SAD is the highly appropriate acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and it's thought over 2 million people in the UK alone get depressed because of the winter season. Can Yoga help?
I've written before about the winter blues and the various strategies to try if you find yourself suffering with them. As 2023 drew to its end, I started noticing a familiar pattern in myself...
What is SAD and how does it show up?
I'm usually up and about early. This can be tricky around the time of the equinoxes when we transition from getting up in the dark to getting up in the light or visa versa, but normally once light or dark is embedded, I'm happy with what I'm doing. Up early, meditate, yoga, and or gym. I look forward to these things: what type of yoga practice I might find today; what type or size of lifts to do in the gym; having some quiet time to notice things before the day begins.
But this year, as November turned to December, I noted how much I didn't feel like doing these things. It can be an indicator of needing a rest period, but I felt it wasn't just my physical body telling me to go less hard. So I kept going, even though I didn't feel like it. And I kept going, and I kept not feeling like it.
I also began to feel, especially when I got home from working outside the house, that I just wanted to go to bed. In fact, I'd get up and really just want to go back to bed. I began to notice how I was struggling with motivation in other areas. I felt anxious about planning and executing things (oh hi Christmas shopping 👋😬) because I realised how much I didn't feel like doing them and began to notice how little energy I had to dedicate to them. In fact, I also just felt anxious.
For anyone lucky enough not to have to have drilled into the experience of anxiety, or who experiences it differently to me, I make a clear distinction between worrying about things and anxiety. Essentially, worrying about things boils down to overthinking (a whole topic in itself), whereas anxiety is a physical experience. Anxiety is viscerally felt in the body and I believe it is the body's way of communicating "something is really quite wrong and it needs sorting out because I can't continue like this". Just in case I haven't consciously twigged that something is wrong, my body and subconscious will gang up to start sending me the message.
Around mid December I had to admit, I had seasonal depression and it was kicking me this year. (In fact, I also realised how serious my pattern of seasonal depression has often been in previous years, with midwinter bringing me more panic attacks, meltdowns, accidents, self doubt and inability to fully function in many aspects of life than during any other season). I was sick of feeling rubbish, wanting to hibernate and stripping my activities down due to limited energy. So I turned back to yoga for support.
Can we do yoga for seasonal depression?
Yes, but it first needs a good level of self-awareness to be effective. If you are struggling with seasonal depression and it's beginning to interfere with your daily life and activities, it's a good idea to see your GP too.
These days, my personal yoga asana (postures) practice is generally led by what I feel is required in that moment. So often now it's stretching out the glutes, hamstrings and upper back for the physical body (deadlifts have much to answer for) but the way in which I approach it will have a lot to do with how my energy levels are feeling.
Contrary to popular opinions on social media, sometimes not feeling like you should do a full posture practice just means you need to do something else (N.B. dedication to practice is important, but not blind dedication). Especially for seasonal depression, starting from where you are and changing things gradually as needed is important.
Before practicing yoga postures, we often take a few minutes to notice how and what we are feeling. Two key parts of the seasonal depression experience for me have been anxiety (physical agitation) and lack of energy. Depending on what I notice, I can do yoga to help my seasonal depression accordingly.
Which yoga practices are useful for seasonal depression?
Starting with how and what you are feeling will help guide the practices that work for each experience of seasonal depression. N.B. what you are feeling may also change, sometimes often, so adapt accordingly.
Breath focus. If you're struggling to understand just how you feel, noticing how your breath feels can give real insight. If it's ragged or abrupt you may be more agitated, if it's more of a sigh you may be lethargic, if it's smooth and gentle you may be more balanced.
Breathwork. Simple, conscious breath control helps focus the mind into the body to reduce stress. For example, if you feel anxious, work towards making your exhalations half as long again as your inhalations (e.g. inhale to the count of 4 and exhale for 6) to calm the nervous system. If you're lethargic, focus on getting both inhale and exhale to the same length, or try an Ujjay or alternate nostril breath.
Restorative postures. Moving your body slowly into different but well supported positions using props is a great way to feel more nurtured and begin to open up when you're feeling drained. Take things slowly, giving yourself the support that you need and the permission to stay in each position for as long as you need to.
Yoga Nidra. A type of guided meditation practiced whilst lying down in Savasana, yoga nidra is a form of non-sleep deep relaxation which can improve energy levels during the day or relaxation levels before bed.
Yin yoga postures. Mainly relying on gravity rather than muscular strength or props, yin yoga introduces a strong element of sensation to the practice which can feel quite 'fiery'. If you're feeling somewhat agitated, the focus on sensation can be a good way to release that energy without having to do a full-blown vinaysa. It can be a helpful way to coax more feedback and movement from your mind and body if seasonal depression has left you feeling numb, unmotivated or lethargic.
Power pose. Holding a strength based pose for as long as you are comfortable, focusing on adjusting each part of your body to fully hold the pose whilst taking an Ujjay breath if that feels appropriate. Some of my favourites are plank, downward facing dog and wide leg forward fold. The strength and power required will invigorate your body and focus your mind, dissipating excess energy.
Shaking or repetitive movements. With particularly anxious or agitated feelings, just shaking your head, hands or legs can make a massive difference. Shake for up to a couple of minutes, then pause, then repeat if it feels right. A more structured version of this might be repetitive movements within or between yoga postures, e.g. repeatedly rolling from plough pose to boat pose and back or repeating a sequence of warrior II, peaceful warrior, extended side angle.
Which yoga practices should you not do with seasonal depression?
A seasonal approach to practice suggests that very vigorous yoga may not be appropriate at at time when we need to nurture our energy and conserve our resources. That said, if you really do feel the need to move and energise yourself, that may work well for you.
As a guide, try not to 'go in hard' or overstretch yourself. Complicated postures or breathwork practices may be best kept for a time when you can give them your full attention and you have more resources available.
If you're on any medication or have any health needs not associated with seasonal depression, it's a good idea to consult your doctor and work with a trained yoga teacher in order to get the most out of your practice.
How long should you practice yoga for to help with seasonal depression?
Little and often may be the key. If you don't feel like doing much, just do what you can. A short practice is often very helpful to immediately shift your energy, but as seasonal depression tends to show up for much of the winter, it's a great idea to plan in regular practices too.
A consistent 5-10 minute break from daily activity if you're feeling agitated may just help to gradually calm your nervous system enough to improve your overall sense of wellbeing over the course of a few days. A daily 25 minute yoga nidra before bed may help you sleep better and improve your energy levels within a week or so.
How does yoga help with seasonal depression?
Yoga practices not only tune you in to the state of your breath, body, mind and energy, they can also allow you to alter the state of your nervous system, actively changing your mood and your experience of feelings and symptoms associated with seasonal depression.
Practicing yoga has been show to boost the levels of nerotransmitters in the brain- "feel good" chemicals such as dopamine, seratonin and GABA which are key to feeling rewarded, contented and relaxed.
Yoga gives you a really wide range of options to move your body in different ways depending on how you are feeling and what needs to change to feel better. Yoga can also improve your sleep quality which improves your wellbeing overall, not just when suffering with SAD.
For me, taking a more 'back to basics' approach to my yoga practice and building in different elements has definitely helped me to feel a little more active and motivated at this dark time of year.
Want to practice yoga now? Contact me for a personalised session tailored to your needs.