Recognizing and acknowledging the signs of postnatal depression are important first steps in overcoming this often-devastating experience. Reaching out, regardless of how severe the depression feels, is the start of working towards the healing process. For many women, however, thoughts of taking anti-depressant medication or regular sessions with a psychologist are unbearable. Yoga classes or even yoga therapy now offer an evidenced-based alternative to these traditional Western-medicine remedies.
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Different aspects of yoga such as asana and pranayama have indispensable applications in the treatment of depression. Specific postures have been found to have a regulating effect on the endocrine system, and there is research evidence to show that the regular practice of yoga reduces the production of stress hormones. During stress, when the breathing becomes rapid, signals are sent from the medulla oblongata to the adrenals to secrete stress hormones. However, with the regular practice of yoga, the breath remains steady even when confronted with stress, and consequently, this reduces the brain’s impulse to produce and secrete stress hormones. Stress hormones in the body are necessary in certain situations, but the prolonged production of these can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, digestive problems or a depressed immune system.
Additionally, the practice of meditation or relaxation techniques such as yoga nidra, balance cortical activity and the nervous and endocrine systems, thus reducing the body’s predisposition to react to stress. As a result, the body produces less stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol).
In the Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali describes nine distractions, or obstacles, to inner awareness: dis-ease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, addiction, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and instability. He goes on to describe four pathological states that accompany these obstacles – depression, anxiety, trembling of the limbs and unsteady breath. Without even knowing or studying Pantanjali’s eightfold prescription for these ailments, a woman with PND can experience the benefits of stretching the body and compressing the glands in various postures (asanas). She can also feel the immediate, energizing effects of abdominal breathing, and the calming effects of slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing (pranayama). When she focuses her attention on the breath or visualization in meditation, she withdraws her mind from the senses (pratyahara). When she is guided by her yoga teacher to use a mantra during practice she is concentrating (dharana). During the holding of a posture, if she follows directions to stay focused on the sensations in her body, her mind becomes absorbed (dhyana), and there may be times through the practice, in holding or releasing, in relaxation, or in meditation that the woman experiences a glimpse of a deeply healing state of mind and body (samadhi).
Yoga seems the perfect form of therapy for postnatal depression. It offers gentle, restorative physical rehabilitation with the potential for gradually increasing the intensity of the physical practice to build up strength, stamina and overall physical wellbeing. Yoga also offers the new mother techniques for relaxation and releasing tension in the body that builds up with the stress and worry of caring for a new baby, as well as techniques for re-setting the mind and letting go of needless concerns. Yoga can be practiced in a class, at home, with a book (e.g. Postnatal Yoga), with a DVD (e.g. Yoga for Depression DVD or Youtube), with the baby (e.g. Mama & Baby Yoga), with a toddler, in bed or at the kitchen sink, making it highly accessible to new moms and empowering them with the ability to manage their own health and wellbeing.
For those who have or are currently experiencing postnatal depression, have you been back to a yoga class since having your baby? What effects did you notice from the class? Can you feel these effects building your resilience class by class?