Yoga For Anxiety, Depression & Dementia

Following a fascinating conversation at the end of one of our 10 AM meditation meetings I wanted to put down some of my thoughts about the impact of yoga and meditation for mental health.

To give the subject its due seriousness, I feel a few broad statements are important. Firstly, I am not an authority on the subject of mental health, or the disease of Dementia. I do not have a background in health care. I am a yoga teacher and someone who has experienced depression and found yoga to be of immense benefit. The thoughts presented here are intended as a starting point to a discussion, and an introduction to the role that the ancient practices of yoga have to play in modernity. I shall outline what I believe to be the correct attitude one should bring to yoga if they have questions related to this title.

Secondly, the title of this post is misleading. There is no such thing as ‘yoga for… (insert anything you don’t like and want to change).’ The practice of yoga is thousands of years old and when it was being codified, anxiety, depression, dementia which are clinical terms did not exist. The ‘benefits’ of yoga are thought of by advanced yogi’s as happy side effects and not really the purpose of yoga.

Yoga requires persistence and work. If we show up to a yoga class expecting someone else to give us our results our unrealistic expectations will prove fruitless.

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Contrary to attention grabbing headlines yoga is not the panacea for modern living. The example below outlines some of the crass applications of yoga which may put off people with genuine needs.

BS content like the above doesn’t help the conversation

Thirdly, a professional in the 3 named conditions would be right were they to say that each deserves to be addressed independently, that the phrase ‘mental health’ is so broad that it could almost include anything.

For the purposes of this discussion, many people report that yoga and meditation has helped them with their mental health. So it is important to look into this. Right away, I am drawn into presenting 2 hypotheses for the beneficial side effects of yoga. The first is a physiological and psychological impact. The second is a spiritual and cosmological impact. This would be a worthwhile study but one that I do not have the expertise or the time to conduct with sufficient depth.

Therefore, I shall address each individually providing some commentary on how I think yoga and meditation relate to the particular condition.

Is Yoga Good For Depression?

According to Victor Frankl, without meaning an individual will eventually slip into apathy, boredom, lack of initiative. To Frankl, these frustrations are proof of the existence of the “will to meaning”, to him the inner void experienced in a depression is a necessary challenge we all must face at some point in our lives. For the purpose that we may emerge complete with the knowledge required to engage in our next phase of evolution.

The study and practices of yoga are laid out in a systematic manner. The Yogin gathers knowledge with practices that interweave, over lay and cross inform one another. The intention is for the aspirant to learn self-awareness; and through service (to others) come to discover how best they can serve the community they are a part of. In short, discover what you love, and then learn how to use that to benefit those around you.

That’s not a definition that you’ll find in any Yoga text. It is what Victor Frankl points at when he talks about the “will to [find] meaning” which is the purpose of Logotherapy. Frankl asserts that more than pleasure, Human beings have “the impulse to discover in each life situation the meaning of that situation and go on to fulfil it.”

But what has this to do with that bendy, stretchy thing yoga?

Yoga is a body work that many think of as interchangeable with Pilates. So how does making shapes make anyone feel better? It doesn’t and exercise isn’t as fun as Gin. Yoga is not an exercise. Making shapes is no more likely to make you feel better than crossing the street. Postural yoga, asana; is a means by which the practitioner is able to do something and experience themselves in relation to the habitual patterns of their mind.

Everything that comes up in the practice is data. Think of it as a case history that a doctor would require without which treatment could not be planned. By paying attention to the reactive patterns of the mind we learn about ourselves.

Even if it’s the obvious stuff such as, “I’m not flexible”. Over weeks, months or years one may come to realise that this physical inflexibility manifests itself in ones mental processes.

Or perhaps it could simply be – I sit a lot – I have shortened hamstrings that are not flexible. The reaction of “this is bullshit” is the important bit. The truth is, a tight hamstring is not this or that, it is simply the current experience. A more helpful response might be to feel the tightness and to watch the reaction play out internally, realising that the reaction will eventually fade and doing the correct asana will eventually bring about some change.

In my experience, when we can watch the reactions within us, eventually we come to a point where our level of investment into that reaction can be decided upon. Things eventually change, becoming present is sufficient for the reaction to pass without us loosing the ‘in awareness’ or ‘centred’ feeling.

Over the course of our lives we will notice that some things have a deep impact on us, some things affect us for a while and that some things fade almost immediately. Navigating our hyper sensitivity with the help of yogic practices teaches us to maintain perspective.

Yoga is good for depression because, when we practice yoga there is no deeper meaning than the practice itself. Once we shift internally and become present, then it is possible to bend, to yield and be kind enough in our self talk to let the harmful stuff slip off us whenever it is ready to. Asana challenges our attachment to boredom, or apathy especially if it is a challenge that is just about but not quite in reach. It is difficult to be apathetic when balancing on one leg because self preservation always trumps laziness.

What About Yoga For Anxiety

Modern living demands our constant attention. From ping notifications on phones, light pollution, insufficient sleep, pressures of work, pressures to provide for our families, to live up to our own expectations. It is fair to say that at times; life can be a bit like the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ when things get FUBAR it might seem a good idea to bury our head in the beach.

So much of the anxiety that we are all in the grips of is a result of our nervous systems being calibrated to hyper-arousal. The modern world saturates us with messages of threat that are not actually about our primitive survival needs (food, shelter, protection from predation) but are about success, deadlines, financial security, body image, and achieving standards perpetuated by ‘influencers’ on social media. We are flooded with cortisol and Adrenalin that our bodies don’t actually need, because there is nothing to fight/flight from.

Dr. France | Charted Clinical Psychologist at Beacon House

In the book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ Psychologist M. Scott Peck summarises the learnings of his 40 year career. To him anxiety is a symptom produced by the mind when we are unable or unwilling to engage with a deep rooted issue. I’m summarising but essentially, the mind is a tool that wants us to deal with our problems and it will make us feel uncomfortable until we do.

What does yoga say about this? I am reminded of the Buddha’s 5 impediments to self mastery. They are…

  1. Over commitment to sensual desire: Too much of anything will kill you
  2. Ill will: Rejection of what is. Not accepting the things we cannot change
  3. Heaviness / Dullness: The only way out is to get moving, to rouse ourselves
  4. Restlessness: The monkey mind is not disciplined enough to be settled in the present moment. Engaged in past or future
  5. Indecisiveness / Too much doubt: Loosing sight of our goals because of too much scepticism

Yoga is a means by which to structure your life in such a way that these impediments do not arise.

The meditative practices of yoga are oriented toward self observation. A daily meditation practice sharpens our skills for mindfulness techniques like R-A-I-N.

The Yamas and Niyamas are a central aspect to the correct application of yogic principals to modern living.

Each of the Yamas & Niyamas merits its own study. They are listed here as a means to display the systematic nature of enquiry of yoga.

Yamas

1 : Ahimsa — don’t harm

2 : Satya — be truthful

3 : Asteya — don’t steal

4 : Brahmacharya — be in control of your senses

5 : Aparigraha — don’t be greedy

Niyamas

1 : Saucha — clean your body, mind and environment

2 : Santosha — develop inner peace

3 : Tapasya — practise self-discipline

4 : Swadhyaya — study yourself

5 : Ishvara Pranidhana — surrender

A strong moral code is needed to give us boundaries to keep us out of harms way. Living in accordance with ones own values, whatever they may be; requires a reflective ability that is self regulating and self correcting.

Yogic breathing exercises are a practical means by which one can maintain homeostasis. Meditation and asana’s that directly impact the central nervous system and major organs via the Vagus Nerve are proven to positively influence stress resilience.

Yoga With Sunil

Can Meditation Help Dementia?

There is a growing body of research that is giving reasons for optimism.

According to my understanding of yogic literature, the mind is a tool by which our material self is able to engage with the world at large. It is a tool by which knowledge is gained – not to be mistaken for knowledge itself. Yoga philosophy doesn’t think very highly of the material world, the mind, and thoughts are considered to be material. According to yoga philosophy the mind is no more important than say… your sense of smell. The are both a means by which ‘reality’ is interpreted and not reality itself.

Someone asked me if the experience of the cessation of thoughts was akin to Dementia. I have no reason to think this is the case. The cessation of thought opens the door way to a deep feeling of peace out of which emerges joy. This is a realm beyond the mind.

It is closer to being, to self, to atman. Each atman is a fractal of brahman (That which contains all existence). In yoga everything is atman, contained in Brahman. As energy cannot be destroyed, it can only transform; death is not possible.

The fear aspect that may awaken at the cessation of thought is likened to a mini death of the mind. Being that the mind is only a tool and not the true self, it is likened to an illusion, the death of an illusion is the gateway to truth. Once this truth becomes an experiential reality then one is considered to be awakened. Buddha means awakened one.

Postural Yoga & Dementia

Yoga invites you to be present in your body, and it strikes me that the neurofeedback loop must be important for people with dementia. For example, in vascular dementia, people often lose depth perception – they can’t tell how deep a step is, or how far they have to bend over to reach a table. It’s why people with dementia fall so often.

I have no evidence for this, but I’m just thinking that the sense that yoga gives you of where your body is in space must strengthen those neural pathways.

Final Thoughts…

In rounding this discussion off I feel I should add that I think Yoga and meditation are immensely beneficial in creating a healthy relationship with our inner self. Think of yoga and meditation as brushing your teeth or taking a shower. Engineering physical and mental hygiene into our routine is as vital as eating or sleeping. If we neglect ourselves then sooner or later our body / mind, will start to give signs of impending danger – what clinicians might term symptoms.

Through experimentation, testing and self study yoga can help anxiety or depression by making the practitioner aware of the patterns of discontent and take corrective action. I would urge anyone with serious questions relating to the subject of this post to look for answers not in asana, but also in pranayama and the philosophical branches of yoga.

The way of the yogi is to start paying attention the the subtlest of changes within, always striving for sattva.

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