Yoga, Anxiety and Depression

Photo credit: https://www.instagram.com/riva_g_/

Love your disease: it’s keeping you healthy

Dr John Harrison wrote a book in 1984 called Love your Disease: It’s Keeping you Healthy. This intriguing title refers to his thesis that disease is brought about by the unconscious in response to trauma in order to protect the ego from overwhelming emotions until such time as the patient is ready to deal with them. When the discomfort of the disease is equal to or exceeds the discomfort of the trauma, we may be ready to face the root cause, address it, heal ourselves and move on.

It may be the case that anxiety and depression are born of such a mechanism. Depression often arises out of a sense of being trapped in a circumstance in which we are deeply unhappy yet feel unable to change. It may be a career, a workplace or a relationship. Anxiety can also arise from a realisation, perhaps on an unconscious level, that we need to drastically alter our life; we may feel this need for change on the edge of our awareness as an approaching storm.

The fear of setting out to make profound changes to our life can be overwhelming. Terrifying to the point of rendering us unable to choose. It may take all our existing resources, and some new ones as well, to empower us to move into the next phase.

The good news is that something may almost magically appear in our life at this point which meets our needs and supports the process of change in a sustaining way.

My path

For me, Yoga was an important component of finding my way out of the fog. I came to yoga apparently by accident. I had joined a local gym for general fitness reasons and tried out their Body Balance programme, which was not true yoga but had enough yoga content to make me seek out more authentic practice, initially via HowCast and YouTube, and then through local yoga teachers. Just after this I became debilitated by generalised anxiety disorder and clinical depression to the point where I was unable to work. I became agoraphobic. The Body Balance Class was the only place I could go outside of the house and feel safe and find some relief from the ongoing panic that filled my waking mind. So I committed to going two or three times a week, and this was an important component of my healing process.

Is there scientific evidence for the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment for anxiety and depression?

The studies I have found are rightly cautious (due to the need for scientific rigour) but all agree that research shows yoga to be a promising treatment for both anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the more severe the anxiety disorder, the more effective yoga can be in addressing it. The actual mechanism of how yoga assists is not scientifically verified, more studies of this aspect being needed.

However the anecdotal evidence I hear from my students is along the lines of “yoga is keeping me sane” and “I slept so well after the other night’s class”. Recently a student who had been having nightly panic attacks was waiting for one after a yin Yoga class- but it didn’t come, much to their surprise.

Conclusion

I am not recommending that yoga should be the sole strategy for dealing with anxiety and depression. Recovery should include consultation with a trusted GP, possibly medication and other professionals such as a psychologist, counsellor and/or a psychiatrist. Medications could also play a part.

But I would personally vouch for a regular yoga practice as an invaluable component of the healing journey. I believe this to be especially true in a yoga class setting where you have the benefit of personal guidance in your practice and a social situation which helps to reduce the sense of isolation often endured in concert with anxiety and depression.

Bring your black dog to the mat and begin to tame him!

Resources

Lifeline

https://www.lifeline.org.au/

No introduction needed. Crisis support and suicide prevention. Available around the clock.

Mindspot

http://www.mindspot.org.au

This is a free, personalised online programme offering assessment and treatment for depression and anxiety. It is based on Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which is the current gold standard for treatment. I have used it and personally recommend it highly. It is run through Macquarie University in Sydney but is completely accessible Australia-wide.

Beyond Blue

https://www.beyondblue.org.au

This fantastic resource offers a 24 hour telephone helpline, an online chat line between 3 pm and midnight, an email support line, forums for discussion and support and information.

Headspace

https://headspace.org.au/

Headspace is a mental health service for young people 12- 25 years. There are physical centres you can attend as well as online and phone services staffed by trained professionals which have extended hours.

Black Dog Institute

https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/

Black Dog Institute has a range of information as well as a helpful directory of GPs with a special interest in mental health.

References

https://www.amazon.com.au/Love-Your-Disease-keeping-healthy-ebook/dp/B072JJ8Z8D

Love Your Disease: It’s Keeping You Healthy

Dr. John Harrison, M.D.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5116432/

Analysis of study of effects of yoga on anxiety. Conclusion is that yoga is helpful, we don’t know why, and the higher the level of anxiety initially, the more yoga helps. Best used in conjunction with CBT.

https://doi.org/10.17761/2018-00003

Yoga may show promise as a treatment for GAD

https://westminsterresearch.westminster.ac.uk/download/815fc35b96d1bc62f2eef3baddfd06c68cb4476607c7db57c96d0da23d93b144/247086/Pilkington_Kirkwood_Rampes_Richardson_2005_final.pdf

yoga-based interventions may prove to be an attractive option for the treatment of depressive disorders

What is Yin Yoga again?

Yin energy is represented as the feminine, dark, passive side of nature. The resting state of the body in sleep. The stillness of earth. The nurturing energy of the mother.

Yin yoga accesses this deep power through holding postures for up to 5 or 6 minutes each, with resting periods in between. This means an entire class could consist of less than ten poses.

Although the postures are based on traditional Hatha yoga asanas, the intention is quite different. Rather than aiming to stretch the body actively, during yin yoga we try to relax and melt into the poses, with most attention being directed to let go of effort and allow the body to release and realign fascia and muscle fibres.

Yin classes can be extremely relaxing, inducing a near sleep-like state of euphoria as you let go and rest in place. To assist with comfort, we will often use props, especially bolsters and blankets.

If you are more used to a vigorous, yang style of yoga such as vinyasa “power yoga”, yin may seem at first not challenging or even boring. But stick with it for three or four classes and see if you benefit from the yin approach. It may take a bit of acclimatisation.

Yin is a relief and refresher from 21st century media overload. Just relax and watch as your body responds to the postures, noticing the changing sensations and the feeling of unblocking your energy channels.

All of this does not necessarily mean that yin is an easy option however… as we all have unique bodies, what one finds restful another may find very challenging. It can take focus and endurance to stick with a posture which elicits a negative response rather than coming out of it at the first opportunity. To understand this, try kneeling up on your heels with toes tucked under for one or two minutes. Simple to set up, this “toe crusher” pose can require a lot of active willpower to sustain for a long count.

Yin yoga can facilitate the easier flow of energy, chi, or prana throughout the body, revitalising organs by working with the meridians in a similar way to Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Joints have time to soften and lubricate and soft tissue to disentangle and realign, resulting in easier movement and greater range of motion.

If Yin Yoga sounds like something you would like to try, Shala Om offers yin classes every Thursday evening in Semaphore. You could also book a private class at your house at a time to suit you.

Lotus blooming from the mud

How do you feel about the commercialisation of Yoga?

Someone on Quora asked me this today and this was my answer.

I am- gradually- starting to feel okay about charging for my yoga classes. It’s cost me a lot to be a yoga teacher, and continues to cost as I have to pay for a venue, props, ongoing yoga training, publicity, website etc.. When I first started, my impulse, like many yoga teachers, was to give classes for free. Then I charged as little as I could to make it accessible to everyone. Until my students asked me to raise the fee because they felt embarrassed paying me so little!

Through all this, I haven’t changed my commitment to offering accessible, authentic yoga to my community. That is the heart, and the reason for what I do. The heart of yoga, as I understand it, is bringing together body, mind and spirit to perceive the divine unity and come to a more complete consciousness.

So, finally my answer to you would be that yoga which is shaped by market forces and trends and is motivated by opportunistic greed is unlikely to be authentic. Anyone who tries to “own yoga” by patents, copyrights and specifying regulations of which they are the sole guardians (I’m talking to you, Yoga Alliance) is likely to be inauthentic.

But nature will find a way. I came to yoga through a very diluted, syndicated yogalates practice at a gym and realised I was not satisfied with it; it led me to seeking out more knowledge about actual yoga. So the profusion of commercial yoga Studios means more people will have the opportunity for at least some exposure to the yoga way and may want to dig deeper.

The other consideration is that even the most commercial studio chain is very likely to have some sincere true yogis teaching within it, so there is another opportunity for people to come into contact with a more integral yoga practice.

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Will my head ever touch my knee in seated forward bend?

Well, we don’t know. Luckily, from a yoga perspective, it isn’t important.

Yoga is not about the shapes, it’s about awareness. First thing to realise is, it’s your practice. Not anybody else’s. Just like it’s your body, not anybody else’s. Some people are superflexi, that’s how they are made. Some people are not, that’s how they are made. Real physiology comes into play here, size and shape of bones, tendons etc. So it is quite possible that you will never touch your head to your knees in utthita paschimottasana. The good new is, that’s okay.

Regularly practising yoga WILL improve your flexibility and range of motion. It will also calm you and contribute to your quality of life. One of the yogic virtues I recommend to my students is santosha. This is the practice of active contentment. Therefore, when in seated forward bend, don’t think, “oh when will my head touch my knees?”. Instead focus on the physical sensation present in that moment for you, notice where your body is tight (I’m guessing lower back and hamstrings), and being okay with that. You are alive, you are conscious, you are free to practise yoga. All amazing things, and all enough for now.

Be in the present moment. Enjoy it. It’s all a gift.

 

Photo courtesy of Nina Mel

What is yin yoga?

What is yin yoga?
Yin yoga is a super-slow form of yoga, involving seated or reclined poses which are held for at least two to five minutes each.
Some say yin is a modern variant of Hatha yoga, initiated and developed since the 1970s in America. Others say that which we are now calling yin yoga is in fact closer to the original practice of the yoga asanas, which are thought to date back at least 5000 years. (1)
The theory is that you apply load to connective tissue such as ligaments and the fascia, which is the sheath which covers all muscle tissue, in order to increase flexibility.
A second focus within yin yoga is clearing the “meridians”- the channels carrying Qi (chi), the vital energy or life force, through the body. The map used for these meridians is the same used in acupuncture. Therefore you can have a sequence to promote kidney health, for example. Although this concept is drawn from Taoism and Chinese medicine, it is also found in yoga’s “Nadis”, or energy pathways through the body which carry prana, the yogic name for life force.
Because you hold the poses for extended periods, you are not expected to put as much muscular effort into each pose. We want the emphasis to remain on working with the fascia, and other deeper tissue beneath the muscle layer. You just put yourself into a position and stay there. There is less emphasis on alignment than there is in more flow-style yoga.
A third benefit of the yin approach is that it is very contemplative. It can be especially good for those who say “Oh, I can’t meditate, I’ve got a monkey mind”. Because we are tasking the body with sometimes taxing holds-and it’s fascinating how something you can do easily for 20 seconds becomes almost impossible after four minutes!- the mind can and must slow down. We maintain focus and develop patience and resolve.

Yin sequences will be offered at Shala Om from time to time within our usual schedule during 2017.

(1)”The practice of holding yoga postures or asanas for extended periods of time has always been a significant part of traditional yoga practice, both in the hatha yoga tradition of India and in the Taoist yoga tradition of the greater China area. Some regard Yin yoga as the oldest form of hatha yoga, since it is an effective method of physical conditioning for prolonged sitting in meditation, which was the principal concern of ancient yogic practitioners.”

-Wikipedia
Article ©2017 Unjay

Build community from your dreams!

There is nothing more powerful than an idea. 
There is nothing more dangerous than a human with a belief that their idea is absolute truth.
To be certain is to be out of touch with reality- because we must know we cannot with certainty know anything. 
Astrophysics tells us this. Particle physics tells us this. The world’s biggest machine, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, was built to find out what stuff is made of at the most basic level. And we still don’t know for sure.
So, choose. Choose honestly and wisely what your faith, what your picture of the Universe, is. And act as though you are right but be open to being wrong.
In light of this understanding I approach yoga or meditation. Without dogma. Without a guru.
My friend Vani is from the rich, ancient culture of India and has a legitimate direct transmission of practice from her guru.
I am from no particular culture, or no single culture anyway. And although I sometimes envy people like Vani who know where they fit and who their people are, I think my situation is more representative of the current age. The age of individualism.
Western European culture has been elevating the individual above the collective since at least The Renaissance, arguably since the High Middle Ages. That’s five or six hundred years of social, philosophical and spiritual evolution. And we have lost a lot in the course of that evolution. Westerners are more isolated, lonely and depressed than ever before. But we have gained the ability to stand on our own and say, “This I believe; this is me.” And that is empowering.
It is when we have no belief, take no position, that we fail so miserably. Then we fall between a place of community and individual faith. It is then that society degenerates into a hopeless, chaotic, alienating dystopia.
I think that, moving into the future, we are going to be ever more discarding the received authority of traditional cultures, traditions, social structures and religions. This can be frightening and so there is a temptation to join the backlash of the backward-looking. The offer of the certainty of the past through right-wing political nostalgia, fundamentalist religious beliefs, nationalism, militarism. All of these give you something to belong to, something to be part of. That sense of community, of “unity with”, with which we in the West seem to be losing touch.
I value individualism highly. I also acknowledge that we are fundamentally social beings. Nothing is more damaging than isolation. So how do we resolve this dilemma?
Follow your heart. Follow your dreams. Be open to exciting choices. Then look at ways those choices give you opportunities to build community. Or join community. 
My own mini “Eat, Pray, Love” story is one of leaving my teaching position and going to Byron Bay to do yoga teacher training. There was a time of uncertainty when I came home- I just wanted to go back and disappear into the seductive endless summer of a surfie/yoga/hippy Mecca. But then my friend Heather said to me, “Go and build community in Semaphore”. Her words were clear, true and inspired. One of those precious times when you know that what you are hearing is absolutely right. So I came home and Christy and I, with support from our kids, started Shala Om, a tiny yoga community in Semaphore. 
It’s not on a world scale. It’s not a commercial success. It’s not even a business really. There are only a few people who know about it. But it’s our little contribution, and it is so valuable to me and to others. 
It is community born of individualism.

Shala Om is moving!

We are excited to announce a new venue for 2016.

The council has closed access to the community room, at least for now, so sadly we bid that fabulous, unique, somewhat bizarre ambience farewell.

This year we will hold classes in The Chapel, Semaphore Uniting Church.

This beautiful restful space shall help us enter that yogic place of inner awareness.

We are also excited to announce a second evening class, along with our Summer Saturday morning outdoor class.

More Om for everybody!

Shala Om 2016 Classes

  • Saturday    9.00 am     On the lawn next to the Timeball Tower (top of Semaphore Road, opposite jetty)
  • Tuesday      6.30 pm     Semaphore Uniting Church Chapel 
  • Thursday    6.30 pm     Semaphore Uniting Church Chapel 

All classes $10


Enquiries to Unjay, 043 1928 663 or unjay@shalaom.com


See you on the mat!

Christmas and yoga

Christmas and yoga
Christmas… A celebration of the birth of Jesus dating back to around at least the third century A.D., with uncertain origins, but certainly including both Christian and pagan content.
Yoga… A philosophy and practice dating back maybe 5000 years or more, possibly to the Indus Valley civilisation. 
They are the same. Essentially.
Huh!? You may say… How can they be the same?
It’s actually simple and clear. The word yoga derives from a Sanskrit verb meaning to “yoke together”, specifically yoking together body, mind and spirit through physical, mental and spiritual practices, disciplines and virtues.
Christmas (Christ’s mass, or the sacred feast day dedicated to Christ) celebrates the embodiment of the divine in human existence.
Yoga teaches that the deep essential nature of each of us is perfect, pure and divine. Christianity says the same about Christ.
Thus yoga and Christmas are celebrations of the spirit embodied. “Hail the incarnate deity”, as the carol says. In yoga terms, “Ham sa”: I am that [which is pure perfect and divine].

The glass floor

When I was in yoga teacher training, we had a very restrictive structure. There was a set number of specific asanas we had to present, and almost a set script where we had to state counter indications, modifications and benefits of each pose. I can see why a teacher training regime would have this structure, but I did find it frustratingly rigid and predictable.
Now as a teacher in my own shala, I find classes anything but predictable. I have an outline of each class worked out in my head, but I have learnt to abandon it at a moment’s notice. Instead I take as my starting point my students’ needs at that moment in that place. My sequence starts with them.
I have regular students, but every class they have different needs. Maybe there are injuries. Maybe everyone is exhausted. Maybe they are up for a challenge… I can never predict what my students’ needs will be, so each class is a surprise to me! I may have planned a vigorous class filled with sun salutations and side planks but end up teaching a restorative class where we don’t even get off the mat. But no one has left disappointed. (Or else they are really good liars.)
In my other work, both as a kindergarten teacher and a musician, I have come to realise that I can wing it and it will work. (Almost) always. Relying on intuition and inspiration taps into a magical flow where I can connect with my “audience”, whether they are music fans, yoga students or four year olds. I don’t really know how it works, but it does. Ideas always come. Inspiration is infinite and available. It just takes a little bit of courage to step out over the ravine onto that glass floor that doesn’t appear to be there. My parachute is that I can always return to something I know if the glass floor cracks. Play the chords, read a story or return to my yoga training sequence. But I almost never need that parachute. Anyway, what is the ravine under the glass floor? Nothing life threatening- just the risk of embarrassment, an awkward moment when I don’t know what to do or say. It passes.
And the payoff for that tiny bit of courage? Thirty four-year-olds completely entranced by a story I am making up on the spot- yogis looking sleepy, relaxed and renewed as they come out of śavasana- people dancing and singing as I play.
I say the risk is worth it.