• 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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  • Trauma, the Gunas and the Polyvagal Theory

    Trauma field luminaries such as Peter Levine, PhD and Bessel van der Kolk, MD, among others, concur that trauma is in the body, not in the event – or in the story of the event. Trauma, they propose, is locked in the physiology as incomplete survival responses perpetuating a dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system – long after the event has ended. These processes are operating at the non-cognitive level of the brain stem and limbic systems, encoded in implicit memory as autonomic neurobiological and behavioral responses.

    “Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the event itself. They arise when residual energy from the experience is not discharged from the body. This energy remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.” Peter Levine, PhD, author of In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, published in 2010.

    “PTSD involves a fundamental dysregulation of arousal modulation at the brain stem level. PTSD patients suffer from baseline autonomic hyper-arousal and lower resting HRV (heart rate variability) compared to controls, suggesting that they have increased sympathetic and decreased parasympathetic tone.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD, in remarks at the New York Academy of Sciences, 2006.

    Samkhya philosophy, from which Yoga emerges, divides reality into two categories: the knower, pure consciousness (Purusha) and the known, creation (Prakriti). The Gunas are the three forces that underlie all of creation; they are Tamas, or inertia/immobility; Rajas, or activity; Sattva, or essence/balance/clarity/consciousness. The interplay of these forces is the manifest universe, both physical and psychological. The Bhagavad Gita states: “There is nothing on the earth, in heaven, or even among the gods, that is free from these prakriti-born gunas.”

    The Polyvagal Theory (PVT) of the autonomic nervous system proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges, professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in North Carolina and leading psychophysiological researcher, can be conceptualized as a neurophysiological counterpart to the yogic concept of the gunas.

    Porges recognized that the autonomic nervous system responds in a highly sequenced, hierarchical response to environmental stimuli, based on a neural process he calls “neuroception” – an automatic function that evaluates risk and modulates vagal output, triggering or inhibiting defense strategies for survival. He proposed that, in addition to the sympathetic arousal system, there are two vagal motor systems – dorsal vagal (immobility) and ventral vagal (social engagement, emotion and communication) – and that primary emotions are related to autonomic function.

    Neuroception, as a process, determines whether specific features in the environment elicit specific physiological states that would support either a dorsal vagal immobilization response (tamas), a sympathetic fight-flight response (rajas), or a ventral-vagal or social engagement response (sattva). Any or all of these branches of the nervous system may become dysfunctional and/or “stuck,” as a result of overwhelming events, creating patterns of cognitive, emotional and behavioral dysregulation.

    Porges also re-conceptualized the autonomic nervous system to include target organ, afferent and efferent nerve pathways, and bidirectional communication between the heart and the central nervous system. The nerve fibers of the vagus nerve, which travels from the brainstem to the sacral area, are 80% afferent – meaning that they convey information from the body to the brain. Only 20% of the nerve fibers are efferent, downloading information from brain to body. This means that consciousness is in the body, as well as the brain. In yoga philosophy, consciousness resides even in the smallest atom, so why not in our cells and tissues?

    Brain physiology also lines up the brain with the yogic model of the mind. The brain contains evolutionary “layers” that develop as life required new modes of survival: a primordial/instinctual/primitive/”reptilian” brain equaling the yogic version of manas, our instinctual survival mind; the limbic system, primarily the amygdala and hippocampus, lines up with chitta, the storehouse of our memories; the sensory-motor cortex, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex, in their self-referencing functions, may equal asmita/ahamkara, our ego or self-sense of separate “I”; and the most evolved areas of the prefrontal cortex perhaps being the abode of Buddhi, the part of our mind capable of awareness, observation, discernment, attention and planning.

    A recent article in Frontiers of Neuroscience, authored by Dr. Porges and researchers in the field of yoga therapy, describe how these two different yet analogous frameworks—one based in neurophysiology and the other in an ancient wisdom tradition—highlight yoga therapy’s promotion of physical, mental and social wellbeing for self-regulation and resilience, creating a “translational framework” joining these two philosophical foundations.

    Why is all this important? To see the yoga, or union, between various theories for understanding human consciousness, and behavior, provides us more tools to help those students who come to us seeking to grow and heal mentally, emotionally and spiritually. By having a clearer understanding of the inter-relationship between the gunas and the autonomic nervous system presentations of trauma, one can combine the right set of practices (or therapies) for each unique individual. In such a way, we can maximize the desired effects: whether it is for greater emotional balance, optimal physical health, clearer mental focus, or reaching enlightenment.

    By Inge Sengelmann

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    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. 

    Caplan, M. (2018). Yoga & psyche: integrating the paths of yoga and psychology for healing, transformation and joy. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

    Swami Rama, Ballentine, Ajaya (1976). Yoga & Psychotherapy: The Evolution of Consciousness. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute Press.

    Porges, S.W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-Regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Sullivan Marlysa B., Erb Matt, Schmalzl Laura, Moonaz Steffany, Noggle Taylor Jessica, Porges Stephen W. (2018). Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, Article 67. DOI=10.3389/fnhum.2018.00067  https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00067

  • Emotions: Help or Hindrance on the Spiritual Path?

    Once we engage on a spiritual path, and connect with the lofty ideal of enlightenment, it is easy to interpret our human emotions as representative of our lower mind and animalistic impulses. While, indeed, they are sourced in our desire to survive, reproduce and thrive, simply ignoring or suppressing our emotional nature can lead us to engage in what psychologist John Welwood termed “spiritual bypassing.” This can lead to disturbing, if not dangerous, rearrangements in our psyche that can lead to self-destructive, impulsive/compulsive behaviors, and even to psychosomatic disease and chronic illness.

    Emotions can be powerful in either positive or negative ways. When we try to avoid emotional experience, emotions morph into more complex bundles that are increasingly difficult to process. Each emotion has information and deserves individual attention.

    Swami Rama of the Himalayas said, “Avoiding the emotional issue is not going to help you. Instead of dealing with the conflict or issue, you look for answers outside yourself—and of course you don’t succeed. But if you remain careful with your emotions, and learn how to go through the ups and downs of life and still remain balanced, then you will not suffer from this kind of conflict.”

    “All your actions are controlled by your thoughts, and all your thoughts are controlled by your emotions. By comparison with your emotions, thought has little power; if you can use your emotional power constructively, you can channel it. Then your emotional power can be utilized in a creative way and lead you to a height that will give you real happiness,” he adds, in the book Creative Use of Emotion.

    Emotion regulation skills make it easier for you to live with the feelings that come up from day to day, and also any long-standing painful feelings that you have. Here are some tips:

      Observe your emotion. Stand back.

      Experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going.

      Don’t push away your emotion. Accept it.

      Don’t judge your emotion. It’s not good or bad

      Don’t hang on to your emotion.

      Try not to intensify your emotion. Let it be how it is.

      Remember that you are not your emotion.

      Remember that you don’t necessarily have to act on your emotion.

      Practice loving your emotions.

    Be Present to and Mindful of the Positive
    Focus your attention on the positives around you. Think of something good that has happened in recent days. Is there something going on right now, or about to happen today that is really good or fun? Focus on it. Be fully present. Notice everything about it. Stay in the here and now.

    Be Unmindful of Worries
    Don’t give attention and air time to worries or negative projections about the future, which is yet to come and may never realize in the scary or painful way you imagine. Distract yourself from thinking that you don’t deserve a nice time. You deserve to enjoy the present moment.

    The video course on emotions that I present on this platform will help you avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual bypassing” while helping you learn to healthily deal with this dimension of your human experience. In these videos, you will learn to harness the power of your wise mind, or Buddhi (which is our capacity for wisdom, discrimination, and discernment and that which connects us to our Soul/Atman/Purusha), to evaluate whether to act or not act on emotional impulses. The goal is to learn whether to move toward emotions for mindful processing and problem solving, or to move away and distract from them.

    Build your emotional intelligence quotient, EQ, by engaging with this course, choosing not to blame others for, or act on, destructive emotions as part of your tapas, studying your emotional experience as part of svadyaya – both worthy endeavors on the “royal path” of yoga.

    By Inge Sengelmann

    Inge Sengelmann, parayoga certified teacher, intention setting, parayoga, the Four Desires

    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. 

    Try Inge’s Meditation For Clearing Difficult Emotions

  • What Do You Really Want? Empowering Yourself to Manifest Your Desires

    The Vedas tell us that the Soul is born with four desires – Dharma (purpose), Artha (the means to fulfill our purpose), Kama (the desire for pleasure and enjoyment) and Moksha (liberation). It was desire, in fact, that initiated the creation of the universe itself. In his book, The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity and Freedom, Yogarupa Rod Stryker writes that desire is the source of everything. The Yajur Veda, he writes, “tells us that divine desire, or kama, created the world. Without this desire, the world would not exist.”

    Tantra, defined as that which allows us to expand beyond our limitations, sees the world and everything in it as a manifestation of divinity, and therefore the material, when skillfully utilized, can be a means to spiritual fulfillment and liberation. And because desire is here to stay, we need to discern our Soul’s true desires from instinctual drives in order to be fulfilled and live in alignment with our greatest purpose and fulfillment. Otherwise, we are pulled by our drive for sensory pleasures, often in destructive or non-constructive ways.

    Through meditation and self-inquiry, you can learn to identify a sankalpa, a resolve or intention, that can move you closer to your overall purpose, or dharma. At any point in your life, one of the four desires will feature more prominently as a focus of resolve. For example, you may wish to have more freedom to enjoy your life (kama), but first you must regain your health after a chronic illness (artha). Lifestyle changes that will give you the stamina to engage in pleasurable activities would be the first step to achieving the desire of kama. Or you may need financial stability, and a secure home, which are also expressions of artha.

    In my video, Creating the Perfect Intention, you can engage in the process of identifying a desire from which your intention will emerge. Using stream of consciousness, you will identify the words that will give shape to your sankalpa, a desire or intention you wish to manifest within 6-18 months. This intention should be measurable and include steps that you will take to achieve it. It should also be written as if it has already been accomplished. As an example, I had a fear of videotaping a class for my yoga certification, so my intention to read: “My video is done, and I am a ParaYoga certified teacher!”

    But change is difficult, and resistance is to be expected. Even when we dare to dream of what we most desire to manifest, the force of our habits and patterns will conspire to hold us back. In today’s world, social media addiction is a perfect example. When we have a free moment, we often click on our devices rather than interact with others or engage in a productive activity to move us towards greater achievement. In my second video, Overcoming the Obstacles to Manifestation, you will learn about the “Creation Equation” and learn to maximize the power behind your intentions, so they can materialize, by agreeing to release an unhealthy habit.

    Finally, I offer you a tantric meditation to increase empowerment. Through this meditation practice, you can connect to the creative forces of will, power, and determination residing in your manipura or third chakra. Using breathing techniques, visualization, concentration, and mantra, you can create fertile internal conditions to give power to the seed of your intention.

    If you enjoy this process, and would like to engage in a formal Four Desires process, you can search for a certified Four Desires mentor/facilitator at https://www.parayoga.com/certified-teachers/

    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. 

    Inge Sengelmann, parayoga certified teacher, intention setting, parayoga, the Four Desires