• What is Depression and How Can Yoga Help?

    Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms.

    Depression is a prevalent mental health condition worldwide and is the leading cause of disability in adults under the age of 45. The mechanisms underlying depression remain poorly understood even though stress and its correlates contribute to multiple aspects of the phenomenology of depression. Based on an emerging picture of how stress and mood are regulated within the nervous system, we can understand depression as a complex response to extreme stress. Exposure to chronic stress, whether physical or psychological in nature, has cumulative effects on the body and mind.

    The demands of “modern” life – requiring us to be constantly on the go, propelled by caffeine and perfectionism—seem to elicit a chronic over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA). As we saw in the anxiety article, a chronically activated sympathetic response will eventually lead to a complete shutdown of the body mediated by the dorsal vagal parasympathetic branch – leading to symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD):

    a) depressed mood or loss of pleasure (anhedonia)
    b) feelings of guilt or worthlessness because of negative interpretations of the immobility response which comes in conflict with societal demands.
    c) cognitive slowing, further eroding self-confidence and self-worth.
    d) changes in sleep, which increase inflammatory influences in the brain.
    e) changes in appetite, which may lead to eating inflammatory foods and interfering in the modulation of the nervous system.
    f) potential suicidal ideations if the weight of the self-judgment becomes unbearable and hopelessness ensues.

    Ongoing arousal of the SNS/HPAA has both physical and psychological consequences. Psychosocial stress can activate peripheral and neural inflammation, which is exaggerated in individuals with MDD. Individuals experiencing depression have higher circulating levels of proinflammatory cytokines. High levels of these cytokines are associated with fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and altered sleep. Symptoms of depression seem to emerge as cytokines activate neural pathways that influence the basal ganglia, an area of the brain involved in motivation and motor activities. This could explain the low motivation and motor movement inhibition associated with depression.

    Other brain regions involved in the control of mood, including components of the PFC and limbic system are also affected by these inflammatory pathways, which is leading researchers to hypothesize that the release of stress hormones (corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol) are a major factor in depression. Psychiatrists are experimenting with anti-inflammatory medications in patients who do not respond to common antidepressants – anecdotally with great success.

    Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms. They involve multiple organ systems and a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters. However, emerging evidence implicates dysfunction in a circuit including cortical areas and limbic areas that regulates mood, learning, and memory processes. Research suggests that symptoms of depression may result from dysfunctional asymmetry of activity between the left frontal lobe (causing decreased positive affect) and the right frontal lobe (causing emotional lability, difficulty with emotional information processing, and decreased arousal). This is particularly true in individuals who experienced childhood abuse and developmental trauma that impaired the proper development of these emotion-modulation areas. This development occurs after birth in the dyadic interactions between infant and caregivers.

    A key individual factor in the effect of stress may be the degree to which an individual perceives the stress to be significant and to what degree the individual thinks she/he has control over the situation. Anything that helps an individual experience a sense of mastery over their internal experience and external world will help reduce depression. Paraphrasing Indu Arora, yoga is not a feel-good practice. Yoga is a practice that requires self-study, svadyaya, and consistent practice, abhyasa while cultivating qualities of non-judgment, self-compassion, and lovingkindness. The bad news is that quick fixes (demanded by a “rapid results” culture) do not exist. The good news is that healing is possible through effort mediated by santosha, or contentment for patient improvement.

    We begin by reducing the stress response that ultimately leads to depression. So, in addition to the outline on the eight (8) limbs of yoga outlined in the anxiety section of this 3-part blog post series, the following considerations should be taken for people experiencing depression:

    1. Goal: Establish the observer, a capacity to witness and deconstruct phenomenological experience rather than identify with it. Slowly increase sympathetic arousal through movement and deeper inhales. Expand the capacity to tolerate the potential “distress” of higher arousal states by shifting frequently between movement and restful phases – which will invite the natural rhythm of the nervous system.

    2. Attitude: Support motivation to practice by highlighting mastery of the foundational aspects of yoga. Facilitate continuity of effort by offering simpler, step-by-step practices that provide an experience of gradual change.

    3. Strategies: Begin slowly and gradually increase activity to break up inertia. Use mainly brahmana practices that emphasize dynamic movement coordinated with breath. Titrate entry into more energizing poses by starting with supine poses and move slowly to standing or balancing poses.

    4. Asana: Categories that are helpful: extensions, laterals, gentle backbends, and twists followed by a long savasana to help increase cardiovascular capacity, “digest” the sympathetic arousal that emerges, and integrate the balance of sympathetic/parasympathetic arousal. Savasana with rhythmic breathing has been shown in research to relieve depression.

    5. Bandhas/Chakras: Uddyana bandha is particularly important to awaken the dorsal vagus nerve (which is subdiaphragmatic and enervates digestive organs), activate the 3rd chakra (willpower, determination, self-awareness), build the energetic “fire” (agni) that supports transformation and the digestion and assimilation of food and psychological states.

    6. Pranayama: Focus on ujjai which is warming and centering; increase length of inhales with short holds after inhale to build energy and stamina; create heat with bhastrika.

    7. Meditation: Concentrate awareness at the navel center with the seed mantra for that region, RAM, to build courage and positive self-identity. Learn the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra to dissolve fear and darkness.

    Current research supports the idea that various yoga interventions can help participants improve self-reported perceptions of stress and well-being. Little research, however, exists on physiological or neurological mechanisms that could mediate the positive effects of yoga on mood and symptoms of psychological depression. Below is a summary of some potential explanations for yoga’s benefits:

    • Yoga may influence the inflammatory processes involved in depression by influence on the vagus, the 10th cranial nerve. Efferent (brain-to-body) vagal nerve fibers, via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, exert anti-inflammatory actions. Thus, because inflammation is implicated as contributing to depressive symptoms, activation of the vagal anti-inflammatory pathway could be an important mechanism by which yoga practice could decrease symptoms of depression.

    • The yoga components of slow breathing, relaxation practices, mindfulness of sensations in the body, and physical postures may influence drive on brain pathways to the limbic and cortical areas involved in mood regulation, influencing parasympathetic outflow.

    • Rhythmic breathing practices have been shown to affect heart-rate-variability (HRV) and decrease blood pressure. In addition, slow breathing patterns that stimulate the vagus, have been shown to increase levels of prolactin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are often depleted in depression.

    • There have been few studies investigating the effects of yoga on brain chemistry; however, practicing the physical postures of yoga has been shown to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that can have anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects.

    • The repetitive practice of yoga, over enough weeks, may provide a sense of accomplishment, positively reinforcing healthy coping and self-mastery, as well as increasing positive self-regard and identity.

    • Another way yoga may help is the focus on bringing attention to present-moment thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way, helping to decrease self-criticism and increasing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as transient and not permanent events.

    • Researchers have also hypothesized that yoga may have a positive impact on related autonomic functioning and in reducing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation. Change in these pathways interrupts the underlying stress physiology and decreases inflammation.

    • Exercise, as well as meditation, also influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness and leads to adaptions in endocrine secretion of substances such as cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones.

    This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • What is Anxiety and How Can Yoga Help?

    All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality.

    Anxiety, one of the most-commonly reported mental health disorders in the general community, is the body’s natural response to stress. It is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, dominated by the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic response – the body’s innate accelerator. Chronic anxiety is the inability of the autonomic nervous system to flow between sympathetic arousal and parasympathetic calm. A conditioned feedback loop has been established that keeps the system in chronic activation.

    When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, our heart rate and respiration accelerate, blood flow moves from the skin and visceral organs to muscles in the extremities, and pupils dilate to take in more of the environment. Under threat, this part of the nervous system is responsible for activating fight and flight responses necessary for survival. Under normal conditions, when there is no threat to life, it makes energy available so we can stay alert and meet the demands of daily life, engage in recreation and vigorous play or exercise, and for sexual activity.

    In a nervous system that is operating optimally, if sympathetic activity reaches a certain threshold, the parasympathetic nervous system (PPNS) response engages, slowing things down and returning blood flow to the viscera to support digestion and organ function. This intrinsic balance creates heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variability in the heartbeat in relationship to the breath (on inhale, heart rate increases, on exhale, heart rate decreases). High HRV is associated with better physical and mental health. Low HRV is the opposite—a marker of poor health and mental health.

    In anxiety disorders – from generalized anxiety to panic disorders to posttraumatic stress or PTSD – the nervous system has lost this reciprocal relationship between SNS and PPNS and has become sympathetic dominant. It is as if a car’s engine was constantly revving, burning up fuel unnecessarily, and eventually overheating and melting down the system. The associated constriction in the blood vessels creates tension in the body and in the mind, and eventually generates inflammation and impairs immune function. A chronic cascade of stress hormones activated by the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis further creates endocrine disturbances.

    On a psychological level, this physiological state sends warning signals to the brain, which through a process coined “neuroception,” begins to interpret danger and threat – even when there is none. The body is responding to a scary movie playing on the screen of your mind, replaying the painful past or anticipating disaster in a yet-to-occur future.

    This vicious loop of hypervigilance and hyperarousal generate distorted or intrusive thoughts or images, emotions of intense fear, anger, and mistrust, further impairing our self-perception and our ability to relate to others and seek support and regulation in social engagement. It is important to note that these are automatic responses that have been conditioned by overwhelming life experiences. Over time, the responses – a panic attack or “flashbacks,” for example – become disconnected from their origin creating a sense of helplessness. Yoga’s self-study and witnessing practices help us gradually uncover the patterns so we can have the choice to change them.

    Eventually, because of the body’s innate intelligence, the system will shut down all activity by engaging in a high parasympathetic response leading to immobility, numbness, dissociation, lethargy, apathy, impaired digestion, pain, and other symptoms we have come to equate with depression (more on this in the next installment focusing on depression). Chronic stress can enhance susceptibility to inflammation. Increases in inflammatory markers, such as CRP and IL-6, are associated with decreased parasympathetic nervous activity and are reflected in low HRV. In extreme cases, some people may develop autoimmune disorders or medical syndromes.

    The experience of anxiety, as with every other human experience, may be different in each individual and uniquely sourced in their embodied lived experience. In other words, anything from early experiences of trauma (including pre-natal experiences and the ancestral trauma of oppression) to the chronic stress of living in a world that does not value rest and overvalues performance and achievement, can create this internal demand for SNS energy that is not needed in the present moment.

    Include in this category are the stress and trauma of living in a culture of patriarchy and white male supremacy. Socio-economic status, class, gender identification, and racial or ethnic background all impact how safe or unsafe we feel in the world because of systems that privilege some and marginalize others. If you are a woman, person of color, gender non-conforming, differently-abled, or not neurotypical, chronic anxiety might be a more common experience. There are significantly more stressors to which the nervous system must respond, explicitly or implicitly, if you live in these intersections. Undoubtedly, socioeconomic stressors, cultural definitions of health and illness, lack of social support, and the general social environment influence the stress load. These disparities were made abundantly clear by the COVID pandemic in the way it affected people of color.

    Yoga also explains that we experience fear because we are disconnected from our eternal essential nature, and therefore fear that we will lose our existence if we die. All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality. In yoga philosophy, anxiety also would be considered an excess of rajas, one of the primordial forces of creation responsible for activity. So, let us see what yoga offers as solutions to anxiety.

    1. The yamas invite us to approach life with honesty, generosity, non-stealing, moderation, non-attachment, and an attitude of non-harming. As we make a lifestyle choice to live by these principles, we might begin by lowering the high demands of perfectionism, by being truthful about our limitations, and by eliminating harmful negative self-judgments. We can moderate stimulants, whether caffeine or drugs, as well as excessive negative mental stimulation that robs us of peace.

    2. The niyamas teach us to engage in self-study, to investigate what is helpful and unhelpful in our quest to reduce internal suffering. They also teach us to surrender to a higher spiritual force which can be both a source of strength as well as nourishment. The niyama of santosha, or contentment, teaches us to cultivate this quality of appreciation for the simplest of things, like our breath. We begin to think of the wellbeing of others and not just ourselves, invigorating selfless action.

    3. Western yoga has become synonymous with asana or physical postures. Asana categories that can help reduce anxiety/rajas include extensions, forward bends, twists, inversions, and backbends on the abdomen – with the goal of purifying the body and igniting the digestive powers that will help us process metabolic energy and psychic disturbances. Perform these poses by slowing down the movements and finding stillness and stability, anchoring the mind in the present moment. Mulabandha and uddyana bandha or the pelvic and abdominal locks can help us get grounded and centered. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali specify that the perfection of the pose is accomplished when we find sthiram and sukham, stability and ease. It is not about excessive effort and wasting precious energy or prana. Then we can contemplate the infinite and move beyond our limited sense of self. The most important asanas are the seated meditation poses when the soul and the mind take a seat in the body.

    4. Pranayama, the expansion of prana by cultivating sensitivity to the subtle breath, can also help us anchor the mind so it is not scattered. Where mind goes, energy flows. Ujjai breath with focus in the throat can stabilize mind and prana. Sama vritti, equal inhale and exhale can center us and increase HRV. Longer exhales further engage the calming parasympathetic response. Alternate nostril breathing or nadi shodhana will further increase a sense of balance by bringing the right and left hemispheres of the brain into equanimity.

    5. Pratyahara – or the withdrawal of the senses, begins to draw the restless mind away from the external world, the past or the future (which only live in our imagination) and brings it into the present moment. This can be accomplished throughout the practice of asana by coordinating the attention of the mind with the movement of the body and the cycle of the breath. Or it can be further enhanced in a long restful savasana or yoga nidra practice.

    6. Samyama encompasses the remaining three limbs of yoga: prana dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These three steps are what we would consider as meditation. Meditation, according to sage Patanjili, is the step that dissolves the obstacles, eliminates suffering, invites transformation, and introduces us to the eternal light of our inner teacher, Ishvara, a special Purusha, the primordial source of all spiritual traditions and of all creation, pure Consciousness. It is therefore the most important, albeit the least utilized of all the limbs of yoga. Dharana is the concentration of prana in a particular location, maybe with a particular mantra or Sanskrit sound. Dhyana is the penultimate state when mind merges or dissolves in the light of prana and the sound of mantra, entering an abiding sense of calm. These steps then lead to the final step of Samadhi, where observer, the object of observation, and the act of observing merge. Samadhi is more the by-product of the previous steps than a step itself. How samyama can help with mental distress is that it progressively helps us identify with Purusha/Ishvara, the observer of experience, the witness – creating a distance between the distress of anxiety in all its forms (sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images), and our real or essential self that is untouched by experience. Again, sage Patanjali states that when Purusha is established, we cease to be affected by the world of duality. Over time, we are more identified with Awareness, the Witness of experience, and less identified with our likes and dislikes, our limited self-perception, our past traumas, or our future fears. This distance gives us the choice to move awareness to the present moment and toward more helpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—thereby increasing self-control and reducing impulsivity and compulsivity.

    Modern neuroscience research is beginning to quantify the benefits of yoga and has identified that even short interventions of moderate yoga practice:

    a) increase the production of GABA in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces calm.
    b) Increase heart-rate variability (HRV) by re-patterning the breath from rapid and shallow to smooth, un-interrupted and even.
    c) Increase vagal tone, a measure of health in the PPNS response.
    d) Reduced activation of the HPA axis.

    According to reviews of the research, if yoga does produce an anxiolytic and antidepressant effect, the exact causal mechanism is likely to be complex, affecting multiple body systems. Yoga may best be delivered as a complete intervention, and if different aspects are delivered separately, such a reductionist approach may result in loss of efficacy or effectiveness. As such, yoga practices also should be delivered skillfully by experienced practitioners who can adapt the interventions for various age groups and abilities, as well as address any emerging psychological or emotional presentations.

    This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health. 

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • Decolonizing and Demystifying Anxiety and Depression

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    The past year has been a reckoning for most of us as we faced:

    1. A life-threatening global pandemic, lockdown, and quarantine
    2. Global economic meltdown because of businesses shutting
    3. A rapidly worsening climate crisis that puts all life on the planet in peril
    4. A tipping point in the collective awareness of the ravages of racial oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism
    5. An ever-widening political divide that put the US on the brink of civil war
    6. The growth of extremism, conspiracy theories, and fringe cult groups unable to deal with these realities, perhaps as a form of counterphobia

    There is plenty to be anxious and depressed about, and data shows that anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed early in the pandemic lockdown. To top it off, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Coronavirus 19) also seems to have neurological and psychiatric impacts on those who have been infected, with 1 in 5 people who have had COVID meeting criteria for a mental health disorder after the infection. Given these facts, I propose that we cannot center problems in the individual without addressing also the social, cultural, economic, and political realities that influence people’s fears and hopelessness. Healing must happen in community.

    The year 2020 has challenged many of us to question in what unconscious ways colonialism, white supremacy and white privilege have shaped us personally and professionally. Asked to write a blog on yoga for anxiety and depression, I struggled to identify a context that felt satisfying. Finally, I understood that I wanted to bring a new perspective to these very real and disabling, but also all too common human experiences.

    Disease, according to Yoga Sutra 1:30, is one of nine obstacles that obstruct progress on our path to experiencing the state of yoga. The yoga tradition understands disease as a misalignment with the rhythms of nature. We are increasingly out of harmony with the natural universe. After industrialization, even less so. The planet’s rhythms and our individual circadian rhythms are out of sync. Conditioned by a white supremacist culture that tells us our worth is dependent on performance, achievement, and amassing material wealth, we resist rest. The brain then sends us signals that something has gone awry, and we become anxious and depressed.

    Anxiety and depression are not new phenomena. They have affected humans through millennia because they are natural responses to an over-taxed nervous system. In a way, they are both a warning, and an attempt to re-regulate the human organism when it has become dangerously imbalanced due to extreme stressors. Anxiety is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, and depression is a demand that the system rest, so it goes into shutdown for energy conservation. These processes will be explained further in subsequent blogs detailing the neurophysiological and psychological or cognitive components of these experiences.

    Unfortunately, 20th century psychiatry, to categorize these phenomenological experiences as mental illnesses, began to reify these constructs and give them a life of their own—so we are no longer human beings having a transitory experience, but we become defined by our anxieties or our depressions. For many, their diagnoses begin to define their identities. Instead of seeking more complex explanations and taking corrective lifestyle actions, we look for a simple external agent (i.e., medications) to rapidly fix our distress. Our locus of control is outside of us, rather than within us. The yoga path, on the other hand, asks us to do self-study (svadyaya) and to engage in practice (sadhana) to shift states of consciousness and overcome the causes of suffering (kleshas).

    Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).

    Another disservice of modern psychiatry has been the simplification of solutions, so people (including some physicians) now commonly believe that depression is “a serotonin imbalance” to be rapidly resolved by a selective- serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor that will flood your brain with “feel good” neurotransmitters. But if that were the case, wouldn’t psychotropic medications have reduced the incidence and prevalence of anxiety and depression, and put a dent in the number of suicides recorded annually? Instead, what we are seeing are skyrocketing rates of all of these issues, especially in the more industrialized nations. And health and mental health professionals are bracing for a post-COVID wave of all of these “diseases” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clearly, our angst is a lot more complex than this simple neurotransmitter.

    Medications are fine as an adjunctive support, especially during times of extreme stress, but they will not “cure” the underlying causes and conditions that led to our “disordered” thinking, feeling, and behaving. They work best as a short-term salve to help us do the necessary work of change. In fact, most research done to get drugs approved is short term, and the bulk of the data shows that antidepressants, for example, only work better than placebo in cases of very severe depression. And many of these medications have undesirable effects and are difficult to withdraw from. Some Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, have FDA black-box warnings about the potential increase in suicidality in certain age groups. Education on the pros and cons is imperative before agreeing to introduce psychotropic medications.

    The reality is that we are complex, multi-faceted beings whose unique and individual experiences require multi-faceted solutions. To decolonize therapy, we must humanize our experiences and bring back ancestral ways of healing in community by creating “communities of care.” We must de-mystify our experiences and put them in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political experiences and not “broken brains.” We must acknowledge the role of current and transgenerational, individual, and collective traumas. We must acknowledge all the ways that racist, sexist, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and capitalist ideologies impact individuals and communities – increasing anxiety and depression rates due to realistic fears and hopelessness regarding change. We must bring healing  (the process of ecoming whole) to the center of treatment.

    Decolonization is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological, and economic freedom. Racial equality and eliminating wage disparities, for example, would do more for reducing depression and anxiety in certain groups than psychotherapy and anti-depressants. Decolonizing therapy means empowering individuals rather than making them dependent on a medical infrastructure designed to profit from illness. It means offering solutions that work for people within their cultural contest, even if they are not “evidence-based.” And finally, it means we must establish systems and institutions that understand dis-ease as just that: an attempt of the body and psyche to return to ease, flow, and coherence.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.

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  • Why practice? Yoga and Your Mental Health

    Yoga’s first principle is embodiment, and research shows that the practice of yoga tones the vagus nerve, which is implicated in numerous bodily functions and mediates the relaxation response. Through practice, we become intimately familiar with the functioning of our body, breath, and mind.

    Never has our practice of yoga become so imperative. As we enter the second year of a global pandemic and the number of deaths from COVID-19 reaches almost half a million people in the US alone, some of us may be feeling the weight of stress and isolation as a new wave of dread, anxiety, grief, depression, or a gnawing sense of impending doom. Yoga may seem like a luxury not worth indulging in, or we may lack the energy to contemplate a yoga practice. Meditation, as helpful as science says it is, may be elusive to our confused and distracted minds.

    We want certainty. We want to imagine an end to this endless state of unpredictability. But consider the news lately: the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and socio-political unrest, the threat domestic terrorism and police brutality, an ever-worsening climate crisis, and the undermining of democracy and equity worldwide. The battleground of our emotions, whether we want it or not, is the body. Words may fail us. As our distress remains unprocessed, undigested, and unexpressed, it manifests as insomnia, aches and pains, variable energy and vitality, and lowered immunity. We become irritable and depressed, further isolating from already diminished connections.

    Yoga’s first principle is embodiment, and research shows that the practice of yoga tones the vagus nerve, which is implicated in numerous bodily functions and mediates the relaxation response. Through practice, we become intimately familiar with the functioning of our body, breath, and mind. This wisdom enables us to self-regulate our autonomic nervous system, calm our mind, and build flexibility in our thinking, feeling, and behaviors. Yoga is not about touching your toes, you see. It’s about touching your soul through time-tested practices. Grounded in the eternal and unchanging part of us, we become less fearful, more joyful, and increasingly capable of achieving our highest goals.

    But where do we begin? First, understand that the “royal” path of yoga requires discipline, self-study, and surrender to a process of transformation with patience and faith. Through the practice of the various “limbs” of yoga, we become established in our essential nature – a state reflected in a mind that is calm, luminous, and undisturbed by the changing conditions of the external world. Who doesn’t want to feel peaceful and calm? The trick is to want that state badly enough that we are willing to engage in the practices that will help us reach that state.

    The yoga tradition is more about the mind than it is about the body. Its inherent goal is optimal mental health through the purification of mental afflictions that block our perception of our true nature. But we need the body because it is the vehicle of consciousness. It is through the body, its brain, and nervous system that we perceive and interpret the world. Hence, we practice yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances or attitudes), asana (physical posture), pranayama (mastery of our breath/energy), pratyahara (withdrawing the senses inward), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) in order to reach the various levels of samadhi (spiritual absorption). These are outlined in chapter 2 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the steps to purify body and mind so we can experience oneness with the Absolute Reality.

    We begin where we are. Simplicity is key to mastery. We make a start by understanding that a yogic lifestyle requires a commitment to non-violence, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, non-stealing, and effort to constrain our less constructive urges. These are the yamas. Non-violence and truthfulness mean that you practice within your limits and don’t demand too much of yourself, causing you to become overwhelmed and give up before you begin. Trust that every small change you make leads to big transformation. As my teacher, Yogarupa Rod Stryker likes to say, “change is the hardest yoga.” So we muster up the courage to investigate what the practice of yoga might mean to us personally.

    The niyamas invite us into a life of cleanliness and purity of body and mind, contentment and gratitude as a mental attitude, disciplined effort, self-study through inquiry, and trustful surrender to Ishvara, the inner light or guiding principle of Pure Consciousness within us.

    Your yoga practice may include certain purification routines in the morning, such as scraping your tongue of impurities, washing your body, wearing clean clothes, and eating more fresh than processed foods. Self-study may mean a daily inventory of helpful and unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; a gratitude list to cultivate an attitude of contentment; and pausing to drop beyond our stressful thoughts into a higher mind for intuitive guidance.

    Patanjali makes it clear that asana is not the acrobatics of standing on your hands or twisting yourself into a pretzel. In fact, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states that there are 15 major poses of which several are seated meditation poses and one is savasana, the restful corpse pose. The way to master the pose, according to Patanjali, is to attain an easeful steadiness (sthiram, sukham) or stability and comfort. To “perfect” the pose requires the loosening of tension caused by too much effort, and then allowing the mind to become absorbed in contemplation of the “infinite.” For the purpose of the remaining limbs that lead to meditation, find a pose that allows you to sit comfortably for several minutes.

    Pratyahara means that you commit to leave the distractions of the world – and the mind’s attachment to compulsive thinking – for long enough that you can focus on your breath with one-pointedness. If mind becomes distracted or pulled away from the focus of inner attention, keep turning the mind inward.

    Here is a pranayama breath awareness practice to release tension and constriction in the autonomic nervous system: diaphragmatic abdominal breathing. You can do this lying down or seated, as long as your posture is erect, and your chest and ribs are not collapsing into the abdomen. Begin to breathe evenly in and out with most of the movement in the abdomen. The chest is relatively still as the abdomen expands on inhale and softens on exhale. Gradually invite the breath to become smooth, continuous, and uninterrupted. As your nervous system receives the message to relax, your diaphragm (a very large, dome-shaped muscle below the ribcage) will soften and release any tension or constriction. Be aware that you may feel your body twitch, and emotions that have been constricted there may arise. Allow any heat, shaking/trembling, sweating or tears to happen. These are just the processes the body uses to release stress hormones. Awareness remains steady and undisturbed. Continue to witness the release of tension in body and mind until you experience a completion marked by a renewed sense of clarity and calm vitality.

    You can continue the same practice with prana dharana, a concentration of the lifeforce riding on the breath, feeling the abdomen filled with this golden stream of life energy. As the mind becomes increasingly absorbed in this light, you move into dhyana, or meditation on this object: energy in the abdomen. If you slip into a state of oneness, where you dissolve into this golden light, you’ve gotten a glimpse into samadhi, which is merging with the object of your meditation.

    If you wish to extend your practice and do some self-study, you could consider journaling about your experience. What was distracting you? What helped you ease into a deeper state of relaxation? How has your physical, mental, and emotional state changed as a result of your practice? Is there something I need to do about the thoughts that were distracting me? If they were negative thoughts, can I contemplate some opposite ideas? Cultivate an attitude of curiosity, non-judgment and compassionate witness as your higher awareness investigates the processes of your conditioned mind and personality, remembering that your essential, deepest and truest self is pure, unconditioned Consciousness.

    Other helpful activities to contemplate as part of your mental health practice of yoga:

    Slow down and feel your body – your body is the container of your experience and the radar signaling you are stressed. Simple awareness of the body’s sensations of constriction may allow them to let go. Become aware of the polarities of constriction and expansion, fear and bliss, beauty and horror – and move awareness between the two until something changes.

    Ask for help – our conditioned minds can be a minefield, especially during these trying times that have heightened our awareness of personal, collective, and ancestral traumas. Don’t struggle alone. Reach out to a trusted teacher or therapist and share your struggles – with practice or with life. Feeling our feelings in the safety of a caring witness is an important way to “digest” the stress hormones released in the body and the mental impressions in the mind.

    Create a sangha – We are social beings designed to be in community. Find or create a trusted community of like-minded souls with whom you can share experiences as well as helpful resources. Notice how your body and breath respond when you are feeling safe in community. Any groups with shared interests are helpful, whether they are social, professional or spiritual. Remember the strength and resilience of your community.

    Lift your spirits – by reading inspirational literature and/or the scriptures of your spiritual tradition. Listen to helpful podcasts by luminaries in various traditions. Watch documentaries or comedies – whatever your wise mind tells you will be helpful in the moment. Expand your consciousness by listening to experiences beyond your own. Seek to understand those different than you. Remember that you are not alone. All of humanity is in the same boat and there are many helpers to guide us.

    Play! – it’s important to find opportunities for rest and recreation to help reset your nervous system as well as find joy in the midst of turmoil. By making time for healthy pleasure, especially with others, we tap into the joy that is ever present in our hearts. This is a good way to balance (not avoid) the states of grief or depression that are stimulated by current conditions.

    Fantasize! – our bodies respond to the thoughts and images we hold in our minds. It’s like being in a movie theater, but the screen is in our mind. So let your imagination run wild and experience the shifts in your nervous system as you visualize yourself on a remote beach, diving deep in the ocean, or skiing down a mountain. Again, this is not about avoidance, but rather it is providing respite to an over-burdened nervous system.

    Grounding and Orienting – the more present we can be in the current moment, the easier it will be to reset our nervous system to a helpful balance. Most of our distress is caused by stressful thoughts about the past or the future, both of which are not real in the present moment. Orienting to safety and grounding in our bodies through the 5 senses, feeling the stability and strength of bones and muscles, can help us become calmer.

    Focus on what you can control – there may not be a lot you can control in your community and the world, but you can establish certain predictable patterns in your life, such as regular and healthy meals, meditation moments, nighttime rituals to prepare for an early night’s sleep, scheduling exercise as well as social connection time, even if it’s electronically.

     

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.

    Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

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  • Create a Soul Inspired Intention

    The first thing that we need to know is, that desire to fulfill our desires is part of the soul’s nature.

    In Sanskrit the word for intention, or resolve, is Sankalpa. We are going to be talking about Sankalpa Shakti, how to give power to our intentions. The first thing that we need to know is, that desire to fulfill our desires is part of the soul’s nature. According to the Vedic scriptures, your soul is born with four desires.

    Dharma
    The desire for dharma, or purpose. A destiny, to have a fulfilled life.

    Artha
    The desire for artha, or the means to fulfill your desires. And that doesn’t only include material wealth, but it also covers health and security of housing and everything that you need in order to fulfill your desires.

    Kama
    We also are born with the desire for kama, or pleasure in all of its forms, earthly and spiritual. And it’s for pleasure and enjoyment of everything that life has to offer.

    Moksha
    And then Moksha, the desire for liberation, to be free. And that includes freedom in the world and freedom from the world. The ultimate spiritual freedom.

    Let your heart tell you, which of these four desires will help me fulfill my purpose. Which of these four desires, in the next 6 to 12, or 18 months, move me closer toward the goal of who and what I am meant to be in this world. And without letting your daily functioning mind get in the way, just simply trust your heart. You might see that one of the four desires is shimmering, or brighter, or more attractive to you, and just trust that, that is the desire that needs to be focused on for the next 6 to 12, or 18 months.

    Continue this lesson with Inge on Omstars

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT-500 is an embodiment specialist and integrative psychotherapist licensed in Florida and Colorado (Florida Lic. # SW9606; Colorado Lic. # CSW09923364). She delights in helping people connect with their intrinsic self-regulation and inherent inner wisdom through meditation practices and somatic psychology. As a Somatic Experiencing® practitioner, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) specialist, and tantric hatha yoga teacher, she treats the effects of acute and chronic stress on psyche and body to restore the person’s innate capacity to heal. Weaving the latest developments in the field of neuroscience with the ancient wisdom of yoga, Inge develops skillful awareness practices that help people embody their lives in a more fulfilling way, renegotiating past trauma by reestablishing a strong relationship to safety in the present moment. http://www.embodyyourlife.org/

  • What is Tantra? A Primer on Tantric Meditation

    Tantra is as misunderstood in the West, where it’s become synonymous with sexual rituals, as in the East, where it’s considered magic alchemy. But Tantra is actually a vast science that encompasses wisdom from Ayurvedic medicine, Samkhya/Yoga philosophy, Vedanta, Jyotish astrology and spiritual practices using yantras and mantras. The ultimate goal of Tantra is to systematically utilize all of the methods we can to accelerate transformation and help the practitioner to create a life that is richer and more complete. Its focus is on providing the correct approach and specific techniques to cause an individual to grow, become stronger and more capable by undoing all obstacles to freedom in the fastest way possible. According to Sandra Anderson, senior faculty at the Himalayan Institute, “Tibetan Buddhism, the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, and shakti sadhana (worship and practices centered on the Divine Mother) are all examples of the diverse faces of Tantra.”

    There are three paths of Tantra: the Kaula path, which relies on external rituals; the Mishra path, which blends internal and external practices; and the Samaya path, which is purely internal and meditative. Samaya Tantra is ultimately more like a deep communion with the creative force of the universe, Shakti, than worship in a ritualistic sense. Yantras, geometric figures, and mantras, vibrational sounds, create a locus for these universal powers (shaktis) to manifest in our inner and outer lives. Patanjali’s teaching on Tantric alchemy can be found in the Yoga Sutras, chapter 3.

    Tantra, in essence, signifies to expand beyond limitations. Its ideology recognizes that all of the powers, or shaktis, in the universe are encountered in the individual: Tatha brahmande, yatha pindande (“As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm”). In Tantra, the ultimate yantra is the body, and our self-realization potential (kundalini shakti, the vast powers dormant within us) is awakened through the use of asana, pranayama, bandhas, mudras and mantra. Through these systematic technics, the practitioner harnesses prana shakti, the creative lifeforce, to enable the dormant kundalini to rise through the chakras, riding on the river of the central channel to the crown, where it can join pure consciousness. This “awakening” brings an intense and inexplicable joy that is beyond time, space and causation. We feel empowered, healed and fulfilled.

    Tantric meditation, then, would use multiple tools and techniques to help us “pierce the veil” that obscures our awareness of limitless potential in the quickest and most effective ways. Using the simplest of asanas, one can stabilize the pelvic floor, strengthen the sacrum, and increase flexibility and stability in the spinal column. Pranayama serves to energize the solar plexus, access the heart center, and enter the eyebrow center, or third eye, to replenish the brain and nervous system. Subsequently, one can engage in the samyamas: Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (union/merging with the Infinite).

    Look for my guided Tantric Meditations on this platform to have a direct experience:

    Tantric Meditation for Clarity & Wisdom – The third eye (ajna chakra) is the center of clarity and wisdom. Blending breathing techniques (pranayama), chanting, visualization (kriya), and vibrational sound (mantra) to gain access to Turya, the fourth dimension, tap into the wisdom of the third eye and rest in a pool of restful, effortless awareness.

    Tantric Meditation to Clear Difficult Emotions – Tantric meditation is about the alchemy of transformation. In this meditation, you will use breath, concentration, visualization of energy movement and color, and meditation to transform difficult emotions in the heart center.

    Tantric Meditation for Empowerment – Connect to the creative forces of will, power, and determination residing in your manipura (third chakra), known as the city of gems, by using breathing techniques, visualization, concentration of prana at the navel center, and mantra.

    Tantric Meditation to Awaken Sushumna – One definition of a yogi is “one whose prana, or energy, is in the spine.” Connect to the spinal energy channel known as sushumna, clearing the path for Kundalini to rise, using breath, chanting AUM multiple times, visualization and meditation.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann is a somatic psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher, initiated in the Himalayan Tantric lineage of Sri Vidya. ParaYoga is a living link to the ancient traditions of yoga, meditation, and tantra. 

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  • Vichara: A key tool of self-study in yoga

    The systematic practice of raja yoga, the “royal” path, consists of three components: tapas (austerity, or going against the grain of our conditioning), svadyaya (self-study, or self-inquiry to understand the conditioning and overcome it), and ishvara pranidhana (the unshakeable faith in the ever-guiding and protecting power of a primordial inner guru, teacher, or guide).

    Vichara, or self-inquiry, is a Sanskrit term that is loosely translated as “discernment.” It is a systematic process that offers us a methodology for making the unconscious, conscious – a key tool offered by Vedanta which enables us to attain the ultimate goal of stilling the fluctuations of the mind and connecting with the Infinite, Pure Consciousness. As in Jungian psychology, which seeks to bring subconscious process and symbolic content to conscious awareness, a vichara process in yoga helps us to become more intimately aware of these subconscious patterns and tendencies so they can lose their power to seduce and entrap us.

    Ultimately, vichara is the ability to maintain a continuous awareness on the higher Self, the Paramatman or Ishvara, the untainted Purusha, or Supreme Soul. But in the initial stages, it helps bring us in touch with the higher aspects of our mind, the Buddhi, or wise, intuitive intellect – differentiating it from the lower functions  of the  mind, known as manas, the survival instincts, citta, the storehouse of all our memories, and ahamkara, the I-sense or ego identity. It is this Buddhi wise mind that gets us closer to that which is beyond the mind: Purusha, the Soul.

    The Yoga Vasishtha, one of the foremost Vedantic texts, is profusely illustrated with examples of vichara, recommending self-inquiry as the highest and most direct path to Self-Realization. So how do you do it? Here are some simple questions to ask yourself when you find yourself distressed or confused:

    • What situation or thought precipitated your thought or feeling?
    • What is the predominant emotion or feeling? (sadness, anger, fear…)
    • How did it manifest behaviorally? (yelling, withdrawing, judgment…)
    • What is the seed/root desire you need to uncover? We all live with these desires and they “color” our thoughts. They can be caused by samskaras, or past impressions; vasanas, the tendencies they engender; and vikalpas, the false beliefs that only live in our imagination and aren’t inherently real, separating us thus from Vidya. Through disentanglement from the thought forms, pure consciousness can begin to emerge.
    • Is the desire coming from our:
      • Higher Self, Soul, Purusha? How our Soul wants to express its purpose in this lifetime?
      • Or our lower self: manas, chitta, ahamkara, or Buddhi?
    • Can you trace it back the desire to when it took root in your life? While not necessary, this question can illuminate the origin of the unfulfilled desire to an event in early life that is still driving us.
    • Does it require adjustment (change something) or contentment (live with it) or both?

    How do you get rid of the desire that initiated the distress? Meditation uses fire of self-knowledge (jatavedas agni) to dissolve it. It increases our witness consciousness so we can dis-identify with the lower mind. Vyasa, in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras, recommends contemplating the Self/Purusha that is intransient so our awareness of it burns so brightly that it burns away avidya, the sense that the impermanent is real. We can then surrender to the divine, ishvara pranidhana, which connects us to something greater, thus allowing us to let go of outcomes (vairagya).

    Yoga Sutra 3.56 sattva purusayoh suddhi samye kaivalyam iti states that “with the attainment of equality between the purest aspect of sattvic buddhi and the pure consciousness of purusha, there comes absolute liberation, and that is the end.”

    Yoga Sutra 4.25 vishesa darshinah atma bhava bhavana vinivrittih completes the process, stating that “for one who has experienced this distinction between seer and this subtlest mind (cleared of all the colorings), the false identities and even the curiosity about the nature of one’s own self come to an end.”

    Complete liberation and the end of the search: This is the ultimate gift of vichara. May you be curious to begin the inquiry.
    [gery_box] By Inge Sengelmann[/grey_box]

    Inge Sengelmann is a somatic psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher, initiated in the Himalayan Tantric lineage of Sri Vidya. ParaYoga is a living link to the ancient traditions of yoga, meditation, and tantra.