John Douillard has been teaching Ayurvedic medicine, natural health, fitness, and nutrition for 19 years and has trained more than 2,000 Western doctors in Ayurvedic medicine. In this article, he discusses depression and anxiety from an Ayurvedic perspective, with a focus on the koshas (which translates from Sanskrit as “sheaths”), described in the Vedic tradition as the layers of human consciousness that exist around the Self, like lampshades around a lightbulb.
In the beginning…
We spend the first two years of our lives communicating heart-to-heart with our parents and loved ones. No words are said; the communication is direct. We live in a heart-centered world, where we are safe, full, complete, and content. The heart is the home of the “bliss sheath” (anandamaya kosha), which lies closest to our core self.
Then, one day in preschool, we get our feelings hurt—someone takes our seat or makes fun of us on the playground, and we are crushed. We quickly realize that this is not a safe world and that we have to protect our feelings. So we begin to employ our minds, the manomaya kosha, to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, the mind does too good a job at protecting us and, over time, it creates a seemingly impenetrable barrier, doing everything it can to keep all invaders out of our delicate heart space, including ourselves. From an innocent and natural desire to create protection from hurt emerges an overlay of self-protection that cuts us off from who we truly are.
What Is Depression?
Simply put, depression occurs when a person loses access to the essential self as a result of this barrier. For a sensitive person, who by definition has more innate access to the heart and soul than most people, to lose this deep access is quite tragic. Fatigue is the first physiological response to a mind that has driven the body into exhaustion in the name of control and self-protection. Anxiety is a result of this exhaustion because the body and mind need energy and reserves to calm themselves down, stabilize moods, and initiate sleep. As the exhaustion persists, the body and mind ultimately become depressed or physiologically exhausted.
The good news is that healing the cause of anxiety and depression is not a painful process of endurance and strain; it is a joyful discovery of your true, abiding nature.
Who’s in Charge Here?
Once the mind has taken over, it works to ensure that we will never notice that we have lost access to the self. It diverts attention with powerful emotions like anger, shame, and jealousy. It seduces through the sensory worlds, drawing attention outward, away from the self, toward the worlds of money, achievement, fame, food, and sex. And when all else fails, it calls on fear to seal shut the doors to our innermost being.
The mind does a great job at maintaining this ironclad protective shield, building and adjusting a personality to serve as a cover. This personality becomes our show to the world, a projected illusion we create to protect the delicate feelings of the heart. Safely hidden within, we respond not to our own true nature but to the needs and whims of Mom and Dad, siblings, employers, and friends. Soon we spend most of our time disconnected from our own happiness and juggling responsibilities to make everyone else happy and okay with us. We become prisoners, sentenced to illusion and guarded by fear. We become actors playing in a bad movie, required to stay to the lines of the script.
As adults we do not need or want this kind of protection. We yearn to have access to our true self, to discover our passion and who we really are. This is the process of truly “coming to our senses.” Instead of being distracted by our senses, basing our happiness on the outcome of a World Series game or newly released movie, we want to feel—deeply. Then the senses can become avenues of consciousness that transport awareness from the mind to the heart, opening the gates of perception and letting out a glimpse of who we really are.
Taking the Director’s Seat
When your mind has the reigns, you will be more concerned with what people think of the movie of your life than with the actual content. When the mind passes the reigns of control back toward the heart, you become the director. When your heart has the reigns, the movie becomes about the power, truth, and beauty of your soul’s message, your purpose.
Seated in the director’s chair, when we see ourselves running the same patterns again and again, we can decide to create change. From this larger, more complete perspective, we see that we can have far more influence over what happens. We can more easily identify the cause of a particular character trait or a pattern of behavior, and we can address them with more precision and ease. We can even rewrite or delete entire scenes.
Oh Right, the Body
In addition to affecting us psychoemotionally, the patterns set up in the mind impact us spiritually as well as physically. Just outside the mental sheath is the energy sheath (pranamaya kosha), where prana, or life force, moves. If the mind has the reigns, the flow of the prana is affected. And when prana does not flow freely, the whole energy flow of the subtle body system comes to a halt. The 72,000 subtle energy channels (called nadis) don’t activate; in fact, they don’t exist if prana doesn’t flow. Without energy flowing through the nadis, the energy centers (chakras) don’t spin, and spiritual progress comes to a grinding halt.
The energy sheath is also the support system for the body sheath (annamaya kosha). In order for the body to function properly, prana must be flowing freely. Ayurvedically speaking, this free flow of prana allows the doshas (bodily humors) to balance, the seven dhatus (tissues) to develop, and the gross channels (srotas) of circulation, like blood and lymph, to move. It is here at the physical level that we see the connection between anxiety and depression and blood sugar, weight gain, hormonal imbalance, fibromyalgia, digestive issues, fatigue, and insomnia. In other words, the effects of the initial crackdown of the mind radiate outward, gradually shutting down all the systems that support life.
All Natural, Inside and Out
From an Ayurvedic perspective, we are at our core healthy, whole, and happy by nature. It is important, then, to engage in habits and practices that support the emergence of the essential nature and that bring balance to mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic medicine may prescribe yoga, breathing techniques, and lifestyle tools, in addition to using herbal remedies to address imbalance.
Our individual natures must also flow in harmony with nature and the natural cycles of life. Just as the leaves on the trees change color in the fall and birds migrate south for the winter, there are innate, organic calls to create and maintain balance.
Simple seasonal adjustments to our routines play a critical role in an Ayurvedic approach to treating anxiety and depression. Our nutritional habits, fitness routines, and sleep patterns are intimately linked to overall health. For example, at the beginning of fall, it is beneficial for everyone, and particularly for people suffering from depression, to follow nature’s lead. Make sure you have cleansed the accumulated heat of summer by eating more cooling and seasonal foods. As it gets colder, begin to include more fats and proteins in your diet, as this is the call of winter. As you begin to live in harmony with your environment, you will naturally become more self-aware, and the obstacles, fears, and imbalances keeping you a prisoner of anxiety and depression can become the focus of your attention and healing process.
The only roadblocks in the healing process are our fears. Our fears are the last illusion of control of the mind. But once you confront a fear, being willing to do the things you are most afraid of doing, you can move through its illusory barriers. Think about Batman. He was afraid of bats. In order for him to become a superhero, he had to face and embrace his fears; so he moved into a bat cave. We can each take on our fears. One at a time, tackling the small ones first, we can chip away until we find ourselves fearless and free.
Life begins to flow naturally, and instead of choosing to stay stuck or question our new direction, we are empowered by a complete interactive flow between the koshas—the body sheath, energy sheath, mental sheath, and bliss sheath. Through depression and anxiety, through our fears, we can find a pathway deep into the heart, where we encounter our most beautiful, healthy lives.