How to Open Up Depression with Yoga. ~ Jerry Mikutis

Via elephant journal
on Mar 14, 2011
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Photo: lululemon athletica

Depression? Backbends FTW!

Depression is a familiar companion, yet it isn’t quite an old friend of mine. Neither an enemy, but rather, an acquaintance that goes back as far as I can remember. Sure, I had happy moments throughout my life, but I always felt this underlying pervading sadness.

Why? A whole confluence of factors contribute, and it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Environment? Nature? Nurture? Family history? Brain chemistry? Growing up deaf in a hearing world? I seemed normal, but I didn’t quite fit in, missing out on the nuances of social interaction such as small talk.

It could even be written in the stars, as an expression of the twelfth house moon in my natal chart. The moon is associated with one’s emotions and the twelfth house is the last house of the zodiac, the house of mystery. It’s the bottomless, watery depths of the psyche, associated with the unknown. It’s the eternal self that fades into the nothingness of eternity. Twelfth house moons often experience intense emotions, but within the shadows of the bottomless waters, they often don’t understand why they feel the way they do.

Who knows why depression is a part of my legacy. The fact is, it’s there.

Photo: Kristina Cox

Depression isn’t just sadness. It’s separation. It’s rage. Turned inward, against the heart.

The heart is our own internal sun. In TCM, the heart is the emperor of the body, and all the other organs serve her. The heart creates the grand cross of the chakra system, uniting the lower chakras of the outer world of manifestation and the upper chakras of the inner world, with the arms radiating out directly from the heart. What we do with our hands in the world is the direct expression of what is in our hearts.

With that in mind, why am I not surprised by the prevalence of depression and other mental health issues in the West, and more or less only in First World Countries? Is it because we’re so privileged  as a society that our basic survival needs are met that we can finally focus on our inner emotional states? Or is it the self-inflicted oppression of fitting into little boxes, sitting for nine hours a day in cubicles, only using our hands to type on computers, rather than the manual labor of our forefathers?

When I first started doing Mysore, the self-guided version of Ashtanga yoga, I could barely do low cobra without back pain while Upward Facing Dog is the standard, to be done no matter what. On one of my pathetic attempts at Upward Facing Dog, the instructor gave me a deep adjustment that forced my shoulders back. As a result, my lower back screamed in agony, but what happened in my heart center made the pain worth it; I became aware of my heart as a warm ball of glowing white light expanding with every inhale. For the rest of the day, I felt the intense warmth from that adjustment as well as a deep sense of peace and joy.

Backbends are yoga’s way of expressing the radiance of our own internal suns.

As I grow older, my depressions seem to have an underlying message presented as nudges from the universe at large to guide me on my path. My last big depression emerged in the spring of 2010. It forced me to a journey inward, towards self-reflection. It felt like the lights had been dimmed. I wasn’t sure of my purpose. Tears, creative expression through art and journaling and just plain moping around marked my days. I met with an energy worker to help understand the repressed emotions and past traumas stored in my body that no longer served me, that I needed to forgive. Emotions that I needed to send love towards. The expansion that followed in my personal yoga practice resulted in deeper backbends, more intense hip openers without pain in pigeon and hanumanasana.

And I was happy. I felt free. I was right with my place in the world.

In teaching backbends, I often see my students rushing  towards the expansion of the backbend with little awareness towards the grounding, the turning inwards. Without a connection to the earth,  knowing where your feet are, the grounding current from the lower body created by the contraction of the quads and the rooting of the feet into the earth, the expansion often comes with pain and discomfort. With the grounding current established firmly, backbends may not be as deep, but they have the strong foundation to support the expansion of the heart center.

Photo: lululemon athletica

I got through the dark night of my soul, and by mid-summer, backbends were an integral part of my yoga practice. I’m fortunate to live in Chicago near the shores of Lake Michigan, and that summer I found my backbends were absolutely amazing. I was trippy from the sun, the fresh air wafting off of the water, the green of the grass and trees.

Green is the color of the heart charka. The sun radiates her energy through sunlight and plants take in that energy through the process of photosynthesis and expelling oxygen. We breathe in that oxygen into our lungs, which are the metaphorical wings of the heart. With every breath inhaled, these wings massage our own internal sun and oxygenates the blood, which is then sent throughout the entire body through the circulatory system, infusing our organs and tissues with the energy of the larger sun.

With that, how can we think that we’re separate from one another and the universe at large?

When depressed, it can be terrifying to gaze down at the dark hole of the soul, but that’s exactly how to get through the dark and approach the light. Not around, through. It’s not easy. But it’s the work that needs to be done.


Jerry Mikutis, a Chicago yoga teacher, has been enchanted by yoga ever since she stepped onto the mat in 2005. It was the only place where she found clarity from the mental stresses of life and ended up losing 50 pounds in the process. In addition to yoga, she is fascinated by meditation, Reiki, running, knitting, service for the higher good through volunteerism and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Find Jerry at Jerry On The, @jerryonthemat on Twitter, and on Facebook.


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24 Responses to “How to Open Up Depression with Yoga. ~ Jerry Mikutis”

  1. Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. elephantjournal says:

    Yoga? I've been applying Ben & Jerry's and baths and exercise and talking with friends for years, not to mention meditation. Getting myself off the couch and onto the yoga mat? It does help hugely, breathing and opening, but getting there is the trick, hey? What are your tips for getting to the mat when all we feel like doing is wallowing, hiding? ~ Waylon

  3. Emily says:

    My son is my inspiration to get on the mat on gloomy days 🙂
    He is very intuitive and can sense when anyone is not feeling their best as soon as he enters the room. He will give lots of hugs and suggest that we do some yoga together while my 1 yr old naps…how did I ever get so lucky to have such incredible little people in my life?! perhaps he really did gain something from all of the prenatal yoga 🙂

  4. playfulwarrior says:

    lay around on blocks and blankets, giving yourself heart openings even as you wallow. eventually you'll want to play a little more…follow that impulse.

  5. Jerry says:

    Yes! Something like a restorative yin yoga practice would be great. Maybe going with a friend so you have that social motivation to go?

  6. luckyelevens says:

    Go into it with no expectations. Your only goal is to step your feet on the mat. If at that point, you want to step off and lay back on the couch, it's ok. Try again later, or tomorrow. What barriers have you built between yourself and your mat? Expecting too much of yourself when you get there? Just throw it on the floor and lie in savasana if need be.

    Or play some music. And not that mopey sh*t we all like to wallow in when we're down (nothing against mopey sh*t, I like it too).. but play something with a beat, something that makes you smile. That always helps put one foot in front of the other too. 🙂

  7. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  8. elephantjournal says:

    Great idea. Don't fight it, go with the urge to lay low but open up within that feeling. ~ Waylon

  9. Awesome!

    These "4 Full-Proof Steps to Happines – No Joke" will serve as a nice complement:….


  10. And, since we love checklists, these "5 Steps to Loneliness" (or depression, anxiety, anger, etc) are also a layman's version of integrating meditation practice into our practical situations:

    Best wishes,

  11. Kathy says:

    If you are a compassionate person on this planet, you can not help but be depressed sometimes. Yoga helps take your mind off anything, it's so physically challenging- if you are really concentrating. I love yoga. The two years I studied under yogi Sunshine McKenzie in college, have helped me through my entire life! At fifty+ everyday I use my yoga to help me be stronger and more centered. Depression is the territory of a mind attempting to reconcile reality with ideology, or chemical imbalance, everyone who experiences it, should try to discern their individual case.. Mine is not chemical however I do know people who's depressions are chemical. There is a difference. I hope anyone reading this will come to understand and not fear their depression.

  12. Flo says:

    Having a laundry list of mental health issues in my family; I chose to seek out methods to deal with my depression and anxiety. It lead me down many paths but the one that has truly stuck has been yoga and meditation. I have to agree, back bends tend to have an amazing gift to my emotions. Yoga & meditation are wonderful gifts and I truly believe that with a consistent practice they can help lead a more mindful life creating space for us to recognize the negative patterns taking place. This is where yoga can help shift us from reactive mode to being fully present with what is rising up. Not shying away from it, but allowing it to happen and pass rather than reacting and trying to "fix" it.
    Much love & light

  13. jaltucher says:

    Wow! I'm going to do a backbend right now. Great article.

  14. Jerry says:

    That's a perfect idea, Charlotte!

  15. Jerry says:

    Thanks! Don't forget the forward fold afterwards. 🙂

  16. Jerry says:

    Thanks for the lovely comment, Kathy – it is hard to face it, but I've found whatever we refuse to face, we still carry it around in ways we can't imagine.

  17. Jerry says:

    Thanks so much for commenting, Anneke – I totally agree about the stability in backbends. For the first few years, I was plagued with a mild back pain/ache, and it wasn't until I started realizing contracting the quads in upward facing dog was essential for grounding and my low back pain went away.

  18. fxgeorges says:

    I too have been into depression now that it has been 4 long years i have been taking medication to keep me going. But then two years back i started yoga and it was one of the best experience that i had all my life. I practised for about a year and because of hectic schedule at my work i stopped practising , immediately i put on lots of weight and my depression struck back since then i am on medication but i want to start practising again probably i have fixed a date for the same and i want to start of again to keep my mind calm and slim my body .

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  21. Heather Lounsbury says:

    I'll be passing this on to all my patients with depression. Thanks!

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