Like many people I know, I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety at various points in my life. We’re not alone. The World Health Organization has stated that by the year 2030, depression and anxiety will be our number-one global disease burden, second only to AIDS. It’s a staggering statistic.
To cope, some turn to psychotherapy or medication; some use both. I’ve never tried medication, but am quite familiar with talk therapy. The process has provided me with a lot of insight, but an insufficient amount of change. I often think I’m largely to blame, but that might not be true.
“Most of us have a well-developed capacity for mental insight,” says psychologist and integrative yoga therapist Bo Forbes. “But mental understanding alone doesn’t typically create change—sometimes it even interferes with it. For change to occur, we need new, embodied experiences that differ from our default ones.”
Bo says depression and anxiety don’t just exist in the mind: “We can think of them as patterns that exist in each part of our mind-body network, which includes the autonomic nervous system, enteric nervous system, immune system, pain pathways, connective tissue matrix, and emotional regions of the brain,” she says.
And balancing the nervous system is always the first step on the road to emotional balance, she notes.
That’s where yoga comes in. It can be a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety because it has the capacity to address all the elements of the mind-body network, rewiring the emotional brain and balancing the nervous system.
The style of yoga we choose or the particular postures we practice matter less than how we practice, according to Bo. Apparently, emerging research in affective (emotional) neuroscience shows that three tools have demonstrated high levels of efficacy in alleviating anxiety and depression: mindfulness, self-compassion, and interoception (a type of body awareness that attends to the fluctuations of momentary bodily sensations).
“Breath-centered movement is extremely helpful for taking mindfulness into the body, and slowing down the practice—in particular the transitions between the poses—increases mindfulness and interoception,” Bo says.
Then there’s the question of how often one needs to practice in order to experience noticeable results. “Science tells us that a 60- to 90-minute class several times a week doesn’t influence change as much as we might think,” Bo says. Incorporating more tools from yoga and mindfulness off the mat, at regular intervals throughout the day, may be more beneficial in rewiring our minds, brains, and bodies in subtle yet profound ways.
Bo suggests “emergency yoga” (interventions that can be practiced during moments of high stress); easy, quick “maintenance” practices that can be done at various intervals throughout the day; and longer sequences of postures linked by breath and interoception.
“I truly believe we are what we practice,” she says. “We want to use these tools even when we’re feeling great, so we have a set of well-developed and effective interventions for when things get tough.”