Practise Ashtanga, Beat Depression

“Within six months of steady ashtanga practice at KPJAYI, I could feel my condition improve. Eventually, I could go off medicines completely and I haven’t felt the need to go back to a therapist,” says Authorised Ashtanga Teacher, Arathi Menon.

Before Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone spoke out about her battle with depression and made clinical depression mainstream, some of us navigated the unpleasant landscape of mental illness replete with judgment, stigma and lack of support with little information to draw guidance from. After another popular Bollywood star, Sushant Singh Rajput, who was allegedly battling clinical depression, took his life, social media timelines were abuzz with news and counsel on the illness. This information overdrive can be overwhelming, exhausting even. But exhaust we must, not just our timelines but our days, thoughts and conversations with information on mental health so that the next time somebody tells you that they’re suffering from clinical depression, you will react with the same impassioned urgency to call for medical help as you would if they told you that they had typhoid.

Mainstreaming depression will also help more medical students understand the potential of psychiatry as a career and choose to study it so that treatment becomes more accessible and affordable. A survey in 2017 suggests that 197.3 million people had mental disorders in India, including 45.7 million with depressive disorders and 44.9 million with anxiety disorders. An article published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry suggests India has 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 population, while the desirable number is anything above three psychiatrists per 100,000.

Awareness is key. Depression is often seen as a rich person’s affliction. Well, only people with no real misery can afford to feel miserable about nothing, isn’t it? But this isn’t true. Depression is all-pervasive. It affects the rural community as well. A study from rural Uttar Pradesh showed an overall prevalence of 11.9 percent in the population. The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse for people across economic strata.

“Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. From mild to severe, the spectrum is wide. Talking could help one feel better momentarily, but it’s wiser to leave treatment protocols to an expert because depression is an illness.”

People diagnosed with depression are often told that they’re too sensitive or are overthinking or they should stop thinking about whatever is worrying them. There is a misconception that the patient is emotionally weak and simply lacks the willpower to snap out of it. Could just talking to family and friends help? No. Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. From mild to severe, the spectrum is wide. Talking could help one feel better momentarily, but it’s wiser to leave treatment protocols to an expert because depression is an illness, not just another low phase in life.

Don’t shy away from seeking help

At a particularly difficult phase in my life, I too was diagnosed with clinical depression. I won’t get into details because honestly, I don’t remember much as I didn’t quite live those days, I merely existed. The heavy feeling that I lugged around in my chest during the initial days (or was it months?) slowly faded into a deep feeling of hollowness. Those days, I did things simply because I had to. At first, I thought this feeling was a result of a certain life event that sent me into a downward spiral, but when these feelings of hopelessness and sadness manifested into physical symptoms like insomnia and memory loss (rather strange episodes for a 34-year-old), a psychologist I sought help from suggested that I consult a psychiatrist instead. It’s important to know the difference between the two. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are not medical professionals and are not authorised to prescribe medicines.

My psychiatrist was a genial, elderly man, who fortunately for me, was as well versed with yoga as he was with the human mind. To treat my condition, he prescribed Prothiaden in various dosage and asked me to continue my practice of yoga. He told me there was an increasing consensus among psychiatrists that yoga and pranayama are the best tools for the long-term management of clinical depression. I tried everything from power yoga to Kundalini yoga, but nothing held my attention as steadily as ashtanga.

Ashtanga yoga is an ancient method of yoga where body movements (asanas) are synchronised with breath (vinyasa). There is an emphasis on drishti (gaze), on a specific point of focus prescribed for each asana. All of these combine to make ashtanga a unique practice — a moving meditation.  Within a few months of a steady ashtanga yoga practice, I could feel things shift. I moved to Mysore, the source of ashtanga yoga with a desire to learn under Guruji Sharath Jois, the lineage-holder of this great tradition. By the time I moved to Mysore, I was under medication for about three years. Within six months of practising with Sharathji, I could feel my condition improve. Eventually, I could go off medicines completely. I’ve been practising for a couple of years now without medicines and I haven’t felt the need to go back to a therapist.

I would be lying if I say I have been cured completely. At times, I sense the dark clouds of depression descend on me but the practice has made me mindful and more aware of the triggers and patterns that could take me down that path. Recognising patterns that trigger an episode helps one steer off that dangerous course. This is achieved only through awareness, which I have been able to build through my practice.

Be your own knight in shining armour

The ashtanga yoga practice has an independent quality to it. A typical class is done in a group setting with each practitioner exploring their own mental and physical capabilities, at their pace. It is when you meet yourself at the weakest moment that you learn to accept your shortcomings. Accepting your flaws will make you more compassionate towards yourself. Through developing compassion (to oneself), one can make constructive changes in one’s thoughts and actions. The practice also exposes your strengths, and that helps you to move from the place of a victim and take charge of things. This individual exploration of oneself is empowering, and healing happens in the process.

Arathi 5

As an ashtanga yoga teacher with an interest in mental health, I often ask myself, “what’s my role as a teacher when it comes to helping someone with mental health issues?” A yoga teacher is expected to be a doctor, psychologist, philosopher, physiotherapist, etc. If I had expected Sharathji to magically fix my problems, I would have been disappointed. Instead, he introduced me to the tools that can help me fix myself and guided me well through the practice — it was clear from the beginning that I was to take charge of myself. 

This practice, to me, is a metaphor for life. Going through the sequence of postures in each series (there are six in all in ashtanga) is like running an obstacle course. When the teacher stops you at a difficult posture (which happens quite often), in your efforts at deciphering a way to achieve that posture to progress in the practice, there are life lessons to be learned. While skipping a posture is discouraged, you are allowed to take as much time as you require to get around it. Giving up is not an option. Showing up matters. Everything else is secondary.

As an asana practice (and truly where it all begins), ashtanga yoga is beautiful and physically demanding. The beauty of the physicality of the practice is so enamouring that the larger benefit of the practice is often overlooked, at least in the beginning. But that’s okay. Start somewhere.

This practice has prepared me to live fearlessly — to make decisions, stand by them and face the consequences of those decisions. It has also taught me to mind my business, not to hurt people and to walk away from those who hurt me. It is through my yoga practice that I’m learning to grow as a human being and to let go of things, people and emotions that come in the way of my growth. I have learnt to redefine success as something that brings me inner peace. The practice has taught me to talk less and listen more. To find silence in chaos, hope in despair.

Arathi Menon is an Authorised Ashtanga Teacher. She is one of the teachers at the Sharath Yoga Centre in Mysore.

July 2, 2020
Photos Simon Meier

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