How Can Yoga Help Ease Mood Swings, Anxiety and Depression? An Interview with Linda Sparrowe

By: 
Linda Sparrowe
Linda Sparrowe is a renowned yoga instructor, and co-author with Patricia Walden of “The Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health: A Lifelong Guide to Wellness.” Linda was managing editor of  Yoga Journal for numerous years, and currently leads workshops for yoga teachers on how to teach women who may be facing any number of challenges from body issues to anxiety and depression. In this interview, Linda talks about how yoga can offer valuable tools to help balance moods, and relieve anxiety and depression.

YogaUOnline: You’ve done a lot of work on yoga for women’s health and yoga for anxiety and depression. Are women more prone to mood swings in general? And if so, why is that?

Linda Sparrowe: Yes, that’s certainly the perception. I think there are a number of reasons. It’s not so much that we have more estrogen and progesterone than men do, it’s the fluctuation of them, particularly around the postpartum period after having, a baby and as we move into perimenopause, and menopause. It’s also not specifically the plummeting of estrogen and progesterone after menopause, but the fluctuation of ups and downs.

I also think that women ruminate more than men do, i.e. we often  repeat things over and over and dwell on issues. I think we can get stuck in our stories, or suffer from the tyranny of the future. Also, women are more relational; our sense of relationships is important. So when our relationships are perceived as being out of balance, that can really throw us out of balance as well.

Women may also be more apt to want to get to the bottom of what’s going on. So, they’re more likely to go to a therapist, a doctor, or to a naturopath and say, “This is how I’m feeling, what’s going on?” Is it actually true that we suffer more? I’m not sure, but the fact is there’s certainly that perception.

YogaUOnline: Modern medicine talks about depression in terms of a chemical imbalance, while in the yogic tradition, mood swings, depression and anxiety are talked about in terms of blockages to the flow of life force, Prana. Amy Weintraub, of course, was one of the first pioneers to explore the applications of yoga for depression. And she called her approach Life Force Yoga in reference to this idea that freeing the energetic flow in the body might help relieve depression and anxiety. What are your thoughts on the difference in paradigm, chemical imbalances versus blockages to Prana?

Linda Sparrowe: It is interesting because if someone has a “chemical imbalance,” you immediately think that there must be something they could take, something wrong with their body that an outside addition could cure. I think it is indeed an imbalance, and the way that Amy approaches it is really spot on.

Oftentimes, when we go into a yoga class and we’re doing yoga poses, one of the benefits of proper alignment for your specific body is to open the channels in order for Prana to be able to flow unencumbered. If there are blockages that are in the way, if you are sunken in a pose and not open, you’re not giving space to be able to have that Prana flow.

Emotions can present blockages in the flow of Prana, because emotional sensations, feelings, move through the body on the wave of the breath - the breath, of course, is closely linked to the flow of Prana in the body. When we’re stuck in a strong, negative emotion, that’s a blockage that is preventing that sensation from moving through and then out of our body. That’s why physiologically, and even from a Western perspective, the breath is so vital. It’s obviously vital to our lives but it’s also so vital to our healing to be able to extend and control our breathing.

YogaUOnline: I think many people have had the experience of feeling down, worried, or overwhelmed by something, and then after a yoga class and it’s as if they have hit the reset button - you come out looking at things differently. So, there’s the breath component to this, as you mentioned, but do you also think that just a physical practice has that capacity to shift things?

Linda Sparrowe: Absolutely, even exercise does that. People who are runners will go for a run when they’re feeling down and then feel great. The difference between that and yoga is that for me, yoga does that, but it also does something more.

When I go into a yoga class and I’m feeling like I had the worst day of my whole life, I get into my body, I feel my feet. I get out of my head and into the physical sensations of the moment, and I feel better. Then as I move into quieter poses, I can feel my breath moving. I can feel my mind returning to a more peaceful state. That’s a lovely thing, and yoga, in my mind, keeps that going longer because it does something that pure exercise doesn’t do and that is that it brings me into a relationship with my body. Then I am way more apt to see what’s happening before it escalates into something that I can’t control.

YogaUOnline: Please tell us more about how you use yoga for mood balancing.

Linda Sparrowe: One way to think about yoga for mood balancing is that we have to redefine what a yoga practice is. Trying to find ninety minutes every day or three times a week or four times a week to go to a yoga class - this is not going to happen for many people. It’s really hard for a lot of women to show up for themselves when they feel like hell, when they feel disconnected from themselves.

Yoga gives us those five-second practices. We come home and we integrate what it is that we heard or learned or saw  a teacher demonstrate, and we play with it in our own body and we realize, “You know what, when I’m feeling such and such, this is something I can use.”

The Sutras give us all kinds of little practices. For example, Patanjali says, “Cultivate the opposite.” If you feel really down, what would it feel like to bring up something that gives you a great amount of joy, to feel that, experience it, and see how that shifts? That’s what yoga does: it allows us to take those little teachings and move them into practice.

The other thing that yoga does that I think is hugely important for women, is that it teaches us to be patient and it teaches us to be generous with ourselves. I think for those of us who suffer from mood swings, it means just being able to be patient to wait and to see what the next breath will bring.

The Buddhists talk about the Paramitas, the six perfections. They start with generosity, they don’t start with discipline. They don’t start with this “I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to do it right, I’ve got to show up.” It starts with being generous and then disciplined, and discipline is bookended by generosity and patience, and that’s wonderful.

I think Erich Schiffmann says it over and over and over again: yoga, above all, is a practice that will allow us to know ourselves. If we can’t find space at the table inside of us for all that we are- all the depression, anxiety,  fears, joys, the connections that we have - if there’s not space for all of those, then the ones in the dark will continue to fester and grow and become way more important than they really are.

YogaUOnline: We’re very excited because you have an upcoming course on Yoga U on the topic of “Yoga for Balancing Moods: A Woman’s Guide to Emotional Well-Being.” Tell us about the course.

Linda Sparrowe: I want to bring a blend of Western and Eastern understanding, because it is exciting that people in the West are finding results that support and validate what Eastern knowledge has known all along.

All that good information is power and it’s a way of helping us heal if we know what’s happening. I love knowing what’s happening in my body when I’m feeling all these things, and I really love the poetic way that yoga explains what’s happening. Yoga not only explains what’s happening through the koshas, through the subtle anatomy, but also gives us tools that we might not think about in our Western context as we move through the world. That’s what I want to cover in this course. The idea is to have people come away with really specific ways of helping themselves, and also with a greater understanding of how they can “tend and befriend” instead of “fight-flight-freeze” because I think that’s also key when working with yoga for depression and anxiety.