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One Small Step at a Time: Patricia Walden on Yoga for Depression
“Take a step, no matter how small.” ~ BKS Iyengar:
Erasing Samskaras: Using Yoga to Slowly Rewire the Brain
"Take a step, no matter how small.” This was the advice of yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar to Patricia Walden some 40 years ago when she sought help to deal with recurring depression. Little by little, one small step at a time, progress can—and will—be made.
That first step can be setting an intention, a sankalpa. Put it in terms of something achievable, something in the present, says Patricia Walden. Be sure to put the intention into words that make it something you are doing, not what you are going to do.
Over time, introducing a regular yoga practice can help people suffering from depression change the samskaras, the mental and emotional patterns at the root of depression. Our samskaras, according to Yogic philosophy, are latent impressions from past actions, which create the tendency to repeat these actions. We store and accumulate these imprints, which influence future actions and reactions.
The power of taking one small step at a time is that we can change these patterns by taking new actions. Each time we take an action, such as practicing specific yoga asana for depression, new neural patterns are formed, and the more often we take the new action, the stronger the neural connections become. This ability of the brain to rewire itself is known as neuroplasticity.
“In this process, repetition is the key,” explains Patricia Walden. “In the case of yoga, this means practice, every day.”
Another potent small step toward erasing old samskaras and creating new positive neural patterns is to take what Patricia Walden refers to as the “precious pause.” This has two steps:
• Identify the negative thought patterns when they occur.
• Put a space around them, and take a pause, just noticing them without reacting to them. Observe them as the fluctuations of mind patterns that they are.
If we can take that moment to step back and perceive the thought patterns instead of being caught up in them, over time, this will give us the power to consider a different reaction, to create a new samskara, Walden explains.
Physiology affects feeling and vice versa. This is why yoga asana can be such a powerful tool to help relieve depression. The most essential type of yoga postures for people with depression are chest opening postures, which counteract the closed, collapsed chest and shallow breathing common in people suffering from depression.
If there is time for just one posture, Mr. Iyengar recommends Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, or Bridge Pose. This pose stimulates the adrenal glands, opens the chest, and creates the chinlock of Jalandara Bandha, which stimulates the vagus nerve, calming the sympathetic nervous system. In Bridge Pose, the brain becomes quiet, but the chest is open, which is a powerful combination for people trapped in the movements of the mind.
Another effective yoga posture, despite its apparent simplicity, is Mountain Pose, or Tadasana, says Walden:
Stand in Tadasana, sweep your hands upward into Urdhva Hastasana and then gaze upward at your fingers. You might even try coming up on the tiptoes. Reach upward with the body and mind. After releasing the arms back to Tadasana, wait and observe the feelings that come.
Next, sweep your arms out to the side, and, while looking ahead, let your mind’s gaze travel outward to the fingertips. Keep drawing the arms outward, opening the chest and keeping the mental gaze broad. Then release and stand quietly for a moment, keep the chest open and feel the effects.
For more information on yoga for depression, also check out author Amy Weintraub’s recorded online course on Yoga U:
Yoga for Depression: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind
Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon, and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her website is www.christieyoga.com.