*I am not a doctor. This blog is not intended as a substitute for medical care. Depression and anxiety can be pretty debilitating and isolating. Should you need it, here is the national suicide prevention hotline.
The first time I had a panic attack I was lying in bed in a deafeningly silent room across from a bunk bed containing three perfect strangers- two roommates and one roommate's boyfriend (yay, college!). An intense heat ran up my body like a wave crashing over me and in an instant I threw the covers aside and grabbed my car keys as my throat began to tighten. Unable to breathe properly and certain I was going to die, I began to cry, racing outside to my car. Hands shaking and gasping for air, I started the car and drove myself to the infirmary.
It was around midnight, and I had to buzz the nurse from outside and explain my problem. Humiliated by the absurdity of the situation, I told her through breathy sobs that I was definitely having a heart attack.
She opened the door with an eyebrow raised, and took one look at me and then smiled. She put her arm around me and said, "Breathe slowly. You are having an anxiety attack." She gave me a paper bag, which I scoffed at and she eased me into a comfortable chair while I breathed into the bag and managed to stop hyperventilating.
When I caught my breath and calmed down, another wave rolled over me. Immense sadness and frustration. I couldn't believe that an anxiety attack had that much power over me. Over the course of the next few months I fell into a deep depression laced with sudden bouts of anxiety.
This is probably the point where I should say something like: then I found yoga and my whole life changed.
I wish I could, but it's not the case. I had discovered yoga years before, and was still practicing at the time of my first panic attack, but while it was a great stress reliever, yoga hadn't prevented the anxiety so I didn't turn to it as a cure. Instead, I found a fantastic psychologist and popped the prescribed anti-anxiety pills and antidepressants. They were a good bandaid when I just needed to get through my days and finish school.
The real "cure" for my anxiety/depression, (if I can call it that since for me it's an ongoing process) came years later when I found myself off all medication and practicing yoga more frequently.
Yoga, in its purest form, requires that you dedicate that time to being introspective and meditative. When you become an observer of your mind and body without making judgments or giving energy to thoughts that come, your body restores itself to its natural, calm state. Asana practice reduces stress hormones, thus relaxing your mind even though your body is physically working hard.
In yogic texts, there are two types of off-balance energy associated with depression: tamas and rajas. Even if you aren't experiencing full blown anxiety or crippling depression, you might identify a bit with one of these two types of energy.
Tamas people have a hard time getting out of bed, are lethargic and feel unmotivated. Students with tamasic depression often have slumped shoulders, a collapsed chest and sunken eyes. These people should do a vigorous, powerful practice if they're physically able, so as to promote prana (breath).
Rajas people are associated with continual activity and restlessness. These students are angry, have stiff bodies, racing minds, are agitated and have difficulty relaxing in savasana. They often have trouble exhaling fully (a sign of anxiety). These people should do a more physical practice, as well, but need a more guided relaxation.
Depression and anxiety affect everyone differently, so in addition to seeking professional help, I think it's important to practice different types of yoga to find what works best for you. Learning to stay in the present moment and let go of whatever's not serving you ultimately is one of the biggest lessons that's helped me, and hopefully can help someone out there reading this, too.
PS-More on yogic philosophy.