Yoga for Illness: Depression/Anxiety

People seek yoga as an antidote to mental health issues. As always, it’s important to emphasize that you are not a therapist and that you can’t treat mental health disorders. But you do provide a space for students to discover yoga. You teach what you know and you will guide students to use yoga as a tool to treat themselves.

Anxiety is a debilitating problem and is punctuated by obsessive thinking, fluttering heart, dizziness, nausea, chronic fatigue, migraines and other physiological problems. Anxious people might become so wrapped up in the symptoms that they lose sight of the problem that caused the anxiety. Sometimes, there isn’t even a particular problem, but rather just a chronic feeling of unease.

Anxiety and depression are real medical conditions that require professional attention. Helping a student with depression, anxiety or any mental health problem practice yoga is a daunting proposition. Remember you are holding space for them to develop their own practice and you are offering guidelines for them to take care of themselves.

Yoga can help alleviate mental health symptoms in several ways:

  • The demand to turn the attention inward helps students examine and understand habitual thought patterns and unresolved conflict
  • The central yogic principle of focusing on the breath demands all the attention. It’s difficult to think about anything else when the breath is the centre of attention!
  • Yoga is a type of cognitive therapy where the student has time to look within and ask critical questions about the anxiety:
  • Am I in danger right now?
  • Is there anything I can do about it?
  • What can be done instead?

When you instruct students with anxiety and depression, it’s appropriate to ask what type of relief they are looking for. Students with extreme anxiety may find quiet introspective classes too challenging for their mental capacities. Sometimes the best strategy to combat anxiety is a vigorous power class that takes their mind off whatever anxiety is ailing them.

Remember that the hardest yoga classes are often the slowest ones! Sometimes the physical challenge of a power class is easier for anxious students than the slow and meditative quiet classes.

Acute anxiety sufferers describe the feeling as hot, shortened breath, restless, nauseous and a very real sense of doom. They describe it as a churning stomach teeth-grinding feeling. It manifests as obsessive thinking, intestinal problems and heart palpitations. Furthermore, the symptoms of anxiety can be so overwhelming that the sufferer cannot focus on anything else, thus perpetuating the anxious feelings.

All of these reactions are a function of the sympathetic nervous system dealing with stress. Fight or flight is the adage that represents the SNS: the input of stress results in an output of energy and quick decision making. The heightened ability to fight or flee is useful in the face of acute threat such as hand-to-hand combat or an angry bear but is an inappropriate response in a more benign context such as a traffic jam or a fight with a loved one.

Chronic anxiety in modern context is attributed to relationship issues, work pressures and family responsibilities. But most of these situations don’t require the heightened response of fight or flight. Most of these situations can be dealt with in a calm and non-reactive way and yoga is a technique for practicing appropriate reactions. The yoga technique is to curtail the onslaught of thoughts that occurs in the face of stress (real or perceived). The practice of yoga allows students to detach themselves from those thoughts for enough time to see them clearly rather than instinctively react to them.

Exercise: Anxiety Management

NOTE – This is not necessarily an exercise to try with your yoga students. You are not a therapist. 

Try this exercise on yourself to manage your own anxiety. By taking care of yourself, you will develop empathy for students who suffer from anxiety. From that empathy, you will create valuable yoga classes. 

When you are overcome with anxiety, ask yourself the following

  1. What is the situation?

thought_________________________________________________________________________________________________

feeling__________________________________________________________________________________________________

action__________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • Have I taken a cognitive shortcut*?
  • What is the evidence? Is my reaction reasonable?
  • What would a friend say?

cognitive shortcuts:

Jumping to conclusions: assuming you know what someone is thinking or that you can predict the future.

“my co-worker never says hello to me. She hates me.”

“my boyfriend didn’t text me back. He’s going to break up with me.”

Catastrophising: The situation seems terrible, even though the reality is the problem is quite small.

            “I have to take my dog to the vet. My entire day is ruined.”

Overgeneralizing: Making global statements about behaviour in specific situations.

“My friend always shows up late. She doesn’t respect me”

Mental filter: Only seeing the negative part of a situation and failing to account for the whole story.

“A students walked out of my yoga class. I’m a terrible yoga teacher.”

Shoulding and musting: Putting unreasonable demands on yourself or others. The risk is creating unrealistic expectations.

            “I must not eat any junk food this week.”

            “I should attend every wedding I’m invited to.”

Youtube Video: A 30-minute practice to soothe anxious feelings like a racing heart, fluttering stomach or hot head.