Yoga, an Ancient Technique for A Modern Malady
Stress, depression and anxiety are not new – Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, described them in the fifth century BCE. However, our modern lifestyle has given rise to an unprecedented number of people now reported as suffering from these conditions. In fact for each generation born since 1900, the age of the onset of depression and its sister illness, anxiety, is getting younger and younger, and the lifetime risk of it has increased.
While most of us are perfectly comfortable to visit a personal trainer to help get fit, or speak to our GP about a medical condition, we’re still reluctant to discuss or seek help for stress, anxiety and depression. This is often because any kind of mental disorder still seems to us to be a sign of weakness, one that those who show remarkable courage in the rescue of others, are often reluctant to admit even to themselves. This is not surprising considering the kind of negative labelling and misconceptions that go with these crippling conditions. The autumn 2015 issue of Firestyle carried a report by MIND in which a survey of 3,500 rescue workers admitted to stress, low mood, sleep disorders and poor mental health.
Yoga was born in India, not as a medical treatment but as a path to a state of consciousness not normally accessed in our day to day lives. It is in our modern times that we have discovered it has something to offer those suffering from the ills of stress and anxiety – and there is now abundant research to show that the various components of Yoga have an important role to play in the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression. On the 10th May this year both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph carried articles on the benefits of Yoga for anxiety and depression, and it made the morning BBC news. It is not a substitute for medical treatment but can act as a great adjunct to it.
Yoga Movement and Breathwork
Our bodies adapt during exercise. Some of these physical adaptations are well-researched and reported as having a positive side-effect on psychological well-being. For example, movement enhances the neurotransmission of chemicals released by the endocrine system (norepinephrine, seratonin, and dopamine) which improve our general mood, circulation, mental focus and concentration. As one smart psychologist put it, “not exercising is like taking a depressing drug; our bodies were designed to work hard every day, to farm, to build, to hunt…” In addition, Yoga offers distraction from anxiety-producing thoughts, and the kind of muscle work offered by Yoga provides a release from the increased muscle tension caused by a stress the ‘fight and flight’ response.
Throughout its variety of movements, Yoga continually draws our attention back to our breathing and you can expect parts of a Yoga class to be devoted to breathwork. Our breathing rhythm is one of the basic rhythms of life – and one of the symptoms of anxiety is rapid, shallow breathing. The breathwork of Yoga returns the body to a breathing pattern that reduces anxiety and restores energy levels.
Beyond this, a little spoken of effect of Yoga movement, attention and breathwork that brings the greatest benefit is the ‘peak experience’. Top athletes speak of it as ‘being in the flow’. Yoga movement, with its intense concentration and focus, has been producing it for centuries and it is known in Yoga by its Sanskrit name, samyama. Volumes of research now attest to the fact that ‘peak experience’ or ‘flow’ is far more important for a sense of personal happiness than any other measure of success.
Most Yoga classes will include a progressive relaxation and/or meditation at the end that help return us to ourselves. Stress often acts as a barrier to our own intimate connections to ourselves and those whom we love and care for. These last two components of Yoga refresh us with a sense of calm and self-worth.
Swami Ambikananda – Director