At this time of year, when the days are so much shorter, you might be not feeling fully yourself or that you don’t have much energy. Gemma Clarke, an experienced Hatha, Vinyasa & Yin Yoga Instructor, explains that you might be suffering from SAD and how yoga can help.
The days have got much colder and shorter here in the UK and without doubt, it now feels like winter! With the sun not rising much before 8 am and setting around 4 pm, this reduction in daylight hours can start to take its toll on you and result in you feeling less energetic, a lack of motivation and general feelings of fatigue and sadness.
These symptoms, commonly known as the ‘winter blues’, are actually a real and well known medical disorder known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Symptoms of SAD can also include body aches, decreased levels of social engagement, trouble maintaining focus, irritability and negative thoughts.
What causes SAD?
Research shows that SAD is caused by lack of sunlight, which decreases our levels of vitamin D as well as lowering our levels of serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitters which control our mood and work to keep us feeling positive).
In addition, the lack of daylight creates a rise in Melatonin. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal (pih-knee-uhl) gland that responds to darkness by causing sleepiness. As winter days become darker, Melatonin production increases and, in response, those with SAD feel sleepy and lethargic.
SAD typically begins in Autumn and continues into the winter and is most likely to affect us during December, January, and February around the winter solstice, when the days are shortest. Treatment can often involve antidepressant medication, light therapy, Vitamin D, or counselling. Statistically, women are four times more likely to suffer from SAD than men.
So how can yoga help if we are suffering from SAD and winter blues?
A research study shows that regular yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increases in serotonin levels. Yoga asanas or poses can directly increase the firing rates of serotonin neurons, resulting in increased production and release of serotonin.
It also states that “yogic practices inhibit the areas responsible for fear, aggressiveness and rage, and stimulate the rewarding pleasure centers in the median forebrain and other areas leading to a state of bliss and pleasure”. In practice, meditation and yoga can teach us how to deal with dark feelings that otherwise might overwhelm us.
Strong, standing yoga postures, such as Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana III), that emphasize the lift of the spine, are energising and heat building. This helps to circulate fresh oxygen and blood throughout the body and release any negativity we are holding onto. Backbends, which open the heart and chest area also help improve circulation as well as releasing stress and tension which helps to re-balance brain chemistry, reducing symptoms of SAD.
Practising specific pranayama (breathing) techniques teach us how to breathe more deeply, allowing our blood to receive waves of fresh oxygen which increases energy levels and revitalises our whole system.
Clinical research from the J. F. K. Institute in Denmark found that Yoga Nidra – a guided meditation that induces deep relaxation, increases the level of dopamine in the brain by 65% on average.
In addition, incorporating mantras and affirmations into our practice can help us to focus on the positive and in turn, reduce negative thoughts we may be having.
So it would seem that yoga and meditation can provide those suffering from SAD with other options to help them get through the shortened days and lack of sunlight.
Gemma Clarke is an experienced Yoga and Meditation instructor who has taught yoga and meditation in Thailand, Cambodia & the UK. In collaboration with Bethaistyle, Gemma offers online body and mind coaching all over the world.