Yoga For Depression: A Conversation with Amy Weintraub

written by Anjula December 3, 2013
Yoga For Depression - Amy Weintraub

Amy Weintraub

LM: Can you tell our readers a little bit about how you started thinking about yoga and in particular, yoga for depression, along with what LifeForce Yoga is?

AW: I had a history of depression, myself.  Having taken antidepressants for many years, I exercised irregularly, because when you are depressed, you don’t have the motivation to really get up and go for a run, or go to the gym. I then began a yoga practice, having meditated for many years. (I had received a mantra in the Transcendental Meditation movement in the early 70s and started meditating then).  Up until that time, I had only done a little bit of yoga, but it wasn’t until I took my first trip to Kripalu in 1988, that I started practicing yoga regularly.  What I loved about Kripalu’s asana flow is that it was combined with pranayama and meditation.  It wasn’t isolated, it was integrated, with pranayama throughout the asana practice.

I felt so good after my first visit to Kripalu that I took home audio tapes, as there were no yoga teachers in my hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, at that time.  I started practicing with the audio tapes, I’d then go back to Kripalu frequently, as a guest, to take programs. I started practicing yoga for depression daily, and after about nine months I started to notice a real significant difference in my mood – I was more balanced and elevated.  I was now able, with the supervision of a psychiatrist, to slowly get off my medication.  That was back in 1989, and I haven’t been back on medication since that time.

tree pose - Yoga For Depression

Yoga For Depression

At the time, after that experience, there was no yoga for depression, there was just yoga, being practiced by people focusing on general well-being. It wasn’t therapeutic yoga being applied to depression.  I became passionate about sharing what had saved my life with others. Eventually, in 1992, I became a yoga teacher, and started writing articles about yoga, yoga for depression, and mental health, as I am a writer.  I wrote the first article about yoga for depression for the Yoga Journal. I collaborated with researchers, started teaching specific mood-oriented practices, learning and studying with masters in both, the US and in India, about what specific practices were best-suited to bring a more balanced, sattvic mood…whether you are working from a rajasic (anxious) state or a more tamasic flow (lethargic, depressed) flow of mind.

I started to focus on what practices were best suited to bring someone to a place of balance, peace and ease. I became passionate about sharing and working with others.  Organically, I was asked to write a book about Yoga for Depression about ten years ago. The book was published in 2004, and as the book came out, I was asked to teach more and more on yoga for mood.  Out of that, the LifeForce Yoga practices and protocol evolved, because as I was teaching mental health professionals and yoga teachers who were working with specific populations, and as I was working with individuals with mood disorders, more and more data was gathered that indicated that this practice really supported folks with both anxiety and depression, as it meets them where they are and brings them to a more balanced state.

lifeforce yoga - Yoga For Depression

LifeForce Yoga

The LifeForce practices and protocol evolved from this. These practices are not out of my head, they are from master teachers from several lineages that I have studied with. LifeForce Yoga is a synthesis of practices from several traditions that work most effectively for people with mood disorders and people with a history of trauma.

LM: Do you find that the asana, pranayma practices that you are working with need to be customized to meet the client’s needs or are there some that are good for all, at enhancing one’s mood?

AW: Both. There are some that are safe, and good for all, but there are some that are counter-indicative for someone with say, bipolar disorder.  Some asanas, pranayama (breathing), mudras and mantras are too activating and not grounding enough for someone with this type of disorder, and could trigger a manic episode.  With this type of client or someone diagnosed with a psychotic disorder, it would be important to do practices that are very grounding, keeping the language concrete and in the present. When I teach a group or someone not diagnosed with a serious mental illness, but who may be suffering with a mood disorder, I am going to include references to ananda mayakosha (the bliss body).  For example, after leading a practice, I might invite them to close their eyes and sense into how much more they are than the limits of the physical body, how much more they are than the limits of the story they are carrying. I might ask them to notice how much bigger their energy fields are, so far beyond the mood they may have arrived with.  That kind of language I wouldn’t use, for example, with someone I am trying to help stay grounded and present in reality.  There are practices that are very good for all, but others are not.

LM: I’ve read that your LifeForce Yoga for depression protocol is being used in residential treatment centers, hospitals and by health care providers around the world. Can you share with us some of the elements of this protocol and how it has alleviated some of the stresses of those suffering with Depression as well as how people can use yoga for depression?

AW: LifeForce Yoga protocol is adapted to the individual, however, the protocol will always include breathing practice. it might not include asana at all, it may have simple movement in it, but it may not. Yoga is so much more than asana, yoga goes beyond asana practice. Asana is important, but there are those for whom asana practice may not be appropriate.

The basic LifeForce protocol will always include breath, sound, mantra, although in some clinical settings it’s not called mantra, but a soothing tone – we use universal tones, both cooling, calming tones that are bija mantras, along with activating mantras that are also bija mantras. The sounds that are less familiar to yoga practitioners may be the cooling, calming tones.  We use both, depending on the situation.  For example, for someone with high states of anxiety, some of the more soothing sounds and tones are more appropriate.  The protocol will include breath, sound and mudra, as well – as there are more nerve endings in the fingers, than in most other parts of the body. Using mudra can redirect the energy in the body, (both in the physical and energetic bodies).  One thing that is essential as part of the protocol, no matter where it is being applied, whether in a yoga class or a therapy situation or a clinical health care setting, is that the LifeForce practitioner is going to cue the practitioner to sense healing directly in the client’s fingertips, palms, their face – not global sensing.

To take a step back and explain this a bit further…often yoga teachers will say. “Feel the sensations in your body”, (after or during the yoga practice), and for someone with high states of anxiety or a very active monkey mind, it can trigger more anxiety. Someone who has a history of trauma may be living from the neck up for good reason.  He or she might not feel that it is safe to feel these feelings in his or her body.  It can be frightening.  So what we do as part of our training in LifeForce Yoga, with whatever practice we’ve done, i.e., if we are just focusing on a mild, modified form of breath, with arms raised and then lowered, one breath per second, nothing too overly stimulating, afterwards, the teacher will say, ‘sense deeply, the energy in your face, your arms, your palms.’  One must remember that the body is always present, the mind is a time traveler, but if you can stay present to the sensations in your palms, you are that presence that you seek.  So the cuing is to direct felt sensation, not global.  That is such a gift to someone who had a history of depression or a history of a high level of anxiety or a history of trauma because it leaps over the fear that it’s not safe to be in my body. It’s easy to feel, too, even for someone who thinks he’s living from the neck up. If they’ve just done a practice where there’s a lot of tingling in the handds and if you can cue directly to that, suddenly without the mind coming up and saying no, it’s not safe, they are sensing into their hands.  You are reminding them that this is a doorway into the present moment, this is the doorway into wholeness and being fully present.

Part of the protocol, beyond the specific practices are the pauses to sense deeply into specific direct sensation, into the places in the body that have just been activated (i.e., hands).

LM: Can you talk to us about how you met Richard Miller, PhD, your mentor and a bit about iRest, (Integrative Restoration), and his adaptation and modernization of the ancient science of yoga nidra?

AW: Let’s see, I believe I first met Richard at a Yoga and Buddhism Conference at Kripalu about fourteen years ago.  I interviewed him for something I was working on.  I was so impressed by what he had to say, and felt such a connection that I asked him to become my mentor.  This was before iRest.  From there, I went out to California, stayed at a B&B and worked on my yoga practice.  Basically, I built a mini retreat for myself and booked daily consulting sessions with him.  Then I began going to his ten day annual retreats in California.  We became friends.  Over time, I have been able to see that we share a sense of ethics.  You see, there’s a way I believe you can be friends, while you can have mentor-mentee relationship.  It’s all embraced in non-dualism, where we’ve been colleagues, presenting together at a couple of conferences. I see him as my mentor, one of my teachers, but it’s more than that – it’s not the traditional master-student model that comes to us from India, it’s a bit different from that.  I deeply love him, there’s almost a family connection.   I met him all those years ago, and don’t see him that often, but do talk to him on the phone when I need some support. There may also be times when we talk about yoga issues, in general, that are more colleague to colleague.

iRest Yoga Nidra was developed by Richard Miller, PhD, a clinical psychologist, author, researcher and yogic scholar. Research has shown that iRest effectively supports the healing process across a broad range of populations. Currently, there are iRest programs in military hospitals across the U.S., as well as in correctional facilities, hospices, clinics, schools, and organizations supporting personal growth and well-being. It is restorative in that, like LifeForce Yoga, it aids its practitioners in recognizing their underlying peace of mind that is always present amidst all the changing circumstances of life.

LM: Having been trained in Advaita Vedanta Nondualism, psychology and Internal Family Systems Therapy. Can you tell us a bit more about these specialties and how they help you in your yoga for depression work?

AW: In terms of all these specialties, what they have in common and what is true of LifeForce Yoga is that there is that sense that there is so much beneath the story, there is that river of wholeness, that fountain of bliss…that ananandamaya kosha. When we get frustrated and depressed with normal day to day challenges, what all of these specialties remind us, (iRest, Yoga Nidra, Advaita Vedanta) is the vastness of our own true nature and how it transcends the story or the mood.  That our true nature is whole and healed and that it encompasses all of the dualities, all of the challenges.  When we can attend to that wholeness, that absolute, whether you call it the Jungian term of collective unconscious, when we can attune to that state – even in that moment of samadhi that we may experience after a breathing practice or after a full yoga practice, if we can attune to that, we get way past the current mood to a spacious awareness of our wholeness, to a place of seeing our own true nature as whole and healed, and that we have the capacity for healing and wholeness within us.  We are our own true healers.  Each one of the above mentioned practices has that as its central core.

In the East, nonduality is referred to as Advaita Vedanta The core principle here is that everything in the Universe is part of the One Spirit, which is everywhere. Advaita Vedanta states that eall the dualities of life are an inseparable and indivisible part of this One Spirit.

Internal Family Systems Therapy is marvelous, I just resonated so much with it when I first started learning about it because it starts with helping the client find that sense of Self.  Once the client is there, (that place of compassion), from that place, the client is asked to dialogue with the parts that may be acting out or in pain.  Internal Family Systems Therapy acknowledges that we all have parts, i.e., there’s a part of me that really wants to go out in the sun and take a walk and enjoy the day, there’s another part that needs to work, there’s another part that feels grateful to be here, there’s a part of me that is depressed that I’m away from my friends, etc…these are just parts, it’s not the whole being that is depressed, it’s just a part. When you can dialogue with that depressed part, you can depatholigize that feeling. The therapist here guides the client into a place of Self and self-awareness. From that place, the client is able to dialogue with that depressed part.  The ultimate goal of the process of that dialogue is a process called unburdening.  The client works with the therapist to dialogue with that depressed part to unburden the belief that part took on, however old the wound is, working through old beliefs that aren’t serving him or her anymore. It’s a lovely therapeutic model that works with all the other modalities, (i.e., LifeForce Yoga, Advaita Vedanta, etc).  It’s about knowing that the individual’s system of parts is held in place by a Self that has never been sullied, that is whole and healed.  The damage done to parts can be healed, when we have access to that place of Self. Life Force Yoga offers practices that can take us to that true sense of Self where we reconnect with who we truly are, where we are healed and whole. From that place, we become our own healers. If you’re practicing yoga and it doesn’t take you to that sense of deep and intimate connection, then to my mind, that’s not truly yoga.  It’s physical exercise, and that’s good, but yoga is more than that. If the emphasis of the practice is about getting it right and alignment and you feel a sense of  of, “I’m not good enough,” or “there’s something wrong with me or with my body,” that certainly isn’t yoga. True yoga is about union and connection.

Yoga Nidra or iRest are systems, whether you do it as a deep meditation or are simply using the philosophy of these, they are about coming into that place of wholeness where all of the polarities are embraced. A research study that came out in 2011, by Janet Phelps, stated that if we spend time in the negative, not in denial, but where we really embrace the negative feeling, really sensing it, where it is in the body, what color it is, does it have an image, and then we go to the positive, what is the most extreme opposite of that, where is it in the body, even if it’s a far-fetched fantasy, where is that extreme opposite in the body, does it have a color, does it have an image, is there a belief with that opposite? What that does, the going back and forth between those two polarities, which is part of the iRest protocol, is that it de-emphasizes the negative. The negative has less of a grip and we come into a place where we can more easily cope with both the negative and the positive, and we’re less stuck in clinging to the positive or avoiding the negative.

The LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training for Depression and Anxiety

The LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training for Depression and Anxiety

LM: Can you speak to us about some of your upcoming workshops, where folks can benefit from your yoga for depression teachings, be it in person or online?

AW: What I  really enjoy doing is leading the trainings for clinicians, health care providers, sometimes coaches, sometimes clergy, anyone working with the general population who work with folks who have mood disorders, along with yoga teachers.  These are the LifeForce Yoga Practitioner trainings. These retreat-like trainings are held three times a year, next one is in January in Tucson, where it’s quite sunny and warm at a Catholic retreat center that is lovely, January 12 through 19th, along with a training in April in Buckingham, Virginia, at the Satchidananda Ashram,  followed by an annual LifeForce Yoga Practitioner training in the Berkshires, at Kripalu in July for which I’m the lead faculty. I will also be joined by a faculty of mental health and yoga professionals, all of whom are also LifeForce Yoga Practitioners. Attendees for these trainings learn the research, the application for various populations and specific practices and it’s a retreat! We also have a modular LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training, Module A of which is coming up in February on Paradise Island at Sivananda Ashram

Be sure and check out my website, and the events page to see the latest postings for upcoming events and yoga for depression information.  While you are there, be sure and check out my latest blog posts, where I post a new article every week, along with some video practices and book reviews,  new research findings and other resources. You can also sign up for our research newsletter that comes out every six weeks to two months.

I offer events for everyone…those new to yoga, people with mood disorders, and yoga practitioners, alike.

LM: As part of your work with LifeForce Yoga, I’ve read that you incorporate: Creating Affirmation (sankalpa), LifeForce Yoga Bhavana (Imagery), LifeForce Yoga Chakra Clearing Meditation and LifeForce Yoga Nidra. In closing, as we go into the holiday season, can you share with our readers, one sankalpa or affirmation, along with a mudra that we can look to incorporate into our daily lives that will keep us calm, cool and collected?

AW: Sure.  The Affirmation is: I have everything I need to manage my life with ease.

Vajrapradama Mudra - Yoga For Depression

Vajrapradama Mudra

The mudra to accompany this affirmation is the vajrapradama mudra, which means polishing the diamond of the heart.  To do the mudra, interlace your fingers and spread them wide like a shield in front of the heart, letting your thumbs aim outwards.  Breath and hold the mudra, while you say above affirmation three times. Hasta mudras are powerful hand gestures that can truly alter not only your physical body, but also your mental and emotional body.

About Amy Weintraub:

Amy Weintraub, MFA, E-RYT 500, founding director of the LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute, the author of Yoga for Depression (Broadway Books, 2004) and Yoga Skills for Therapists: Effective Practices for Mood Management (W.W. Norton, 2012). Amy has been a pioneer in the field of yoga for depression and yoga for mental health for over twenty years.  She offers the LifeForce Yoga Practitioner Training for Depression and Anxiety to health and yoga professionals and offers workshops for every day practitioners. The LifeForce Yoga protocol is being used in residential treatment centers, hospitals and by health care providers around the world and is featured on the LifeForce Yoga® CD Series and the first DVD home Yoga practice series for mood management, the award-winning LifeForce Yoga® to Beat the Blues, Level 1 & Level 2. She is an invited speaker at conferences internationally and is involved in ongoing research on the effects of yoga on mood and yoga for depression. She edits a bi-monthly newsletter that includes current research, news and media reviews on Yoga and mental health.

Amy leads workshops and professional trainings at academic and psychology conferences internationally at such venues as the Boston University Graduate School of Psychology, the University of Arizona Medical School, the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, the Integrative Mental Health Conference, the Cape Cod Institute, Kripalu Center, Omega Institute, Sivananda Ashram, Yogaville, Esalen, Patanjali University in Haridwar, India and Yoga studios throughout the United States.

Amy’s recovery from depression began more than thirty years ago on her meditation cushion, but it wasn’t until she began a daily Hatha Yoga practice in 1988 after her first visit to Kripalu Center that her mood stabilized. In addition to her Hatha Yoga studies in the US and India, Amy has been trained in Advaita Vedanta Nondualism, iRest Yoga Nidra, psychology and Internal Family Systems Therapy. Richard Miller is her mentor.

She is blessed to collaborate and teach with James Gordon, MD, author of Unstuck, Drs. Patricia Gerbarg, MD and Richard Brown, MD, authors ofHow to Use Herbs, Nutrients and Yoga for Mental Health Care, the senior research scientist in the field, Dr. Shirley Telles, MBBS, PhD, Director of the Indian Council of Medical Research, Center for Advanced Research in Yoga & Neurophysiology, Richard Schwartz, PhD, founder of Internal Family Systems Therapy, addictions specialist, Dr. Kathy Shafer, Functional Yoga Therapy Trainer, Maria Kali Ma, senior Kripalu Yoga teacher and trainer Rudy Pierce, and many other esteemed Yoga and mental health professionals. Joy continues to unfold through the compassionate self-awareness that is the foundation of her Yoga practice and her teaching style.

Amy has won numerous literary prizes for her short fiction, including national prizes from Writer’s Digest Magazine, Explorations and Wind. Her novel-in-progress, and her film documentaries have received awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, San Francisco State University, and many other national competitions. She also edits books on spiritual psychology, including the much-praised Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope (Bantam). She holds the Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington College and currently lives in Tucson.


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