Need to lighten your load? Discover how yoga can lift your spirits
You may have noticed that when you’re happy or in a good mood it’s accompanied by a sense of lightness and expansion, and when you’re feeling sad or depressed there’s a sense of heaviness or contraction. Sometimes, we feel down for no apparent reason. What causes a heavy mood and how can you boost your mood when you’re feeling down?
Many studies have shown that the practice of yoga — including breathing techniques, postures, meditation and chanting — have beneficial effects on the emotional wellbeing and mental acuity of depression sufferers; it also enhances the mood and overall sense of wellbeing in people without depression. The great news is that yogic practices offer some of the same benefits as antidepressants but without any of the side-effects.
A joint study conducted by Philadelphia-based Jefferson Medical College and Yoga Research Society found that yoga practitioners experienced a significant drop in cortisol levels after a single yoga class. High cortisol levels are a characteristic of stress and serious depression.
Meditation teacher Sangeeta Jani says, “Depression or feelings of sadness happen when the prana (life force) in our system is low. Just as there are particular rhythms in nature — day follows night, spring follows winter etc — our nervous system also has a particular rhythm. When we accumulate stress, the nervous system is thrown off balance and the level of prana is reduced. Also, the mind has positive and negative tendencies. When prana is low, the mind expresses negative tendencies.”
The four sources of energy
You can enhance your mood by gaining a deeper understanding of prana and how it can be increased. The four main ways in which you can increase your prana are through:
- The food you eat
- Getting enough sleep
- Being aware of your state of mind
- Focusing on your breath
Food: Foods high in prana include fresh vegetables (especially the green leafy ones), nuts, pulses and fresh fruit. Increasing these in your diet raises your prana. Being aware of foods that reduce your prana and eating less of those will also make a difference. Foods low in prana include tinned foods, microwaved foods, meat (including fish), frozen foods and food cooked more than three hours beforehand. Achieving balance is not just about eliminating from your diet foods that are low in prana but, if you’re eating these, making sure you include high-prana foods as well.
Sleep: If you’re not getting enough sleep, your prana will definitely be reduced and your mood will be adversely affected. If you’re sleeping too much, your prana will also not be at its optimum and you’re likely to feel dull and unenthusiastic. Through trial and error, find out for yourself what amount of sleep works for you.
State of mind: A person who meditates and takes care of their mind will automatically have more prana. Meditation eliminates negative impressions from the mind, inducing a mind state that leans towards the positive. When you’re in a positive frame of mind, your prana is naturally high. Similarly, when you get stuck in complaints or spend a lot of time listening to someone else complaining, it reduces your pranic level and adversely affects your mood. Alternatively, being praised, praising others or listening to something inspiring and uplifting enhances your level of prana and your mood.
Breath: Most of us are utilising no more than 30 per cent of our breathing capacity and yet breath is the main source of energy, or prana. Also, the breath is full of signs as to what kind of mood you’re in. For example, when you’re feeling unhappy, your exhalation will be longer than your inhalation and when you’re in a great mood your inhalation will be much longer and lighter. When you start breathing more deeply and more fully, as is taught through yogic breathing techniques, the energy available to you is enormous and the effect on your mind is tangible. Your breath is a very powerful instrument that can be used to cleanse the mind of negative tendencies and enhance a positive mood.
The sudarshan kriya
In her book Yoga for Depression, Amy Weintraub advocates the sudarshan kriya (SKY) as a scientifically proven method of alleviating depression. “It’s an incredible result for a sequence of breathing patterns,” she says. “Because breathing is closely linked to the emotions, focusing on the breath can alter your emotional state.” However, the benefits are not just for those with depression. SKY can help healthy people feel relaxed, focused and invigorated and enhance an overall sense of wellness.
When we’re feeling down, we tend to be drawn towards activities that increase dullness or restlessness, such as eating junk food, which is low in prana, oversleeping or watching endless hours of television, which in turn brings a heaviness to our mood. When we honour ourselves, we create opportunities to be loving towards ourselves and these choices enhance our mood. Such choices could include listening to inspiring music, eating food that enhances prana, spending time in nature and practising yoga and/or meditation. Partaking in such activities increases purity in the system, enhances mood and increases a sense of inner lightness, joy, enthusiasm and zest for life. Know that each time you step onto your yoga mat, you are doing something not only for your body but for your mind and your emotional wellbeing.
Yoga asanas to boost your mood
When your mood is low, your mind is often dull and heavy and bombarded by negative thoughts. When you practise yoga, your mind becomes calm, clear and focused. A good yoga session can be measured by how much stillness has been brought to your mind by the time you step off your mat. Pranayamas (breathing techniques) are a way of honouring the mind, while asanas (yoga poses) honour the body.
Before you begin your yoga practice:
Find an appropriate space: Yoga is best practised in a room with fresh air and cross ventilation.
Have an empty stomach: Practise yoga two-and-a-half hours after a light meal and four hours after a heavy meal so you have time to digest your food.
Practise regularly: For the best results, do some yoga poses every day, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. A regular dose of yoga goes a long way and doing a short practice daily is much better than doing a long session once a week.
During your yoga practice:
Let go emotionally: When you experience unpleasant situations, the effect of them is stored in your muscles and joints as tension and so sometimes you may feel tearful or angry when you’re in a pose. Without needing to know why, this is your time to really be with the emotion and let go.
Be the silent observer: While you’re practising, keep taking your awareness to what’s happening physically, mentally and emotionally. As you observe your breath, the sensations in your body and the thoughts that pass through your mind, you come to realise the changing, impermanent nature of your thoughts and feelings. As thoughts arise, don’t resist them; just let them come.
Let go of aches and pains: When you’re in a pose, it’s easier to get in touch with what’s going on in your body. If you notice any physical tightness in your body, keep your awareness there during the pose and breathe deeper and slower. This will give the body a chance to let go of the aches, stiffness or discomfort.
Stay steady: Remain steady and comfortable in the pose. If your breath feels constricted, know that you are straining your body and back off slightly until you’re more comfortable.
Be joyful: Don’t take it too seriously. Doing yoga in a spirit of joyfulness will deepen your experience and the benefits of your practice.
Rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing
Most of us breathe shallowly, hardly utilising our diaphragms when we breathe. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is simple and effective and can be practised before yoga poses. Lie comfortably on your back with your head supported on a folded towel or small cushion. With closed eyes, place your hands on your abdomen, palms facing down. Begin by taking a few normal breaths in and out through the nostrils, simply becoming aware of your breath. Gradually increase the length of the inhalation and exhalation. Now take your awareness to your belly and, as you inhale, focus on expanding it like a balloon; with each exhalation, relax your belly. Complete 10 breaths and then allow your breath to return to normal and rest with eyes closed.
Ha ha breath
The spine houses the central nervous system, so maintaining flexibility in your spine is important for the health and vitality of all the systems of your body. This standing, twisting movement, combined with sound, empties the lungs of any stale air, allowing space for fresh air to enter and prana to increase. It’s also great for releasing emotional tension (typically stored in the abdominal region) and lifting your mood.
Stand with your feet wider than hip distance apart and begin to swing your body, twisting first to the right (breathing in) and then to the left (loudly making the sound of “ha!” as you look over your left shoulder). Let your arms swing loosely and freely. Complete 10 rounds on each side.
Breath of joy
You may have noticed that when your mood is low, it’s reflected in your body: your shoulders may slouch more, your chin sinks down and your spine slumps forward. For this reason, backward-bending yoga poses are great for enhancing mood, opening up the respiratory system and enabling you to breathe in life.
Stand with your feet a little wider than hip distance apart. Take a deep breath in as you take your arms to the side and back, lifting your chin and bringing your hips forward. As you bend forward slightly, give yourself a big hug and exhale. Complete five to 10 rounds of this.
Mountain pose: tadasana
Tadasana is an energising pose that helps alleviate energy blockages between the lower back and head and distributes prana throughout the body. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms relaxed by your sides, distributing your bodyweight evenly on both feet. Take a long, slow, deep breath in as you raise your arms above your head. With straight arms, bring your hands together in prayer position.
To help your balance, fix your eyes on a point straight ahead. Keep breathing slowly and deeply. After a few breaths, take a deep breath in, raising your heels slightly off the ground, and stretch upwards. Now look up towards your hands. Hold for as long as is comfortable and then exhale slowly as you bring your head back to a neutral position. Lower your heels and bring your arms down. This is one round. Complete five rounds.
Downward-facing dog: adho mukha svanasana
Mood is enhanced during and after inverted postures. This pose stimulates the front of the head and helps enhance your mood.
Lie on the floor in child’s pose, arms stretched in front of you, palms facing down. Breathe in as you come up onto your hands and knees. Turn your toes under and then exhale and slowly straighten your legs, gently pressing your heels towards the ground. Hold the pose for up to one minute, breathing slowly and deeply. To move out, breathe in and then, as you exhale, lower yourself gently to the ground. Repeat five rounds between short rests.
Other mood-enhancing, prana-rich activities
You can also increase your prana and enhance your mood by:
- Taking cold showers or going for ocean swims
- Singing with wild abandon — frequently and joyously
- Exercising for at least half an hour a day
- Doing seva (selfless service): the quickest way to get depressed is to sit and think, “What about me, what about me…” When you reach out and see what you can do for others, it increases your prana and shifts your state of mind.
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