13 June 2019

Yoga & Mental Health with Amy Weintraub



Amy Weintraub is a pioneer in the field of yoga and mental health. After her own recovery from chronic depression, she gained international recognition for her research on yoga as a tool for alleviating mental illness. While this might be a more commonplace idea in 2019, at the time Amy started writing, it was groundbreaking.

“At that point in time, other than general well-being, [the idea] that yoga would be an adjunct or even a first line treatment for depression, anxiety, or PTSD, [was nonexistent]. It was because of my own passion and my own recovery that I believed it really could be an effective tool.”

Amy endured years of nearly debilitating depression, muddling through with the help of therapy and medication. It was only when she began a daily yoga practice in 1989 that she was able to wean off medication, under her doctor's supervision. Her recovery inspired her to share this life-changing discovery and practice with other sufferers, and so she began collaborating with research scientists to explore the possibilities of yoga and healing.

I’ve been fascinated with yoga’s transformative potential ever since I started practicing and feeling the benefits first-hand. I discovered Amy's work through reading William Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga. Wanting to know more, I got in touch with her to organise an interview which she kindly accepted.

EVIDENCE-BASED TECHNIQUES

Amy’s first book, Yoga for Depression, was published in 2003. The book equips readers with practical exercises to help tackle a range of conditions from depression to PTSD. These exercises are designed to open up channels in the body, allowing more energy, breath and vibration to move in and out, encouraging the release of tension and trauma. This sets the foundation for regeneration and healing - the same process that helped Amy wean off medication and eventually recover from depression. The book also recounts her journey in detail.

Recalling some of Amy's extensive research, Yoga for Depression delves into the science behind the practice – for instance, what neural pathways might be stimulated by a particular posture in conjunction with the breath. Such is the nature of all of Amy’s writing. Unlike a lot of the language you hear in the context of yoga today – vague, speculative, and sometimes totally inaccurate – Amy’s research is led by science; her statements are clear and corroborated. With this in mind, I asked her to outline some of the physiological ways yoga alleviates depression:

“Because of yoga’s emphasis on the breath, it deepens lung capacity, which, research shows, stimulates vagal nerve activity. This affects all body functions, but particularly activates the left side of the brain, the parasympathetic nervous system, the cooling, calming.  

Breathing practices expand the lungs. People who are depressed often are very shallow breathers, they’re not breathing enough. [Breathing also] elevates oxytocin and prolactin levels (there is some evidence of serotonin as well), which are the ‘feel good’ hormones. It also decreases cortozol, the stress fight/flight hormone. 

There’s evidence of heart rate variability increase with yoga, [meaning] the ability for the nervous system to adjust itself appropriately – so you’re neither stuck in the parasympathetic ‘couch potato’ [mode], nor stuck in the sympathetic [mode], where you’re hyper aroused, hyper active, anxious, etc. [In yoga], you are, in a very gentle way, moving between appropriate responsiveness and activity, and rest.”

SELF-EMPOWERMENT

On a more psychological level, yoga is effective because it empowers the sufferer to soothe themselves. Yoga can be practiced anywhere, at any time. Unlike medication – which must be prescribed, available, purchased, and swallowed along with its questionable side effects – yoga is something we can carry with us and ‘self-administer’ whenever we need to.

“What research shows is that when we are depressed, we have a sense of lack of control in our lives, and that when people who are depressed – whether they are doing yoga or not – feel they have more control in their lives – what is called self-efficacy – they recover from depression more quickly.  

So when people learn yoga, and yogic tools - and we’re not just talking about asana (postures), we’re taking about pranayama (breathing), mudras (hand gestures), mantras (phrases), meditation practices that give the mind a balm - they are empowered to manage their mood. So they are not just dependent on taking a pill. Just having these tools can make them feel better.”

Rather than reaching outside ourselves for relief, yoga asks us to look inward and listen deeply, to acknowledge our needs. The depressed person is not a lifeless pillar with an unchanging mood. What works one day might not work the next. Equally, most mentally ‘healthy’ people I know experience mood swings and bouts of anxiety, paranoia or even depression. Yoga makes for an invaluable tool: it’s as flexible as a person is changeable.

“The problem with someone who has really deep major depression is that they may have the tools but they don’t have the energy or motivation to get on the yoga mat. That’s where yoga can be very effective, because there are certain practices that you can do starting in bed. Meeting the mood. If someone can hardly get out of bed in the morning, [they can] meet that mood with certain practices where they can start in bed, and begin to build a little energy, get a little more Prana, (life force) moving through the system. It’s not like they have to jump up and do 108 sun salutations, they can be meeting the mood in a slow progress towards it.”

A HOLISTIC APPROACH

In 2004, Amy founded the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute to share her research and teachings. The website provides resources for people with mental illness – including free mood management practices, noteworthy research and recent studies on yoga and mental health. The Institute also runs practitioner trainings for mental health professionals and yoga teachers, equipping them with tools they can bring into clinical settings and yoga classes.

LifeForce Yoga is a culmination of Amy’s experience and research, her “special brand” of yoga. The idea is to maximize yoga’s therapeutic benefits and transformative possibilities by incorporating various techniques, including breathing (pranayama), meditation, affirmation, chanting, and asana (postures). I asked Amy where she thinks LifeForce Yoga (and yoga more generally) stands in relation to more conventional treatment like medication.

“I think for the most part it’s an adjunct therapy, not a first-line treatment. I would never advocate that someone suddenly stop taking medication and do yoga instead.  

However, many yoga practitioners have found that when they practice regularly – and we’re not talking about once a week or even three times a week, but daily – that they have a reduced need for medication, and therefore can work with their psychiatrist to reduce or actually trail off medication. As long as they’re doing it slowly and with supervision of the prescribed psychiatrist, then I think many people are able to come off medication.  

To broaden the answer to your question, there are [many] more hospitals, cancer treatment centres, and trauma centres in particular, offering yoga. In fact, one of the most senior psychiatrists, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk – who actually put PTSD on the map – will not treat someone who is traumatised, or has any kind of history of trauma, unless they are practicing yoga. That is how important he feels yoga is to recovery from trauma. He believes that the body constricts with the trauma, and so you need to release it from the body. And that if you only do talk therapy, you run the risk of re-trapping.”

Whether it cures someone’s mental illness or not, what many will agree is that yoga, at the very least, makes people more resilient to the ups and downs, mood swings, and unexpected events that life inevitably brings.

“[When we practice yoga], we begin to get a sense that a lot is going on in our mind – the mind chatter – and [that] we are so much more than that. We are so much more than the mood. Because yoga takes us to a place where we feel more connected to the universe, the divine, to each other, we’re in this more spacious place, so something can come up that’s anxiety-producing, some worry or something, and we’ve built up some resilience, so we’re less apt to freak out or react. 

If trauma/PTSD goes untreated, it gets worse, not better. It’s so treatable, but if you don’t treat it, it gets worse. Because the amygdala gets bigger, it’s hyper aroused, it’ll respond to triggers that are mild, as though they are life threatening. 

[Yoga] gives us that more spacious place. So we are not as easily triggered by what life brings – and life is always going to bring those issues – abandonment issues, betrayal, losing what’s important, major changes in our lives. These things will always happen. [Through yoga], we’re less reactive to them.”

FURTHER READING

Yoga, The Natural Prozac
The Science of Yoga – The Risks & Rewards, William J. Broad
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