An essay first published in April 2017.
My dad’s yoga practice was as dependable as mangoes in Chennai’s summer and Carnatic music concerts in December. I don’t think he missed a single day of sirasasana and sarvangasana—perfectly aligned head and shoulder stands, followed by pranayama (regulated breathing). Dad was my first yoga teacher and we began when I was 7 or 8 years old; he’d carefully support me as I tried to find my balance in the sarvangasana pose. A busy stockbroker with his own firm, and a patron of several nonprofits, his yoga practice afforded him the only time during the day to invest in his health. Dad’s love of yoga began with two problems in his teenage years—he was not as tall as he would have liked to be, and he had acne! Believing that inverted poses which stimulate blood circulation could help, he began taking lessons from the legendary Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, credited with bringing yoga to the West. Soon after beginning yoga, his acne disappeared and he’d grown taller! Voila! He was sold on yoga and stuck with it for life.
Every time I see a new study on the benefits of yoga, I think about my dad. I imagine him nodding and saying, “But of course-I knew that already!” A recent study, Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing by the Boston University Medical Center, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, shows that asana and pranayama can help reduce symptoms of major depressive disorders (MDD) such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder and social anxiety in people who practice yoga at least twice a week.
Thirty participants were introduced to 12 weeks of Iyengar yoga for 90-minute sessions twice or three times per week, in addition to home practice. Classes consisted of approximately 60 minutes of asanas as well as deep relaxation, (shavasana—the corpse pose), and ujjayi breathing (slow the respiratory rate).
The findings show yoga-based interventions are an effective alternative or supplement to anti-depressants. Both the groups (twice and three times a week) experienced a significant reduction in their depressive symptoms.
“This study supports the use of a yoga and coherent breathing intervention in people who are not on antidepressants and in those who have been on a stable dose of antidepressants and have not achieved a resolution of their symptoms,” says Dr. Chris Streeter, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University, in an interview with the Boston University School of Medicine.
Streeter said intervention through yoga could help avoid side effects from drugs and drug interactions. “While most pharmacologic treatment for depression targets monoamine systems, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, this intervention targets the parasympathetic and gamma aminobutyric acid system and provides a new avenue for treatment,” he said.
I asked my friend Dr. Jayapriya Krishnaswamy, a physician in Hartford, Conn., what she thought of the study. She said that while exercise in general has shown to increase endorphins, there is an enormous focus on relaxation and recovery poses in yoga. “The mind is calmed by pranayama, and shavasana increases overall awareness,” she said. “This can help reduce depression.”
B.K.S. Iyengar explains in his book Light on Life: “It is through the alignment of my body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.”
John Schumacher, a certified advanced Iyengar yoga teacher and founder of Unity Woods Yoga Center in Bethesda, Maryland, was inspired to travel to India and learn from B.K.S. Iyengar after reading Light on Yoga.
“Depression and stress are physical and mental ailments, but they are also energetic disorders,” he said. “Energy is very low in depressed people, except in the case of anxious depression where the person’s energy is uncontrolled and undirected. The depressed patient should practice in such a way as to bring the energy to a stable and strong level. This often involves supported and active back bending poses, standing poses, and inversions. Stress requires a somewhat different approach, often employing supported poses and quieting breaths to calm the irritated mind and chaotic energy of the practitioner. Alignment and breath are vital aspects of treating depression and stress.”
Another of B.K.S. Iyengar’s students, Brooke Myers, teaches at the Iyengar Institute of Greater New York. Once, she said, she assisted B.K.S. Iyengar as he taught a depressed man at his institute in India. “From that experience, my own, and that of many other students, I feel yoga is marvelous for treating depression,” she said.
Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist whose work has appeared extensively in NPR’s Connecticut regional station WNPR, Forbes India, and Connecticut Business Magazine. She currently reports on healthcare for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT).