Supporting anxiety and depression through yoga therapy: How one client practices
By Amy Gaster
Jessica* is navigating life in her 20s, including the changes that can come in this sometimes-tumultuous decade. She is sweet and speaks softly; her calming, grounded demeanor diverges widely from the way she explains her inner experience. Jessica’s goals for seeking yoga therapy are to support her ever-changing experiences of anxiety and depression. She also hopes to feel more connected to her body and her inner self.
Every client is a distinct individual, but a few snapshots of how I worked with Jessica illustrate the path of adjunctive care through yoga therapy and some of the ways in which the practices support the experiences of anxiety and depression.
Foundations for insight
Jessica can clearly describe where in her body she feels anxiety—in the chest and belly, neck, and face (especially the eyebrows)—and the way she experiences depression—as a general heaviness in her body. She also reports feeling disconnected from her physical body overall. She shares that her biggest life challenges right now are recovering from traumatic experiences, unemployment, and navigating medical leave from school. Jessica attends silent retreats, which she finds challenging but also life-changing. I notice that she often closes her eyes, even while talking.
One of the tools of yoga therapy is educating the client. Every individual is unique: Some yearn to know the how and why of what yoga can do to help them; others just want to know that they can feel better.
Yoga therapists do their best to assess who is sitting in front of them and to meet those individuals where they are. We are trained to assess people through yogic methods including the panchamaya kosha model. The panchamaya system views the person as an interconnected whole, from all layers (koshas) of being. From such perspectives—and with client involvement—a yoga therapist chooses not only the practices that may best suit the client, but also the ways in which the practices are presented. Depending on the client, for example, I might occasionally share information like the below, or we may sit and have a longer conversation about how yoga can support mental well-being.
How yoga supports anxiety and depression
Anxiety and depression are not foreign invaders of our systems—they are necessary survival skills we all have. Anxiety is an (over)abundance of the behavioral skill of projecting and analyzing the future to save us from potentially harmful situations, or simply to plan ahead. Depression is an excess of the behavioral skill that allows us to reflect on the past, learn from our mistakes or from things that went well, and carry forward lessons. Much more could be said here, of course. (Some of the yoga research in these areas is linked under “Mental health” here.) The point is that yogic philosophy views these “conditions” not as something to get rid of, but rather as experiences that may require balancing.
Yoga supports nervous system regulation. (Learn one way this might work here.) The practices of conscious breathing, relaxation, and physical poses have different qualities that can be stimulating or calming as needed. When someone is feeling anxious, we might reach for yogic tools that ground and soothe the nervous system. When someone is feeling depressed, we might reach for yogic tools that are uplifting and stimulating.
Yoga therapists seek to support people where they are currently, then offer a yogic intervention to help them find balance. For example; if someone is feeling anxious and jittery, we may help them to move through that energy physically or with the breath, discharging any excess. When they feel a bit more settled, then we can offer grounding breathing practices, relaxation, and poses that require stillness.
If someone is feeling depressed and lethargic, we can invite them to begin slowly, perhaps on their backs with gentle breathing and movements—again, meeting them where they are. Then, once we have brought in more energy, we can offer more stimulating and uplifting practices.
Yoga therapy invites us to practice svadhyaya (self-study) to observe how states like anxiety and depression can shift and show up on any given day. From there, the practice can vary depending on what mood is most predominant.
Meeting energy where it is: Jessica’s practices
One session, Jessica let me know she was feeling very lethargic and down and so had decided to have a cup of coffee. That led to her feeling stressed, overwhelmed, jittery, and anxious by the time she saw me. Other times, she has come in feeling physically lethargic and mentally anxious and fearful.
Slow, flowing movements with even breathing may be especially helpful when someone is feeling more anxious and needs a gentle way of dealing with that energy. When I notice Jessica’s movements and breath becoming more even and fluid, I invite her to start holding postures for three to five breaths. If Jessica is feeling more depressed on a given day, I might offer a restorative backbend to bring subtle uplifting energy. In either case, we use props like bolsters and blankets to prevent physical strain and shift the focus to calming the mind.
Over time, the system learns to be with a spectrum of experience in a calm way, and clients learn tools they can apply to support balance in themselves.
Silent meditation can feel overwhelming for those with racing thoughts or who tend to engage in negative self-talk. Many yoga therapists avoid silent meditation for those coping with anxiety and depression. Guided meditations that include mudra (hand gestures) or mantra (sound) may be useful to give the mind something to “chew on.”
In Jessica’s case, we began practices with guided visualization, mudras, or guided breath awareness. A practice such as breath of joy with the sound LAM is a staple in Jessica’s yoga therapy plan. This active breathing exercise is meant to uplift and energize.**
Bhramari (bee breath) with shanmukti mudra (using the fingertips to gently close the ears, eyes, nose and mouth) is a harmonizing breathing practice Jessica really enjoyed. I offered sama vritti, or even breathing, when she was feeling depressed to support balanced energy. When Jessica felt more anxious we practiced breathing with a longer exhalation.
Tratak meditation (focusing on a single point) on a candle flame was a practice I chose to invite Jessica to engage with her surroundings with open eyes. Jessica was surprised at how helpful this type of meditation was for her, as she was accustomed to practicing silent meditation with her eyes closed. She reported that tratak helped her to feel focused and centered. Because Jessica already practiced silent meditation, I often ended our sessions with a few moments of silence together to provide familiarity.
Jessica explains that yoga therapy has helped her get to know herself more, connect with her body and mind, and identify practices and activities that support her in creating more even moods. She looks forward to continuing to attend silent meditation retreats with the new knowledge and tools of breathwork, mantra, and movements to prepare for stillness. She also reports that even if she does struggle with silent meditation, she now knows that there is nothing wrong—she may just be out of balance!
Amy Gaster, RYT-500, C-IAYT, practices yoga therapy in New Haven County, Ct., and from anywhere online via Zoom. Amy supports individuals and small groups in the experience of chronic pain, mental and emotional well-being, and back pain. Find her on Instagram and Facebook.
*Name has been changed to protect the client’s privacy.
**If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or any kind of head or eye condition, such as migraines or glaucoma, it’s best to skip this practice. If you start to feel light-headed, stop for a minute, breathe normally, and find something in front of you to look at. As with many breathing practices and other yogic tools, working with the guidance of a well-trained teacher is recommended.
Please note that, like the other information provided on this site, this material is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You are encouraged to consult your personal physician with questions or concerns. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or the emergency services number in your area.