So this ^^^ is me. More specifically this is me in a rare moment in which the downward (stabilizing) and upward (energizing) currents of my body were in perfect balance. Despite my instruction to students in all my yoga classes that every single asana begins with strength and stability (the rooting down actions), my floaty drifty vibey vata forces don’t usually let me touch down long enough to experience this kind of equilibrium. Bare feet rooted to the earth with the ocean swirling around me … equally powerful and soothing. Gaze raised to the sky. Heart open and lifted to the sunbeam that had escaped the clouds at that very moment. Pure bliss.
preamble: It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love the sunshine and the heat. However, those in my innerest (yes … innerest) circle know that this goes beyond simple preference. I have struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) my whole life. Some years are better than others. This has been a particularly brutal one. It’s been months since I felt truly myself. My energy is low, my resilience is low, my mood is low. My impromptu trip to Venice Beach in November was truly an act of survival. At that point, Vancouver had already set new rainfall records. We had rain on 29 of 31 days in October and 25 of 30 in November. Since then we’ve gone back and forth between rainy days and frigid temperatures. I have struggled to stay above it all this year.
However, something pretty cool happened yesterday. I realized that the simple act of looking up at the sky makes me feel better. Instantly. I noticed it when I was writing. Something outside my window caught my eye and I looked up from my notebook. My eyes landed on a patch of bright blue sky and I found myself smiling. That tiny little moment sent me on a 24-hour journey through intellectual and internet wormholes. So here I am to share what I’ve discovered. It has to do with loops and gaze and light and the physical shapes we make with our bodies.
biofeedback goes both ways: When we are sad, our instincts move us towards the earth. Our eyes drift downwards, we slouch, we frown, our heads tilt forward. We feel heavy. We feel low. This is programmed into our DNA. It’s a natural response to sadness of all forms (situational, seasonal, clinical depression). We curl in on ourselves as a form of protection and self-preservation. Evolutionarily … this posture signals to others that we are withdrawing to heal and recover. This posture also triggers a biofeedback loop and … at some point … it becomes tricky to know whether we are physically slumping because we are sad or sad because we are slumping. Classic mindfuck.
drishti and posture: For me, yesterday’s discovery of how quickly my mood changed when I looked up at the sky made me realize that I am unwittingly and unnecessarily contributing to my SADness by how I am physically holding myself. Like many of you, I spend many of my waking hours on some device or another. Usually sitting. Looking down. At my phone, at my computer, at the road ahead while I drive. The postures we adopt when we are texting, typing, swiping, scrolling, driving, etc. mimic the posture we naturally assume when we are sad and inevitably … the loop is initiated. Our bodies signal our brains that we are sad so our brains release / withhold specific neurotransmitters and hormones to align with that state. In turn, that chemical state signals our bodies that we are sad. We loop and we loop and we loop. However, we can use this knowledge to our advantage. It turns out that simply looking up can help break the cycle. We need to put the phone down, step away from the computer, and get off our asses more often if we want to feel less depressed. Check out this Fast Company article – Surprising and Powerful Links Between Posture and Mood.
facebook warrants an honourable mention: My guy recently took a break from social media and (once the initial feelings of anxiety passed) he said he felt dramatically happier. I saw it happen. It was real. He smiled more. His eyes met mine more often. He had more energy. I’m sure part of that was transcending faceSCAPE (a term I have just coined to refer to the pictures we all paint on social media platforms to convince the cyberworld that our lives are pretty damn perfect). However, I am fully convinced that a huge part of his mood shift was the result of the fact that he broke the biofeedback loop by simply lifting his gaze from the screen. So yup … take breaks from those platforms. Not just because of their content but because it will allow you to lift your gaze to the real world and change the downward trajectory of your energy.
let some light hit your retinas: Turns out I’m not making all of this up. Light therapy has been used for years to effectively treat seasonal affective disorder. If you live somewhere like Vancouver where the light disappears for months at a time, you need to be very intentional about making that happen. So … looking up when the sun is shining is not a bad idea when your mood is depressed. And no … it turns out that the ambient light from your phone doesn’t do the trick. You need natural light or light that comes from a special lamp that mimics daylight. Check out this Psychology Today article – Light Therapy Can Help Treat Depression Year Round (bonus … it references a study from the University of British Columbia).
your mom was right … pay attention to your posture: As a yoga teacher and someone with a background in counselling psychology I probably should have put all of this together sooner but … whatever. The more I think about it, the more I know it to be true for me. Standing, moving, rolling my shoulders back and down to lift my heart, looking up, the act of smiling, etc. all make me feel good. (See the picture above for photographic evidence.) Back to the biofeedback loop for a moment … good posture allows for deep breathing as there is lots of room for our lungs to inflate without hitting any kind of compression. This signals to our brain that we are relaxed and at ease. It brings our bodies into ideal alignment which makes everything we do feel a bit more effortless. We remain in our parasympathetic nervous system functioning rather than activating our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. By changing our posture, we can have an immediate and powerful impact on our internal emotional state. Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk that introduced us all to the concept of “power posing” is definitely worth watching (or rewatching) in this context – Your Body Language Shapes who You Are.
putting the puzzle together: Despite it’s dubious inception in the ruthless corporate culture of the 1980s …”fake it til you make it” is not a bad mantra for those of us who struggle with some sort of depression. It all goes back to the biofeedback loop. We can make a positive impact on the sadness loop with our drishti (the point on which we focus our eyes), with light, and with posture.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that these simple actions, in and of themselves, are not enough to cure serious depression or mend a heart that is torn apart with sadness and grief. I know they will not be enough to completely get rid of my own seasonally affected symptoms. I’m just saying they are worth trying and are good tools to have in our toolbox. We can use them to give ourselves little breaks and to check in on whether or not our depressed mood continues to be real or is simply a lingering biochemical trace of sadness that was once genuine.
In my case, I know it these actions will help me tackle the demons that regularly assail me at this time of year. I’m 24 hours into this experiment and have already noticed a bit of a difference. I feel a little lighter, a little happier, a little more hopeful. I feel less weighed down and less consumed by my own thoughts. I’m noticing the world around me just a little more than I had been simply by lifting my eyes more often. I feel more awake and feel myself breathing deeper. I’m optimistic and am grateful for the wake up call I received yesterday.