of life experiences. And I can say more about that, but I want to get back to the love in the room. So when we’re offering that to our students and clients we’re creating the space for healing to happen.
There was a famous study in the Eighties where they took mothers away from baby monkeys and gave them a surrogate stuffed monkey, and the baby monkeys showed symptoms of depression. When they measured their serotonin levels they were down. Our experience in life changes our biochemistry, changes our brain. And by the same token I have a newsletter for research and book reviews and I just reviewed Sat Bir Khalsa’s Your Brain on Yoga. We’re changing not only our biochemistry but the structure of our brain through yoga practices.
YTM: It does appear that modern neuroscience is confirming what the so-called “technicians of the sacred” have intuited for ages.
AW: Exactly. It so amazes me Ivan that the system of the chakra energy centers in the physical, emotional and psychic bodies – well we don’t really separate them out in yoga – but the yogis didn’t have fMRI’s [a technique used to assess brain activity – Editor] and scans of the brain and body, but they understood that those plexus centers, the solar plexus and the cardio plexus, are related to our endocrine system. They understood the energy system, the 72 thousand nadis — we’re getting a little esoteric here, but it’s really relevant to what scientists are corroborating now in the 21st century. Pretty cool!
YTM: Yes!… I’d like to focus for a moment on teachers, because our theme is “Stress, Teaching and Yoga.” So are there any forms of stress or depression that you’ve observed more commonly afflicting teachers as a group?
AW: Hmmm, I would say, we’re all human. My off-the-top response is no, but I do see the same kinds of life circumstances. I spoke with three people this week, three senior teachers in LifeForce Yoga, who are suffering. Two very significant people died in the last month in one person’s life; another person’s sister died; and a third person is going through a divorce. Those are serious losses, and it’s very interesting, Ivan, that all three of them are struggling with their own practices. To get to the mat has been really hard. But what they have not struggled with, and what they’re doing every day, is yoga nidra [a sleep-like but conscious, meditative practice -Editor]. They’re using the CD I made that’s specific to mood management.
All three of them have contacted me this week. Part of what we do in our training is some non-dual practice, from Advaita Vedanta, practices that involve the body and mind, so in all three cases I was suggesting they do these practices. They know these practices, easy to do with their clients and students, but we don’t necessarily do what we know works, on ourselves!
So I suggested this practice and all three have felt some relief in doing the non-dual practice. As Mark Singleton’s book [Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice] pointed out, the asana that we think of as yoga, that we do on a yoga mat, those are all wonderful practices and I love them, but they’re not part of ancient yoga, which was the mantras, meditation, and the mudras. I’m not just talking about hand gesture mudras, but mudras that were seals, postures on the floor. So what the three people who contacted me could do was some yoga nidra, and then some very basic floor poses, very basic ancient seals — the true yoga! And they allowed themselves to weep and feel, not tamping it down, and then self-soothing with yoga nidra, which welcomes both the pain and the joy, which looks at the polarities we all face.
So in terms of stresses that yoga teachers face, well, I mean, there’s some physical stress. And there’s the stress of the expectations. Say they do a 200 hour teacher training. Can that meet the expectation that they’ll be able to make a living as a yoga teacher? That can be a stressor. Lots of people are doing teacher trainings, and there may be some disappointment.
YTM: I would also include the stress of constantly appearing in front of people, it’s a kind of performance really, and sometimes people have nerves and anxiety.
AW: One of the things we do in our own teacher training is to really emphasize – and I think most teacher trainings do this – the importance of your own practice. Even if it’s five minutes before your class is coming in, you do a mudra, and a breath. I personally never teach a workshop or a class without first doing Uttarabodhi mudra, and asking for the wisdom and compassion of all my teachers to flow through me. So that ego Amy, small Amy, expert Amy doesn’t get in the way. I don’t go out there as an expert. And when you can ask for support from your own mentors, teachers, the divine, those who’ve said yes to you, to flow through you, before you teach, you’re not just standing up there by yourself, being nervous, you’ve got support, you’re safely held yourself, as a teacher. So you can safely hold those precious beings who walk into your class.
YTM: That’s quite lovely. It’s the asana of stepping aside.
AW: Exactly. So if you want to get back to your question about the tools… So, mudras. Talking about hand mudras, there are more nerve endings in the fingertips than most other parts of the brain, so that affects the brain. When I’m teaching a workshop or training I have people do an experiment where they press first their little fingers and then their thumbs together and then feel where the breath is landing in the body, and after about three breaths at each fingertip, there is a shift. We do it maybe for five minutes, and I lead them through different fingers, as an experiment, and at the end I ask them what they noticed. And 90% of them notice the same shift. And what they experience corroborates what’s written in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and some of the other Tantric texts. For example, if you pull middle fingers, linking them and pulling them at the solar plexus, it’s going to have a particular effect. And the experiment we do mirrors the effect the yogis understood, across lineages, across traditions. It’s amazing to me that there are so many common understandings across lineages of the effects of mudras, because these practices were passed from master to student. They weren’t written down for hundreds of years, and yet all over India the mudras are pretty similar.
The mudras direct energy in the physical and emotional body, they’re subtle, more subtle than the breath, but they do have an impact. For example if someone is a clinician working with a client who is very anxious, mind jumping all over the place when they walk into the treatment room, the clinician can fold her own hands in a calming mudra without even saying anything. There’s a mirroring that happens between two people, on a brain level. The client may find themselves taking that soothing, calming mudra, which will help. And if he or she doesn’t, the therapist can just say, “Would you like to try this, this is a really centering hand gesture…”
And then you can teach clients and students certain mudras that can ground them, center them, and make them feel that sense of belonging. So many people who’ve suffered from trauma walk around with the feeling, “I don’t belong here,” and some of the mudras are very grounding.
In terms of mantra or nada yoga, we aren’t using devotional mantras. We’re not using chants to Ganesh or Shiva or Radha, we’re using specific universal sounds, bija mantras for the chakras. The common ones are written as Lam Vam Ram Yam Ham Om Aum, and yet when we use them meditatively, they’re pronounced with the first syllable, and there’s a vibration. These mantras are grounding and slightly stimulating. If we were to use, say, Ram, which is the solar plexus, self-esteem, power energy, if you were to repeat it, you’re actually getting a little flutter in the belly, a little kriya, a little energy. If you were to chant Ram as one long sound, it’s more grounding, rather than stimulating.
In addition, we work with sounds that are calming and cooling. And so you apply those tones, with mudras, to specific areas that may be blocked or that may be overstimulated or where there’s a sense of constriction. You can put the mantra and the mudra together to release. I do have a LifeForce Yoga Chakra Clearing meditation CD. One version uses the cooling tones, and one version uses the more energizing or grounding tones, with mudras.
I’m just thrilled that there’s some new research that corroborates the ways that I’ve been teaching and practicing myself for many years. There’s a study by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in India that was published at the end of 2011. They compared the effects of the sounds of chanted Aum, the sound of “ssssss,”and silence, just someone resting with their eyes closed. Only the Aum sound deactivated the limbic brain, and that’s very important in terms of trauma and anxiety. So we’re getting corroboration of the importance of chanting.
You can’t say to someone who’s having a panic attack, “Take a deep breath!” It’s just not going to happen. But you can say, “Let’s sing E-I, E-I-O.” Now you and I can do that, and most of us can do that. In doing so, we jump over the mind’s story of, “I can’t take a deep breath.” When you sing, you let the breath out slowly, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the bodymind.
In LifeForce Yoga we incorporate mantra in asana, so it’s not just a separate seated practice where you’re chanting. You’re using mantra throughout, either stimulating or calming, and it so enhances your usual yoga practice. When you take the LifeForce Practitioner Training, we’re not going to change your sequence – well, we do have suggestions about sequencing – but we’re not there to change your basic way of practicing yoga asana, you know. If you’ve got an Ashtanga yoga practice, go for it, love it! And do it. But what we offer are the mantras and ways in which we can integrate, weaving mood management into your practice, and help you serve your clients and students.
YTM: So you’re based in Tucson?
AW: Yes, I don’t teach regular classes here anymore because I travel so much. I do see clients when I’m in town but I’ve trained a lot of LifeForce Yoga Practitioners in Tucson, so often I refer to them for on-going work. I actually teach more on the East Coast, even though I live in Tucson, than I do on the west coast. I do teach there, I teach at Esalen and Mount Madonna, and some studios, but I guess because I lived so long on the East Coast and my first training was at Kripalu, I taught at Kripalu back in the day, I teach a lot at Kripalu. And Yogaville and at yoga studios around the East Coast, and then some in Middle America. I’m going to Minneapolis for the first time. So I teach different places, but potential students can find me on my website, there’s a calendar there, at yogafordepression.com.
YTM: And your books are available?
AW: They’re reprinting my book this month, which is good because it was just released last April, Yoga Skills for Therapists, and so I made some changes, it’s slightly revised, for example I’m including the story about Jacqueline, the trauma survivor from the Tucson shootings.
YTM: Good stuff, Amy. Hope to meet you sometime, take a workshop…
AW: Yes, I hope so too Ivan. One workshop that I’m excited about is in May, we’re going to combine Internal Family Systems Therapy with LifeForce Yoga, at Kripalu.
YTM: Excellent! Thanks so much, Amy.
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It’s easy to carry our chronic patterns of “getting it right” or “fixing ourselves” onto the yoga mat, says Amy. But when we practice yoga with attention to sensation and breath, we can break through those damaging habits.