It's dark when you wake up. And when you drive home from work. Darkness. A common refrain this time of year is, "Can't I just stay in bed three more hours?"
If you're feeling down or moody since Daylight Savings time, you're not alone. You could possibly be showing signs and symptoms of SAD -- as in "seasonal affective disorder" --which hits many people in the Northeast at this time. We all experience the shifts in season differently. Yet some of us are physically and mentally affected more intensely, causing depression. If you're like most people with SAD, symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, making you feel moody and sometimes sapping energy.
If you are diagnosed with this form of depression, treatment may include light therapy (phototherapy), medications, and psychotherapy according to the Mayo Clinic. They also note that yoga and breath-work can be a powerful adjuvant to those treatments. Here's the science: People who experience depression tend to have persistent activation of the sympathetic nervous system or fight-or-flight response and elevation of the stress hormone cortisol. Yoga has been shown to lower cortisol levels, which may be a major factor in its ability to lift mood. We all know part of yoga's effectiveness comes from its proven ability to alleviate stress and tension.
At Bija Initiative, we have a passion for addressing depression -- a major issue in the workplace.
Here are five practices that you can try today - together or separately, either at home upon waking, or right at your desk!
1. Lift your arms overhead. From a simple standing (mountain) pose, inhale and reach your arms overhead with with "armpits open." Release them down slowly upon exhale, (using a forward fold if you'd like) then reach up once again. Do this as often as needed throughout the day! The famous yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar said, "If you keep your armpits open, you'll never get depressed." Okay, Iyengar may have been exaggerating, but these half sun salutes with a deepening of the breath send a message to the body to energize. Yoga teacher Patricia Walden describes how when suffering from "tamasic depression," marked by dullness and lethargy, the shoulders often slump, the chest collapses, and breath is shallow. As you raise your arms, open your armpits, and allow the belly to expand, you'll be surprised how the mood shifts.
2. Bergamot or Orange essential oil. Put either oil in the diffuser, at your pulse points, or right under your nose upon waking. In clinical trials, essential oils have proven to elevate mood. Because smells are carried directly to the brain, they serve as emotional triggers. This makes scents very powerful (especially when you can't get out of bed!) because they’re a direct pathway to memory and emotion. When using the purest essential oils from plants, Bergamot can create a feeling of joy, freshness, and energy by improving the circulation of your blood. Orange essential oil also has a strongly uplifting effect! Just think about the brightness and warmth of the fruit and the places it grows.
3. Breath of Joy. "Prana in the form of breath is our vital energy, our life force," says Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression. Pranayama means the "control of life breath." There are dozens of pranayama practices that can help with mood management. Today we'll share the Breath of Joy. First, it's important to have fresh air circulating in the room where you're practicing. Or better yet, go outside! Stand with the feet a comfortable distance apart and arms at your sides. Inhale one-third capacity through your nostrils and swing your arms up to shoulder level in front of you. Inhale to two-thirds capacity and stretch your arms out to the sides. Inhale to full capacity and swing arms up over your head. As you exhale through your mouth lean forward and bend your knees into chair pose (like sitting in a chair) and allow the arms to go down and slightly behind you. Try using the sound "Lum" on the exhale. Take at least three to five repetitions, maybe more if you have time.
4. Heart-opening supported backbend. Set up this restorative pose by crossing one bolster or blanket over one another, like a cross. Then, sit on the upper bolster and lie back so that the upper bolster runs along the length of your spine and the back of your head just touches the floor. Place your arms on the floor overhead with your elbows bent, sometimes called "cactus arms." This pose opens the chest and is stimulating to the nervous system. If you're not accustomed to this feeling, the heart might feel a bit vulnerable, so just do a few minutes to start. Eventually, you can work up to 10 minutes. Come out of the pose gently by bending the knees and curling up on your right side before rising.
5. Chanting and sounds. For people who are depressed, the vibration of sound can provide a soothing balm to body and mind. Amy Weintraub says there are a number of tones in the Yoga of sound that activate the various energy centers of the body, stimulate the brain, and "resonate with the innate vibrations of the universe." Director of the LifeForce Yoga Institute Rose Kress teaches the sounds “sha-ma-ya.” She says that in most cultures, if not all, the sound “shh” is used to soothe and the sound “ma” is used to denote a nurturing presence like mother, or mama. “Ya” is the sound for the heart and is also a sound for yes. When combined these sounds cultivate a sense of peacefulness that begins to resonate in the heart. If you're not comfortable with sound yet, start slow with a quiet humming sound.
As you begin to use these practices and we enter the hibernation of winter, continue to notice your posture and facial expression daily. Walden says, "If you're holding your abdomen tight, clenching your diaphragm, and your eyebrows are drawn toward each other, people respond differently to you than they would to a person who is standing up straight with an open chest, a pleasant look on the face..." She even thinks that shifting your expression and posture in this way can cause you to make different decisions!
There are dozens of practices from Yoga that can help you to lift or balance your mood, and it sometimes helps to have a team of friends cheering you on. If you are in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, Kelly teaches a LifeForce Yoga class Saturday mornings at Soulful Journeys Yoga and Massage Studio in Nazareth. Join us as you are... (even if you have to come in your pajamas!) and experience the joy that is your true nature emerging.