Fitness Magazine

Depression and Yoga: Interview with Dr. Lynn Somerstein

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

 by Nina

Depression and Yoga: Interview with Dr. Lynn Somerstein

Red Balloon by Paul Klee

Nina: Thanks so much, Lynn, for the interview you did with me about yoga and anxiety Anxiety and Yoga: Interview with Dr. Lynn Somerstein. Today I’d love to hear your perspective on mild depression and yoga. I’m using the term “mild depression” here to identify the common emotion most of us feel at some time or another—a kind of sadness mixed with lack of hope—maybe “the blues” is a way to put it— and to distinguish it from clinical depression, which is a serious, life-threatening illness for which people should seek medical help.From your perspective, what is mild depression and what causes it? (If you’d like to compare it with clinical depression, please do.)
Lynn: I understand mild depression as an expression of energy gone awry. Most of the time our energy is fairly well balanced, but life changes, trauma, and stress make us feel unsteady, push us off our center, and can lead to the development of depression.There are two kinds of mild depression. The first kind is a foggy sad state that we usually think of when we talk about depression—maybe we’re stuck on the couch and we don’t want to get up and do anything. Nothing appeals. We’re going nowhere; we’ve got the Blues.A second kind of depression is a fiery, over-energized state that needs calming. We want a lot, but our desires are burning and inchoate, leading everywhere and nowhere.In Hindu thought there are three basic dimensions in all things. These dimensions are called gunas, and they are tamas, rajas, and sattva. Think of balloons. Balloon A is filled up with just the right amount of helium and tied in a secure knot, with a string attached so the balloon can float happily but not fly away. The energy is balanced. This state is described in Sanskrit as “sattvic.” This balloon is a celebration!Balloon B has a slow leak. It’s not tied securely, and the helium gradually escapes until the balloon is a limp wreck. A person like balloon B feels hopeless and powerless, has the Blues, or, according to yoga terminology, tamasic depression. B needs to be stimulated, perhaps with standing yoga poses, and then finally soothed with restorative poses.Balloon C has too much helium and has escaped its knot. The helium energy jets out in a show of false strength, and the balloon flies chaotically until there is nothing left inside. A person experiencing this fiery depression is known in yoga as “rajasic,” someone who simply can’t stay still; the body is tense, and thoughts fly all over. Rajasic depression responds to a yoga practice that first lets off the excess energy, followed by calming, restorative poses. The dominant feelings are anger and irritability.Clinical depression, also known as major depression, is more serious and different in kind and etiology than mild depression. It is not mild depression with worse symptoms. It is a different disease and should be treated as such, by a medical doctor.Clinically depressed people lose the ability to feel, think, work, or to be in a relationship Symptoms such as hopelessness, anger, and lack of energy persist for several weeks; thoughts about death or suicide recur. Major depression is associated with a combination of family history, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Certain physical illnesses or medications can also cause major depression. Major depression is life threatening and calls for medical intervention.
Nina: Do people tend to experience more mild depression in times of change? If so, why? And are you finding levels of mild depression to be particularly high for people dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Lynn: Today our energies are bound up as we find ourselves in an impossible world. We can’t live our lives of the Before Time. We’re not allowed to touch or even be near many of the people we love best. No one knows what happens next, what to do, how to organize and proceed with our lives. We feel frightened, powerless, and bewildered as we shelter in our homes to protect ourselves from Covid-19.Living on hold and in hiding is an assault on our physical, emotional, and cognitive being. We are kidnapped by Covid-19 and by the current pernicious socio-political and economic situation. Depression can serve to obscure our noxious reality. We are almost all of us depressed to some degree.
Nina: What are some of the specific symptoms associated with mild depression?
Lynn: Mild depression is the gradual diminution or explosion of energy, like those leaky balloons. It’s hardly noticeable at first, but if it goes on too long the balloon goes flat and we lose buoyancy, causing problems with thinking, trouble making decisions, and memory lapses, which call up feelings of guilt, worthlessness and self-blame. We may overeat, have a loss of appetite, sleep difficulties, or crying spells, feel lethargic and numb, or experience irritability, outbursts of anger, even violent reactions. We become separated from the body/mind in both types of depression.
Nina: In general, how can yoga help people with mild depression
Lynn: Yoga practice teaches us to pay attention to the inner workings of the body, the breath, the emotions, the vital energy. (In Sanskrit, paying close attention to the inner workings of the self is called svadhyaha.) You’ll know when your balloon is leaking so you can mend that hole before it gets too big. You’ll learn to sense ahead of time that you’re about to explode. That information will tell us if we need to energize or relax.
Nina: What are some specific yoga practices and/or poses that you recommend or suggest for mild depression?
Lynn: In keeping with my balloon analogy, start with the breath. Breathe!! Pay attention to the quality and duration of each breath. Following the breath teaches you to pay attention to your inner self, and it is both indicator and remedy for what ails you. This practice helps you notice and remember what feels good and what doesn’t. So, if you’re reluctant to get up off the couch and do a yoga sequence but you remember how that makes you feel better after, you’re more likely to do it. And if you’re about to explode you might pause for a few moments and take some breaths until you regain control. If you have “the Blues,” pay attention to your inhalation. Make it full, complete, nourishing. If you’re feeling irritable, emphasize the exhalation. Blow out the breath with an open mouth and some sound. Another approach is to make inhalation and exhalation of equal length.Find the style of yoga you like, and then practice. There are many different types—Integral, Viniyoga, Iyengar, Ashtanga—the list goes on. If you’ve got the Blues, start your session with energizing routines. If you’re rajasic, let off some steam and then gradually move towards slower more centering sequences. Both kinds of depression can benefit from ending with restorative poses, perhaps including gentle, supportive back bends, and Savasana.Remember, you don’t have to make each yoga session an hour and a half long, although you can if you want. Yoga practice is not an endurance contest. Short, frequent sessions of perhaps 20 minutes are more powerful than longer less frequent ones. And please don’t think you have to be perfect. Be kind to yourself.
Nina: Are there any yoga practices and/or poses that people experiencing mild depression should avoid?
Lynn: Meditation should be avoided, since it can lead to endless recriminatory ruminations, leaving you feeling worse. Asanas (yoga poses) that feel unnecessarily stressful to the body might also be avoided, until you can consult with a yoga teacher or yoga therapist.
Nina: When should someone who is depressed seek professional help?
Lynn: If your symptoms of mild depression last for more than a couple of weeks and perhaps are worsening, you should find a psychotherapist and/or certified yoga therapist to work with.If your symptoms include ceaseless thoughts of death and suicide, if there is a family history of clinical depression, or if you have experienced biological, sociological or medical trauma that affect the ability to feel, think, work, or to be in a relationship, you might have clinical depression. You need to see a psychiatrist to determine what course of action will help you.
Nina: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers about this topic?
Lynn: We are all going through hard times. Accept where we are and imagine what it feels like holding a buoyant helium balloon.
Depression and Yoga: Interview with Dr. Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Anjali Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, LP, RYT, is a licensed psychotherapist and yoga therapist in private practice, specializing in anxiety, depression and PTSD. She is also the author of numerous articles about yoga, anxiety, attachment issues and psychotherapy. Lynn is grateful to her many teachers at the Integral Yoga Institute and the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis who offered her extensive and deep training in yoga, yoga therapy, and psychoanalysis. See for more information about Lynn. This post originally appeared on the Accessible Yoga Blog.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to Amazon, Shambhala, Indie Bound or your local bookstore.

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