A simple definition of yoga will lead people to generalize it as a system of exercise and a kind of mindset that would result in the union of mind and body (Pappas 2). From the point of view of other observers, it is a series of actions that would harmonize mind, body, and breath. Regardless of how the world defines it, there is no disputing the fact that yoga is a global phenomenon (Gottfried 7). It must be made clear that the global success of yoga is partly due to the numerous celebrities that raved about its positive impact in their lives.
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However, it must be pointed out that sustained success would not have been possible if ordinary men and women simply studied yoga because Hollywood celebrities endorsed its positive effects. Aside from successful athletes and celebrities, ordinary people are talking about the curative power and tension-breaking benefits of yoga. In one testimonial, a very busy and often harassed healthcare professional was able to relax after she spent a few minutes behind closed doors and performed exercise that she learned in her yoga class.
After years of experience and after numerous studies researchers and yoga practitioners alike were compelled to conclude that yoga is not only an exercise program but also a type of lifestyle that can help end anxiety and depression in people’s lives (Cabot 20). A closer examination of yoga’s breathing, exercise, and meditation techniques will reveal that it is a proven method to harmonize body and mind. Yoga helps body and mind to achieve rest and therefore prevent anxious thoughts and depression.
Overview of Yoga
An overview of yoga will reveal that it is a systematic way of harnessing the power of ancient techniques known to the ancient world such as meditation, relaxation, breathing, and physical exercises (Kappmeier & Ambrosini 17). Thus, these ideas are nothing new and for many centuries, people in the East utilized these various techniques. But yoga was the first to incorporate everything into one unified system. It is important to note that the term yoga came from the Sanskrit language and it means to join or integrate. In the case of yoga, the term integration refers to the union of body and mind.
Yoga is seen as a type of exercise. Technically the series of movements or exercises are called yoga postures. Yoga practitioners are introduced to common yoga poses such as forward bends, lunges, back bends, and twists (Pappas 19).
Yoga poses form an important component of this amazing mind and body enhancement program. Nevertheless, the second most important component is breathing. Yoga practitioners made the claim that the key to healthy living is the ability to inhale and exhale properly. The various breathing exercises are based on the idea that when a baby is born the infant demonstrates the capability to breathe correctly. However, as the child matures into an adult, he or she loses this ability and therefore becomes vulnerable to different types of mental and emotional problems such as stress, depression, and other ailments (Miner 43). It is the end goal of yoga to help people rediscover the ability to breathe like a baby and restore life-giving power to the body.
Benefits of Yoga
The power of yoga to heal and rejuvenate can be seen through Patanjali’s 8 Limb System. This system is a framework that demonstrates yoga’s encompassing impact on the human body. From Yama, which deals with the ethical sphere, to Samadhi, which is the ultimate goal of every human being. The 8 Limb System also reveals an ancient truth that there must be a progression of consciousness from a sensitive understanding of the surroundings to enlightenment, which is a step-by-step development that leads to self. In the 8 Limb System, involvement in yoga deepens the moment the person reached the third level, which is the Asana or physical poses. In this level the practitioner demonstrates a degree commitment to know more about the yoga lifestyle.
However, the benefits of yoga are made more evident as the practitioner goes deeper into his immersion with the 8 Limb System. The moment he commits to the fourth level, a whole new world opens up for the seeker of enlightenment. Pranayama should be the starting point for those seeking help in the areas of depression and anxiety. It is in the Pranayama level where the yoga practitioner learns to relax. It is a compound word that comes from two Sanskrit terms: prana or life force and ayama, meaning to suspend (Gordon 68).
Anxiety can be eliminated as the yoga practitioner delves deeper to the sixth and seventh level, because at this point the mind is strengthened and not easily affected by external problems. However, the goal is level 8 or Samahdi. At this stage depression is eliminated because the body and mind already achieved harmony (Gordon 69). A strong mind that went through the 8 Limb System can basically control the body according to the enlightened teaching of the yoga expert (Gordon 70).
Overcoming Depression and Anxiety
Common Problems in a Fast-Paced World
Depression and anxiety are common problems in a fast-paced world that forces people to live beyond their current abilities (Bieling & Anthony 12). However, a clear understanding of yoga principles can lead many people to believe that each one has the ability to live a life characterized by emotional balance. According to one yoga practitioner, “Chronic stress, multitasking, the pressure to have it all, and a value system that emphasizes achievement over self-care make emotional imbalance, not balance, more common in modern human experience” (Forbes 1). For many yoga practitioners emotional balance is your birthright (Forbes 1). No one has seen a depressed toddler or a young child who appears apprehensive about the future. Thus, with the right knowledge and ample effort people can rediscover how to breathe properly.
The absence of any mechanism to counteract the impact of negative thoughts resulted in the manifestation of emotional imbalance in various forms such as low-self esteem, constant worrying, insomnia, and a general sense of malaise (Klein & Wender 15). If this mindset is allowed to persist it will breed a continuum of emotional imbalance. On one end of the spectrum is anxiety, made evident by incessant worrying and physical agitation (Bennet 23). While on the other end is depression, made evident by negative thinking, lack of engagement in life and physical lethargy (Bennett 23).
The following is a more technical definition of depression: “The common definition of depression includes a general sense of helplessness resulting from a self-perception of inadequacy whereby the person feels powerless to control his/her life” (McCullough, 19). Researchers were able to discover that all the information from the social environment gets processed in the brain and therefore depression is related to the mind (Caudill 17).
Experts in the field of psychology offer another insight into this mental health issue and pointed out that depression is imminent if the person exhibits five out of nine of the following symptoms: a) low mood; 2) loss of interest or pleasure in almost all of his or her usual activities; 3) increase or decrease in appetite or weight; 4) changes in sleep pattern (either insomnia or sleeping too much); 5) changes in the rate of physical activity (moving very slowly or becoming physically agitated and fidgety); 6) feeling tired; 7) feeling worthless or excessively guilty; 8) difficulty concentrating or making decisions; 9) recurrent thoughts of death or suicide (Bieling & Antony 2).
Yoga and Harmonizing Mind and Body
Western medicine tries to solve this problem through the use of synthetic chemicals, bombarding the circulatory system with toxic chemicals (Doran 10). However, the long-term effect is worse than the cure. Yoga on the other hand understands the union between mind and body. It is through this union and balance that the body can heal the mind. “Like musicians performing a duet, the mind and body can compose countless variations on the themes of anxiety and depression”, is a paradigm on how yoga’s power can be harnessed to heal a troubled mind (Forbes 15). Science can help unlock this mystery.
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One can develop a credible scientific basis for yoga after a careful analysis of the inner-workings of the autonomic nervous system or ANS (Datey 31). The ANS can be divided further into the sympathetic nervous system or SNS and the parasympathetic nervous system or the PSNS (Kappmeier & Ambrosini 50). The SNS is responsible for dealing with stressful situations. When a person is under stress there is an increase in heart rate and respiration. At the same time blood flow is redirected away from vital organs and into the skeletal muscles causing pupil dilation and overabundance of stress hormones (Kappmeier & Ambrosini 50). Without a mechanism to normalize the SNS, the presence of stress hormones racing throughout the body will cause irreversible damage in the long run.
The PSNS plays a critical role in bringing the body’s system back to normal after a stressful event (Kappmeier & Ambrosini 51). The PSNS shuts down the stress response of the SNS while at the same time nourishes and rebuilds the body (Kappmeier & Ambrosini 51). Yoga’s relaxation techniques through proper breathing and a healthy mindset can help the body rejuvenate.
In another example of how the body is affected by what the mind perceives as stressful can be seen in a condition called adrenal gland exhaustion. In this particular medical condition there is abnormal levels of DHEA and cortisol in the body (Cabot 35). As a result the person suffers from debilitating fatigue (Cabot 35).
Abnormal levels of thyroid can lead to a feeling of depression when a person wakes up in the morning. When this happens it is difficult to get up and work (Cohan 95). Abnormal levels of aldosterone in the body can lead to mood swings and the effect is felt at the end of the day (Cohan 95). Abnormal levels of melatonin can lead to anxiety attacks in the middle of the night (Cohan 95). It is therefore critical to harmonize the various levels of hormones in the body and this is impossible to accomplish through the help of medication alone.
An overview of depression and anxiety will reveal that part of the root cause of this malady is the inability of the body to get adequate rest and the toxic effect of negative thoughts. In order to deal with this problem it is important to remember yoga’s basic principle, that the mind and body is interconnected. In other words if the body is rested the mind is rested and if the mind is rested the body is rejuvenated. If people continue to harbor anxious thoughts, constantly worrying about a thousand different scenarios that may affect them in the near future, their mind and body is forced to work over time and experiences burnout. When the mind is tired, the body is also exhausted.
In the same manner if the body is tired, the mind is affected because no one can perform any kind of task without engaging the mind. Thus, yoga is one of the best ways to deal with the problems that plague the mind and body. The physical aspect of yoga strengthens the body so it is protected from injury and burnout. At the same time it helps regulate the different systems within the body. The mental aspect of yoga releases the mind from negative emotions. At the same time it hastens the rebuilding process of the body as it experiences prolonged periods of rest (Ripoche & Zangmo 10).
The end goal of yoga is to create balance within the body (Gottfried 69). For example, while the body releases estrogen, it also raises serotonin levels creating elevated mood and enhancing sex drive. It is important to release a counterpart to balance the effect of estrogen. The body therefore releases progesterone because it prevents hysteria and calms the mood. The progesterone hormone is able to accomplish this by raising levels of neurotransmitters called gamma-aminobutyric acid and dopamine (Cohan 93). These neurotransmitters reduce anxiety and induce sleep.
It is also interesting to point out that when performing yoga poses, the body is made flexible (Rinpoche & Zangmo 17). But there is more to it than attempting to become as flexible as a gymnast because it also affects the way people think (Rinpoche & Zangmo 17). There is a correlation to the mind because it also helps the mind to be more flexible in terms of having a worldview that is not afraid to embrace change. A flexible mind is not afraid of the unknown. This insight is related to what Eckhart Tolle espoused on his book “The Power of Now” when he said that he lives in the moment and he cherishes what he has in the moment (Tolle 12). He is never worried and he never allows his mind to dwell on what the future will bring (Tolle 13). Thus, he is free from the dreadful grip of anxiety and fear.
Yoga practitioners strive to create harmony, balance, and union between mind and body. They claim that the use of yoga exercises and breathing techniques enable them to overcome depression and anxiety. Modern science provides a scientific basis for this claim. It was discovered that anxiety and depression are largely the effect of a stressed out body and mind (Meriwether, Lobelo & Pate 7).
It was also discovered that anxiety and depression are twin ailments that are triggered by hormones within the body. A correlation was made when it was discovered that stress-related hormones are released during times of elevated stress and when the mind perceives danger. In normal situations the release of hormones is needed to inspire action but at the same time hormone levels must be normalized. In an ideal situation the body has the capability to normalize stress-related hormones. However, due to the inability to achieve prolonged periods of rest and relaxation the body has no time to rest and regenerate. As a result elevated hormone levels wreak havoc within the body.
Yoga addresses this problem by pointing out that the mind and body are one. Nevertheless, yoga practitioners must realize that a few breathing and stretching exercises cannot immediately turn things around. One must not expect a miracle overnight. A more practical approach is to look at yoga as a lifestyle. It requires a certain mindset. If a person is willing to learn these different principles, anxiety and depression will have no effect on his or her life.
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