Yoga for Depression in Young Men
As International Men’s day is here on November 19th, 2021, we are here to speak about depression and how yoga can have a profound effect in improving your mood and overall mental wellbeing.
This blog was written by Dan Kirby, who is a Level 2 Yoga Himalaya Yoga Valley Graduate, for World Mental Health Day in 2018 and the findings still speak to society today and how yoga can help you and give you what you need.
What is Depression?
We’ve all felt sad at times, and feeling down from time to time is natural. Depression, however, is a mental health condition that is more than just feeling sad on occasion. It is also different from the feeling of grief, which is a healthy reaction to the loss of a loved one or something close and important to us. Depression is prolonged and relentless, and importantly it is a life-threatening condition that can incapacitate a person and leave them suicidal.
What does depression actually feel like?
It’s a combination of experiences and distortions in the way you think and feel and it can feel different depending on the person. It’s a feeling of helplessness and rejection, of being a failure or not good enough. It’s feeling like nobody wants you or likes you, and if someone does like you, soon enough they will find out what you’re really like and stop liking you. Again, many of us will feel like this at some point but importantly with depression, it just comes all the time, it’s relentless.
Currently, the most common way to treat depression is with medication, in particular antidepressants, which simulate the production of serotonin (the happy hormone) in the brain. These can be a useful short-term fix but often when a patient stops taking the medication symptoms will return, creating a dependency on the medication itself. These medications can also become addictive and once a person is on them it can be hard to stop.
What’s causing depression in so many young men?
Around the world depression in men is still a taboo subject. It’s seen in lots of social groups as a sign of weakness in a man, and from an early age, a young boy is often taught to avoid showing weakness. ‘Men should be simple, and that’s the way it’s always been’. It’s easier to hide behind pints of beer, sports or computer games than to talk openly about their feelings. Some of these rules are set in place very early in a boy’s life.
All over the world, there is an idea of masculinity that revolves around being the strong provider. Men place more importance on their work than women and place their work at the top of their masculine identity. Men also think that financial stability and success is the most important thing a woman looks for in a partner (40% believe this is the number one factor looked for by a woman), whereas the opposite is actually true (only 4% of women rank it as their number one).
Society is moving on from the male-dominated world of the past and with this shift comes a change in the labour market and a move, particularly in the developed world, to more ‘feminine’ service based roles, and away from labour heavy ‘masculine’ roles. This move away from a male-dominated world. It could be that this change is happening faster than the change in masculine identity, and we are currently in a state of flux before a new more progressive male identity rises from the ashes.
How can Yoga Help?
Practising asana has deep physical effects on the brain that don’t require any effort other than movement. According to Tim McCall’s book Yoga as Medicine, studies have shown that prolonged practices (3-6 months) of Hatha Yoga can reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and increase serotonin (the happy hormone) in the brain. And when practised along with meditation and pranayama 60% of patients showed improvement in sleep patterns, digestive symptoms, their mood and social interactions.
In his book Ashtanga Yoga – Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Maehle says that ‘the body today is nothing but the accumulation of our past, thoughts emotions and actions’. By practising asana we open up different areas of the body physically, essentially bypassing the neocortex, which is the thinking, conscious part of the brain, and targeting the instinctual, subconscious parts of the brain that are tied up directly with the body. It’s long been known in Yoga that emotional releases can come from opening certain parts of the body. Lot’s of Yogis have experienced significant emotional release from deep back-bending or hip-opening classes. And simply letting go of physical tension can alleviate the feeling of tension built up by stress and depression.
There is also a direct connection with posture and mood. Improved posture from a prolonged practice of Yoga helps to promote deeper natural breathing, which increases oxygenation of the blood and can lift energy levels.
People with depression are also often known to have prolonged activation of their sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight mechanism) and increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Relaxation and restorative Yoga has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the system the body uses to rest and restore itself.
It’s not just the physical aspect of Yoga that can help treat depression. Pranayama practices, in particular Nadi Shodana and Bramrhi, are powerful in the prevention of depression. Nadi Shodana balances the left and the right side of the brain and also balances the chemical levels in the brain, in particularly cortisol and serotonin. Bramrhi, used before bed can encourage better sleep and reduce the risk of falling into the sleep-depression cycle.
Meditation promotes mindfulness and observation of the body and the mind. By becoming more aware of the body and the breath and by learning to watch thoughts occurring and their patterns this creates awareness of the beginnings of a depressive episode. By recognising episodes before they start and by having the tools, like asana and pranayama, to turn to when the early onset symptoms of depression occur, the episode can be stopped before it starts.