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Feeling meh? Yoga to lift your mood – Breath of Joy

Everyone who comes to my group yoga classes will have completed an online health questionnaire. I had a look at the responses recently to see what the most commonly ticked health issue was. Top of the list of challenges was mental health, with over 30% of people citing wanting to alleviate feelings of depression, low mood and anxiety. It’s fantastic that people are aware of how yoga can benefit them, helping them to ‘get out of their heads’ by ‘getting into their bodies’.

This article will be exploring how yoga can be used to help manage depression and that sense of feeling low, lethargic and generally a bit meh. In yoga, this energetic state is ‘tamas’ or ‘tamasic’, with the opposite being ‘rajas’ or ‘rajasic’ which refers to someone who is anxious, restless or agitated.

First of all, putting things into perspective, if you suffer with low mood or depression, it’s very common. I get the same feelings too. I have noticed it is usually worst first thing in the morning and can come on for no particular reason. I often use my yoga practice to get me going and shift this state. Research suggests that over 340 million people get these feelings of depression too and the (WHO) World Health Organisation has projected that by 2030, depression will be one of the world’s leading diseases.

Vicious cycle of anxiety and depression

Although two very different conditions, depression and anxiety are closely interlinked. From first-hand experience, I can appreciate how feelings of anxiety can result in feeling very low indeed. Being anxious about something on a regular basis can leave a person feeling overwhelmed. This can quickly escalate into a feeling of despair, which causes further negative thoughts, maybe about feeling inadequate, totally stuck and helpless. Before you know it, you are feeling really low. It can be a vicious cycle and increases the challenges of managing anxiety.

Impact of breathwork on our state of mind

Breathwork practices are very effective ways to alter our state of mind and we read a lot about practices to ease feelings of anxiety. These primarily emphasise lengthening the exhalation. This is logical because when people are anxious, they have a tendency to over inhale rapidly and shorten their exhales – leading to imbalance. Try repeatedly gulping in a sudden inhaled breath and stopping short on the exhale to repeat. It’s akin to hyperventilating and exacerbates any anxious feelings. When an exhaled breath is made as long as possible, it has an immediately calming effect. You can quickly calm an agitated mind and create thinking space for yourself.

So, if you are feeling depressed and low, how can you try and lose that feeling we all get. Anxiety management emphasises lengthening the exhale and depression management requires the reverse, with the focus turning to expanding and extending the inhaled breath. It’s worth mentioning that in situations where a person is anxiously depressed, it would be important to focus on this first. Restore energetic balance with an equalised (sama vritti) breath and then work on shifting the feelings of negativity.

Interesting research studies on yoga and managing depression

All physical movement produces endorphins that are well known to help improve our mood and control negativity. Yoga in particular has been shown in research studies to be effective in managing depression and specifically when there is a strong emphasis on breathing practices and mindfulness or meditation. It is the breathwork and meditation combined with movement that studies have shown is the most powerful combination. Here are two examples:

  • A study by Cramer, Lauche, Langhorst, and Dobos in 2013 concluded that yoga could be considered a supplementary treatment option for patients with depressive disorders and individuals with elevated levels of depression.

  • In 2020, Brinsley led a group of researchers looking at the effects of yoga on depressive symptoms in people with mental disorders including depression, posttraumatic stress, schizophrenia, anxiety, alcohol dependence, and bipolar disorder. Their conclusions were that yoga showed greater reductions in depressive symptoms than the control groups (where no yoga was offered) and a greater reduction in depressive symptoms when a person did multiple yoga sessions per week.

What yoga practices can help you shift feeling low?

Actively managing clinical depression through yoga is beyond the scope of this article. There are many research papers published on this topic and yoga therapy has been shown to be an effective intervention. Rather than delve into this, I’ll look at some really simple, easy and accessible practices that you can try at home (or anywhere) to shift a lethargic, ‘can’t be bothered today’, fed up kind of meh feeling.

Uplifting breathing with a Breath of Joy first thing in the morning. This involves a deep and long inhalation, broken into 3 parts with a rapid exhale. Bringing the arms overhead as you inhale for a count of 3 helps to expand the inhale and then you lower into Utkatasana (chair pose) for a single strong outbreath. You can repeat this 5 - 10 times and then hold the chair pose and count for 5.

I’ve included a video below showing how you could do this as part of a very quick morning practice. No need for a mat. I am intentionally in my kitchen, not 'dressed for yoga' and wearing my surgical sandal, to emphasise this point.

Breath of Joy practice

o Start standing in Tadasana (Mountain pose)

o Inhale one third swinging arms out to the side

o Inhale another third breath with arms raised upwards and forwards

o Finish the inhale with the arms in Urdvha Hastasana (Tall mountain)

o Strong exhalation as you sit back in Utkatasana with weight in heels

o Repeat and then hold the Chair pose. Feeling the weight in heels, arms lifted and spine straight, engage abdominals and maintain a steady breath.

Note there are other variations, with a forward fold on the exhale and it could also be done in a chair bringing the arms out and up and then exhaling with a seated fold, bringing the arms behind you.

Backbending is generally known to be energising and has the effect of shifting ‘tamas’ – negative energy in the body. Researchers studying yoga practices suggest that when the spine is arched, sympathetic nerve fibres are stimulated, and this could help to lift the person out of lethargy. Sphynx, cobra pose, baby camel pose or a simple standing back bend are all good choices and accessible for most people.

Kapalabhati breathing is a rhythmical pumping breath which targets the abdominal area and solar plexus region. The solar plexus is the area in the centre of the abdomen which is associated with having a clear sense of self, motivation and personal agency. Practices like kapalabhati that stimulate the abdominal region can help to create a sense of self-empowerment, which is helpful in cases where depressed feelings are associated with anger, especially towards oneself. Note that kapalabhati is a powerful breathing practice which has some contraindications, e.g. it is not advisable for people who have asthma and cardiovascular conditions or for pregnant women. The Breath of Joy example I’ve shared is suitable for everyone.

Yoga is a multidimensional practice that can help with all types of depressive, negative energy symptoms. If you are struggling with feeling low and think you might like to explore how yoga therapy can help, please get in touch for a confidential discussion. I can help you with home practices to help shift tamas and feel more energised and upbeat.

Alternatively, the energy of a group yoga class could also be beneficial, where you can enjoy both the physical practice and the sense of community (sangha) that comes with meeting other like-minded people.

I hope you find this overview useful and please try the video practice. Let me know your thoughts.

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