According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression recently overtook lower respiratory disease as the most common illness, holding the unenviable title as the leading cause of disability, globally. Its increasing prevalence and the devastating impact it can have on individuals and their families, is without doubt one of the biggest health issues facing society today.
With an estimated 300 million people now affected by depression, the sheer scale of problem is both challenging, and complex. While there are a variety of dedicated organisations, replete with compassionate individuals working tirelessly to help support those suffering from depression, the mounting difficulties of an overworked and underfunded healthcare system are unfortunately well documented.
These issues raise important questions as to whether the current approach for treatment is still sustainable in an increasingly complicated, and populated world. But while a change in approach is never simple, as we start to understand more about the connection between both mind and body, an increasing number of healthcare providers are turning to yoga therapy in order to explore alternative treatments for depression.
The benefits that yoga can have on depression range from the modulation of the stress response, to affordability and accessibility, however one area that’s not always easy to understand is yoga’s ability to treat the mind, body and spirit at the same time. A wealth of evidence is demonstrating that practicing mindfulness not only influences the way we think, but can alter the various hormonal processes throughout the body and our susceptibility towards depression.
Similarly, how we move can equally influence the way we think. Yoga encourages relaxation, shifting the balance from the sympathetic nervous system and the flight-or-fight response, to the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response. It’s this combination of both mind and body that’s unique to yoga – a multi-faceted approach that importantly can also be tailored to each individual.
Depression and the one size fits all approach
It’s probably fair to say that we all think of ourselves as unique. A complicated cocktail of genetics, lifestyle choices and worldly experiences, all rolled together into an infinite amount of variations and possibilities. It’s not entirely surprising that many of us have trouble making sense of it all at times!
However, it’s these beautiful complexities that can make the successful treatment of depression so difficult. Depression is a broad and heterogeneous condition, influenced by diverse psychological, biological and social factors that are often difficult to fully measure and understand, particularly when using traditional diagnostic techniques.
Gone are the days when depression was viewed as simply having too much, or too little of a precise brain chemical. Research has shown that there are a variety of causes, ranging from faulty mood regulation, to genetic vulnerability, drug and alcohol abuse, stressful life events, natural disasters, medications, and so on.
With such wide number of causes for depression, adopting a “one-size fits all” approach has its obvious limitations, ranging from the different reactions people can have to the same medication, to simply how open someone is to a particular treatment.
Richard Davidson and other mood disorder researchers also believe that major differences may exist between those whose depression is consistent with hypoarousal (showing symptoms of lethargy and fatigue), and those whose depression reflect a state of hyperarousal (showing symptoms of agitation, worry and restlessness).
In this instance, the label of depression isn’t even helpful. Two people can technically be classified as having depression, but the mechanisms behind it can be fundamentally different. It’s therefore proposed that treating someone who’s experiencing lethargy, in the same way when treating someone with agitation, isn’t always the most effective approach.
Yoga and depression
In yogic terms depression with hypoarousal is referred to as ‘tamasic depression’ (responsible for inertia), while depression co-morbid with anxiety is known as ‘rajasic depression’ (responsible for activity). The simple premise is that through yoga therapy, two different types of treatment can be administered that are uniquely tailored to the individual. Yoga postures are selected based on their ability to correct any tamasic or rajasic discrepancies.
Considering mental health problems are among the most common reasons for individuals to seek complementary therapies, it could be argued that patients are intuitively seeking this more personalised approach for their treatment. Some may also have tried more traditional techniques, while others may be encouraged to seek alternatives due to fears surrounding medication.
Just as depression and other mental illnesses aren’t universal experiences, treatment should be equally distinct. The best way to determine the right method is by a thorough evaluation from a clinician, and yoga therapy provides an alternative consideration in the right circumstances.
The NHS directory on complementary practitioners states:
“Research trials show that yoga therapy practices are among the most effective known methods for managing the psychosomatic, stress-related conditions, which are so common today. This is because they bridge the gap between body and mind, ranging across the whole spectrum from physical to mental”
It’s encouraging that yoga and the connection between the mind and body is becoming more widely recognised, and the successful identification and treatment of depression is being prescribed in some primary care settings.
Ultimately, the combination of physical movement and meditation provide two important elements for relieving depression. Mindfulness helps bring a person into the present moment, allowing them to clear their mind reconnect with the who they are, while the controlled, focused movements of yoga helps to strengthen the all important body-mind connection.