Yoga For Depression—What You Might Not Know

Amy Weintraub, Wed, 06 Mar, 2019

Many of the practices we use in the treatment of depression are based on those developed
in ashram settings, far from the common stressors and responsibilities of the householder’s daily
life or the challenges of current global affairs. Some of these practices were first recorded
hundreds of years ago and may have come from an oral tradition and been practiced for several
millennia. What we have found in day-to-day use is that some of the customary language that
those of us trained in yoga have been taught to introduce and guide these ancient practices may
occasionally but predictably cause an a bad reaction in the client, perhaps triggering fear or panic.
When we look at the practices themselves, and their effects, here too, we have observed
unexpected reactions from our students and clients, and although these reactions may be rare, in
mental health treatment, they need to be considered and the practices modified.
Let’s look at three general principles that we have found, through clinical experience and current
research, to be important to consider, no matter the yoga school or asana practice, in the
treatment of depression (tamasic mood).
Movement

First, research has established that movement and particularly yoga-based movement is
essential for most individuals who suffer from depression. Studies using Iyengar Yoga have
shown that backbends and inversions, when included in a general yoga class, can decrease
negative mood in depressed individuals. Those studies that have included yoga breathing

Yoga Principles for Yoga Professionals: Yoga and Depression Amy Weintraub practices, along with asana, have shown more positive outcomes for mood elevation than yoga
postures alone.

ATTUNEMENT

Second, it is vital that the yoga professional remain attuned to the student. Research has
shown that one of the best predictors of a positive outcome in psychotherapy is clients’
perception of the positive therapeutic relationship with their therapists. The therapeutic alliance
between yoga professional and student is equally important in the outcome of the yoga treatment,
especially in the area of mood disorder. Attunement between the yoga professional and the
student means that the professional meets the student’s current mood with a practice that mirrors
that mood and then begins to move it into balance.
Attunement means that the professional leads the practice with eyes open, so she can
observe the client’s breath, facial expression and posture, and can adapt and modify the practice
appropriately.
I would suggest that attunement also means that take-home practices for mood
management are co-created by both client and therapist together rather than prescribed. In this
way, we are increasing the client’s sense of empowerment and self-efficacy.
This is important because depressed individuals often do not perceive themselves as
being in control over their life circumstances. This “external locus of control" can lead to
feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and depression. Studies show that the more we can elevate
a client’s sense of “self-control,” the more we see a drop in depressive symptoms. What yoga
does, more than most medical-based models of treatment, is to give people the tools for
managing their depressive symptoms, thus encouraging what psychology calls an “internal locus

Yoga Principles for Yoga Professionals: Yoga and Depression Amy Weintraub of control” or “self-control,” and which we may commonly think of as empowerment. I
personally prefer to take off the “expert” hat when working with a person suffering from
depression. Instead, I encourage students to become the experts in their own self-regulation. My
role is to offer the yoga skills for them to do so.

CUEING

Thirdly, cueing appropriately to sensation is a core practice in working with someone
diagnosed with depression. However, it may not feel safe, especially for someone with a history
of trauma to hear the yoga professional say, “feel the sensations in your body.” This generalized
language in a yoga class may exacerbate symptoms of an agitated depression or panic for
someone for whom, for good reason, it doesn’t feel safe to live in the body. Instead, if our
language is direct, not global, we can support the student in fully experiencing the body in a
comfortable way during and after a practice. We start with cueing to direct sensation—face,
arms, lips—and then we can decide when and if it’s appropriate to move to a more global
awareness. The goal of this direct cueing practice is to anchor the awareness and consciousness
in specific sensations of the body.
For example, after a balance pose on the left side, before moving to the right side, the
teacher might say, “Eyes soft, sense your left foot…left ankle…left leg…the whole left side of
the body. Inhale up through the left foot, up through the left side of the body to the crown of the
head. Exhale down the right side…”
After leading a breath that includes arm movements, like a bellows breath, a teacher
might say, “Palms open in the lap, sense the finger tips…left palm…right palm. Sense the
forearms…the shoulders, left and right. Sense the lips…left cheek…right cheek. Sense the whole

Yoga Principles for Yoga Professionals: Yoga and Depression Amy Weintraub body…the energy shimmering beyond the body…Perhaps a sense of spaciousness, clarity,
breathing through you…” To ground the energy, the teacher might end with, “Inhale to the
crown, “I am”; exhale to the feet (if standing) or seat (if sitting), “here.”
Here’s an example of how a yoga therapist might attune with her client in offering a
practice and also cue to sensation. LifeForce Yoga Director Rose Kress, E-RYT-500, LFYP 2,
was seeing Martha, who was coming for yoga therapy to deal with her lethargy and lack of
motivation after her retirement to Tucson. While leading a grounding version of a standing
breath practice called Breath of Joy, Rose suggested that Martha think of the arm movements as
“conducting energy in her life.” When they finished the practice, Rose directed Martha’s
awareness to the hands, fingers, arms, and lips, sensing the breath moving in the body, and
welcoming any clarity that was present. “I feel as though I’ve just let the air in, and not just in
my lungs,” Martha said. “And my mind is clear and calm!” Even though Breath of Joy is
energizing, by pausing to cue Martha to specific sensation, Rose guided her into a greater sense
of self-awareness and peace.
Over the years I’ve worked with people who suffer from depression and trained other
yoga teachers and health professionals to do so. I’ve learned from clients and the clients of those
we have trained to secularize our language and sometimes to modify the yoga practices
themselves.

If you’re interested in learning more about LifeForce Yoga for mood or in becoming a
LifeForce Yoga Practitioner, please visit www.yogafordepression.com . To learn more about
Amy Weintraub, Author of Yoga for Depression, (Broadway Books), Yoga Skills for Therapists

Yoga Principles for Yoga Professionals: Yoga and Depression Amy Weintraub (W.W. Norton) and the founder of LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, please visit her at
www.amyweintraub.com.


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