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Yoga for Depression and Anxiety – Interview with Amy Weintraub

in Yoga Therapy

Forest Gump got it right:“$*@T happens.” Indeed, life happens – and if we may say so, it’s not always a YogaDork moment. Whether it’s your boss yelling at you, your spouse spending too much money, your kids acting up, or it’s simply just feeling lousy for no particular reason, we all have those times when life, well, just kinda sucks.

Sometimes those bad moods are just a little more than another lousy case of PMS. The lifetime risk of developing depression is one out of ten people—but girls, for women it’s much higher: a sobering two out of ten. If it goes on too long, your friendly neighborhood doc may well help you out with some happiness pills. But unfortunately, those pills may not always do what you wanted them to, which can suck even more.

That’s why we are big fans of the work Amy Weintraub, founder of LifeForce Yoga and author of Yoga for Depression, is doing to bring greater awareness to the many ways yoga can help people who suffer from anxiety and depression. In her newly released book, Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management, Amy offers up a series of simple mind-body practices useful for anyone wishing to empower themselves with more tools to deal with life’s ups and downs.

In the interview below with Eva Norlyk Smith, Managing Editor at YogaUOnline.com, Amy discusses her new book and emerging perspectives in the treatment of depression and anxiety.

Also join Amy at her upcoming online course: Yoga Techniques to Lift Your Mood: Simple Yoga Techniques for Depression and Anxiety, and download her free talk: Yoga to Support Optimum Mental Health.

ENS: You have have taught yoga for depression for more than ten 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: More and more people are seeking alternative treatments to medications that have limited effectiveness—and many disturbing side effects. The book provides alternatives that empower people with mood disorders to regulate their moods.

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.

ENS: 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. 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 trainings I offer, I see more and more health professionals, who are frustrated by the biomedical model and want to be able to offer their patients safe alternatives to the medicines.

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.

Join Amy for a Live Online Course: Yoga Techniques to Lift Your Mood: Simple Yoga Techniques for Depression and Anxiety

Download this interview for free here.

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3 comments… add one

  • This is awesome! All too often we see people turning to placebos and medication, but depression is sometimes caused from anxiety which yoga and meditation could easy dissolve.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Great topic. In my recent review of William Broad’s new book, I mentioned how favorably he viewed Amy Weintraub’s therapeutic work for depression.

    That said, I don’t think we should fall into the old trap of counterposing the “traditional” bio-medical approach to the “alternative” approach – for depression or anything else.

    The issue isn’t really medicine VERSUS yoga. It’s about expanding the range of treatment options available, and in many cases, COMBINING them most effectively. Don’t ignore the bio-chemistry but don’t just try to medicate people, either.

    There have been HUGE advances in our scientific understanding of brain chemistry in the past two decades. New types of medications have come on line to address depression and bi-polar disorder, and millions of sufferers have gotten real, lasting relief.

    We do need to know more about the possible side effects of these treatments, and not simply assume that the pharmaceutical companies have the public’s best interest at heart. However, we also need to give credit to medicine where credit is due.

    I have a personal stake in the issue since come from a family of sufferers, and work with them, too. Important distinctions need to be made between types of depression, as well as manic-depression, and the depth of it.

    There are many mild depression sufferers popping Prozacs who are taking an easy way out who might be encouraged to explore completely different options.

    On the other hand, there are those suffering from “clinical” depressions and other mental disorders that usually do require a different kind of care, at least initially, and it would be borderline malpractice, spiritually and medically, to suggest otherwise, I think.

    As Broad suggests — rightly I think — this is an area in which yoga needs to keep developing itself professionally, both within the context of the existing medical establishment, as well as independently. Yoga should welcome the scientific “validation,” if and when it is there.

  • This is such a wonderful interview and I am so excited about Amy’s books! They are right up my alley!

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