When I was 4 my mom put me in dancing in hopes to correct an overly lordotic curve in my spine. The lifelong benefits I’ve received from this decision have been paramount. Not only opening the doors to a successful career in fitness, but as I later discovered, acquiring the coping skills from breath, movement and discipline to manage my stress and ultimately my mental health. In my gratitude for this intuitive knowledge I received at an early age, it scares me to think of where I might have been without it. It was the loss of my mental outlet from my dancing days that led me to the gym and eventually Yoga. Now as an adult, the ability to step on to my mat, to come back to my breath and ultimately my Self, has saved me again and again.
I say I have dabbled with depression through my life, though I have never been diagnosed with clinical depression. In retrospect the symptoms of burnout or mild to moderate depression have popped up so often for me, they can’t be denied. Though visiting my doctor at the time, my eyes cast down full of tears and all I can muster is “I’m just so tired.” He would give me the typical answer of: “You are probably just stressed and maybe you should take time off.” Which never really helped either of us.
The western and eastern model of depression defers greatly. Where as the western model looks at the symptoms and determines diagnosis based on the DSM (diagnostic statistical manual), the eastern model looks at the person holistically. According to the eastern method, we look at both the issues surrounding the person (life/lifestyle) and symptoms in an effort to determine the cause, not simply the outcome. In this view, bringing the whole person back into balance by looking at our physical, vital, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies.
First of all, as I’m sure you will agree – everybody is different. So if we are looking at how to create balance, it is imperative that we have different tools to bring different people back into harmony. Some of us will experience more anxiety, some more irritability or anger, some will feel deep sadness and some will feel nothing at all, known as dysthymia, also know as flat or numb. All of these experiences classify as mild to moderate depression, yet how can they be treated the same? One way of looking at this is through the lens of Ayurveda: Vata/Air, Pitta/Fire, Kapha/Earth. One person may experience all three at different times in their life, or tend to fall more often into one category particularly during certain times based on current experiences. When separated in this way, the practices to become more balanced for each of these archetypes becomes more clear.
Symptoms of vata/air related imbalances are: insomnia, no-low appetite, fearfulness, diminished creativity, loneliness, reduced clarity and when faced with option to fight, flee or freeze they will choose to flee.
Often those in a vata imbalance will experience tremendous anxiety. They will be lost in their head, often feeding themselves with an ongoing loop of negative self-talk of not being good enough, smart enough etc… and at the same time scared to admit these feelings outward. Practices should be centered on being true to oneself and building confidence through trust and grounding exercises.
Practices for vata/air imbalances:
- Asana (poses) should be physically strengthening, emotionally nourishing and spiritually grounding. A rhythmic flow that is simple in nature and not too intense will be best. Try poses like downward facing dog, slow sun salutations, warrior poses, forward folds and especially lots of twists
- Pranayama (breathing) with focus placed on ujjayi breath (whisper breathing), three-part breath (belly, ribs, chest) or equal ratio breathing will create centering and bring one into the present moment.
- Choose a walking meditation in nature and/or concentrate on a mantra or affirmation such as “I am grounded and present” “I am enough” or more traditionally “So Ham” meaning I am that.
Symptoms of pitta/fire imbalances: irritability, anger, frustration, deep sadness, fear of failure, jealousy, feelings of being trapped, increased desire to control situations and people and when faced with option to fight, flee or freeze they will choose to fight.
Those with pitta/fire imbalances will often find themselves irritated with doing things they usually love to do. They might feel misunderstood or used and generally project their anger externally by blaming others for their current situation. General practices might differ here as some will want to burn the excess fire away through intense practices such as hot yoga, others will find this fuels the fire even more. To find balance here, give yourself a chance to play with different things until you find what works for you.
Practices for pitta/fire imbalances:
- Asana should be creative with opportunity for freedom and choice. Focus should be placed on the physical sensations of the body and watching that ease is kept inside every pose rather than holding with rigidity. Poses such as: moon salutations, forward folds and legs up the wall or other inversions will be helpful here.
- Pranayama practices should focus on longer exhales, even from the mouth to encourage cooling. Ujjayi breath will be most helpful as well as Cooling Single Nostril Breathing (inhaling left nostril, exhaling right nostril)
- Meditations should be focused on gratitude or traditional loving-kindness meditations. Mantra’s such as “I am calm and centered” or simply the word “Peace” will help soothe those feelings of agitation.
Symptoms of kapha/earth imbalances: lethargy, dullness, lack of motivation, deep sadness, procrastination, feelings of being stuck, eating and sleeping excessively, and when faced with option to fight, flee or freeze they will freeze.
With kapha/earth imbalances it is the inability to motivate oneself to do really anything that continues to manifest the downward spiral. Those suffering certainly know that getting up and going for a walk will probably make them feel better as an example, but it’s often not enough to actually make it happen. Simply stepping onto the mat is an important first step here and one that should be honoured through pacing rather than forcing.
Practices for kapha/earth imbalances:
- Once on the mat, asana practice should be invigorating. Focused on feeling expansiveness through the physical body with opportunities for challenge and finding comfort through discomfort. Poses such as: sun salutations, warrior flows and back bends will be great feel good poses here.
- Pranayama should be strong and focused on the inhalations. Breath of Joy, Kapalabhati (breath of fire) and Warming Single Nostril Breathing (inhale right nostril, exhale left nostril) will all help stimulate energy.
- Moving meditations as found through asana flows on the mat. Similarly a walk in nature will also be beneficial, even or maybe especially with a cool bite in the air. Mantra’s that reflect trusting in the process, or “just like the flower with patience and perseverance I continue to grow towards the light.”
No matter how we currently feel, the one thing we must continue to honour is that light cannot exist without darkness. As a society we focus on happiness as the most important thing, but happy can not exist without sad. Often it is because of periods of darkness that the biggest breakthroughs occur, after the rainstorms come the rainbows. Just knowing that the light exists, even if we can’t see it and can barely remember what it looks like, just knowing the light exists is often enough. If you need to be sad or mad than do it! Swallowing our emotions will only make them fester and grow. Stay present, stay true to yourself and no matter the darkness that you find yourself in the light will be ready for you when you are ready for it.