NAVIGATING YOGA > Balancing the mind, body and emotions with yoga
We now know that yoga can be handy as a sleeping aid, especially when that insomnia is due to stress. But did you know that yoga can also help cope with depression? It’s true—while yoga may not be your cure your blues, it should certainly be taken seriously as a mood booster.
As you probably know, exercise sends natural signals up to your brain that can trigger happiness. The technical term for this is called endorphins. Endorphins are your happy hormones, which are increased with any amount of physical activity. Whether that activity is a jog through the woods or dip in your local pool, being active makes the world seem a little brighter. Knowing this, it’s safe to say that yoga by its very nature as a physical activity can combat depression. Some postures are especially good for opening the heart, relieving insomnia and anxiety, and alleviating external distractions. Here are six postures that I think are particularly beneficial.
Child Pose (Balasana)
In my opinion, child pose is perhaps the most comforting pose. It can generate healing and bring a sense of grounding, humility and calm to the body. For those suffering fromanxiety or who are prone to high-stress situations, it can create peace and silence from within. To practice this pose, come onto your knees and relax your hips to your heels. Fold forward, drawing your forehead to the ground, but trying to maintain your hips to your heels. Drop your chin to your heart, reach your arms out and ahead of you, or you bring them down by your hips, creating an egg shape with your body. Breathe, and silently affirm to yourself: “I am safe, I am sound, all good things come to me, they bring me peace.”
Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana) By standing upright, folding forward and bending your knees to bring your forehead to your knees, you automatically create a contemplative, connecting state by connecting one end of your body to the other. By dropping your chin to your heart, and letting your head hang heavy towards the Earth, you’re automatically trusting your balance, and therefore trusting your connection to the world around you. Close your eyes when you practice, breathe, and silently affirm: “Calmness radiates through every fiber of my being.”
Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)
This posture is again really good for grounding—it’s an excellent pose for insomnia because it re-routes your circulation. By being upside down, our emotions can feel right side up. Through breathing, closing our eyes, and allowing our mind to open up to the idea of meditation, we can come back to the present moment and once again allow all external distractions to float away. This is my favorite pose to practice at home. Find a free wall space in your living room, kitchen, hallway, or wherever feels most comfortable to lie down for an extended period of time. Scoot your hips and gluteus all the way to the wall, and swing your legs upright so that they are flat against it. Proceed to lie down, place a pillow under your head for comfort, and silently affirm: “Bones, muscles, movement, I surrender now; anxiety, elation, depression, all churning thoughts, all these I give to the hands of peace.”
Cat Pose (Marjasana)
This posture is good for bringing awareness to the breath, which is usually in short supply when one is feeling anxious or depressed. By bringing your intention and awareness into your breathing, your body can relax and soften, ultimately slowing down the process of feeling anxious. Kneel down onto all fours, separate your knees about hip width apart, arch your back like a scared cat by drawing your navel to your spine and tucking your tailbone underneath you. Drop your chin to your heart, let your head be heavy, silent affirm; “From left and right, and all around, life’s harmonies are mine.”
Backbends can be very stimulating. Their movement comes from directly opening the heart by pressing your hips skyward and rounding the spine. This automatically shifts the energy you are holding into a positive place by re-routing your circulation and freeing up any nervousness or anxiety that tugs at your heartstrings. To practice bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), an entry-level backbend, lie down on your back to begin. With your hands down by your sides, walk your feet towards your hips about hip width apart, root down through the balls of your feet and back towards your heels. Start by lifting your hips slowly off the ground like your peeling off a Band-Aid. Slowly roll up off the ground, one precious vertebrae at a time, and lift your chin to your heart. For the more advanced version, roll your shoulders underneath you and clasp your hands together, leverage up off your hands and elbows to lift up a little taller. To release any tension from your legs, bring your hands to your hips, bending your elbows to help you balance. Silently affirm: “I offer every thought as a bridge, to divine inner peace.”
Headstands are well known for their ability to increase circulation to the brain and reduce anxiety and insomnia. I would instruct a student to practice viparita karani before any headstand practice. If you’re feeling confident, practice headstand against a wall. Root down through the crown of your head, make a basket with your hands at the base of your skull to help protect your neck. Lift your hips to the sky and begin to slowly walk your feet towards your forehead. Once you reach the desired distance, about two feet apart from your face, slowly practice scissoring your legs towards the wall. Draw your navel to your spine and use your core to help you lift so you’re not balancing from your low back. Please, if you’re going to practice headstand, don’t try this at home. At the next yoga class you attend talk to your instructor, and have he or she spot you while you give it a whirl. Silently affirm: “Strength and courage, fill my body cells!”
The positive affirmations I listed along with these postures are suggestions for a guided meditation practice while practicing yoga. The affirmations come from the discipline of Ananda Yoga and, I find, are especially helpful when practicing yoga to help balance our emotions. The idea is that the more you repeat these affirmations to yourself, the more you get your mind to consider the power of positive thinking, and the more you start to believe the affirmations to be true. Find your bliss. Namaste.
Shandara Gill, or Shanie, is a yoga teacher in the greater Santa Cruz area. She teaches more than 10 classes a week at the Westside, downtown, and Cabrillo Toadal Fitness locations. For more information about Shanie and her classes, you can visit toadalfitness.com or email her at [email protected]