Beating the Blues: Ayurvedic Insights into Emotional Health
Depression affects more than 19 million adult Americans each year. Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression in their lives, and are especially vulnerable after the birth of a child, before menstruation and during menopause.
Depression can take many different forms: frequent sad, anxious or "empty" mood; loss of interest and pleasure in activities; fatigue; irritability; social withdrawal, acting out behavior and family conflict; insomnia; loss of appetite or weight gain; feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or pessimism; declining school grades or job performance; and poor concentration. For some, the winter season can bring on a low mood; for others, depression is caused by major life changes, such as a divorce, major financial problems, a chronic illness, death of a loved one and other life stresses.
Maharishi Ayurveda has much to offer in the field of emotional health. Here our ayurvedic expert from The Council of Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians gives us the ayurvedic understanding and practical guidelines we need to stay happy and healthy throughout life.
Note: If you have a clinical condition, or you are under the care of a health professional for depression-related problems, we recommend that you consult your physician for appropriate advice and treatment. Information provided in this newsletter is educational only.
Q: What is the cause of emotional ill-health from an ayurvedic perspective?
A: From the ayurvedic perspective, emotional imbalance is caused by lack of coordination of an individual's senses, emotions and thoughts. The heart and mind are intimately connected, because the heart is the "seat" of consciousness. In the Charaka Samhita, a major ayurvedic text, it is said, hridaye chetana sthanam, which means, "the seat of consciousness is in the heart."
The main cause of emotional imbalance is the lack of ability to process emotions in a timely fashion. Some people are able to process an emotion quickly, which means they are able to let go of it and move on with their lives. For others, the processing or "cooking" of thoughts is slow, so the negative impression remains with them for a very long time and impacts their current thoughts and emotions, resulting in depression.
Q: Can you give our readers an example of this?
A: To understand how this works, let's look at the functioning of Sadhaka Pitta, the subdosha of Pitta that is associated with the heart and the processing of emotions. You've probably heard of the digestive fire, or agni, that is responsible for "cooking" or digesting food. There actually is an agni, or metabolic mechanism, in every cell of your body, and there is one associated with each subdosha as well. The agni associated with Sadhaka Pitta is responsible not for cooking food, but for cooking or processing emotions. This agni is called Sadhaka Agni.
To use modern terminology, Sadhaka Agni is related to the neurohormones that are located in the brain and all over the body, including the heart. The neurohormones located in the heart send signals to the brain to register depression or happiness, depending on how the individual processes an experience.
So a person with low Sadhaka Agni may suddenly remember a negative situation that happened ten years ago. She'll think, "Why did this happen to me?" If the "why" has not yet been answered — in other words, if the stress is still lodged in her heart and mind — the memory will cause that person to experience the same trauma she felt ten years ago, and this will cause her to feel depressed. This delayed reaction happens because her Sadhaka Agni is low, and she has not been able to properly "cook" or process that experience.
People may not have problems in the present, but in the past they may have had real problems, and those past thoughts can traumatize them and make them feel depressed.
A person who has a high Sadhaka Agni processes negative emotions quickly. He also may have a memory of a negative situation from ten years ago, but this person will think, "That was in the past, and now I'm a different person." This person is not affected by the memory because he has a sharper Sadhaka Agni. Even right after a traumatic event, this person is able to think, "Whatever has happened has happened, and I'm going to be all right." He processes the experience quickly and is able to let it go.
Q: What causes low Sadhaka Agni in the first place?
A: Some people are born with low Sadhaka Agni, others with high Sadhaka Agni, and still others are born with variable or imbalanced agni, which means that sometimes it is high and sometimes it is low.
Another cause of low Sadhaka Agni is eating the wrong foods, practicing Sadhaka-aggravating behavior or living in a negative environment, such as being continually exposed to electromagnetic radiation or being surrounded by people who are not supportive.
Q: You've discussed how low Sadhaka Agni can cause emotions to be cooked too slowly and emotional imbalance to develop. What are some of the symptoms of mental and emotional ill-health caused by a low Sadhaka Agni?
A: If a person has trouble making a major decision, or takes a long time just to make simple decisions, this also is due to having a slow-acting Sadhaka Agni. In this situation, if the mental channels are also blocked, it can lead to depression.
Another symptom related to this is when someone loses the ability to judge the positive and negative merits of a situation. For instance, let's say you need to decide whether another person will make a good friend. If Sadhaka Agni is slow and the mental channels are blocked, you might think, "Oh, this person is very bad for me," and completely ignore the person's positive characteristics. Or conversely, you might blindly believe he is all good, and totally disregard any negative qualities. When Sadhaka Agni is low, your precise ability to judge anything can suffer — whether you're buying a car, buying a house or choosing a friend. This problem can also affect children, who cannot answer questions correctly in school if they have lost their power of discrimination due to a slow Sadhaka Agni.
Yet another situation occurs when people have trouble sitting quietly without feeling extremely restless. Nearly everyone feels restless sometimes, but if that problem persists, it indicates there is a problem with cooking the thoughts quickly enough.
Lack of perseverance is another situation that can come up due to slow Sadhaka Agni. If a person has trouble keeping commitments or performing his or her day-to-day tasks, and is unable to achieve their goals, this also can be a result of slow Sadhaka Agni. One example of this is people who procrastinate, never completing their work and therefore are not successful.
Another symptom that is caused by low Sadhaka Agni is the inability to enjoy normal pleasures. A person may feel that he or she can't go to a social event because he is not funny enough, not outgoing enough, or somehow inferior to others. For such a person, even activities that used to bring pleasure now are painful. If this situation goes on for a long time, then the coordination between dhi, dhriti and smriti breaks down, and the person no longer feels normal happiness at the small pleasures of life. They may pursue more and more pleasurable activities, but feel less and less joy. If left untreated, this lack of coordination between heart and mind can lead to a serious type of depression, such as bipolar disease, where the person loses control not only of their emotions and thoughts but of their actions.
Q: What is the ayurvedic solution to these problems of emotional imbalance, all of which are caused by a slow Sadhaka Agni? Is there some way to turn up the heat, so to speak?
A: Whether a person was born with a low Sadhaka Agni or whether they acquired it through inappropriate diet, lifestyle or behavior, the solution is the same: to restore balance by adopting an ayurvedic diet, routine and lifestyle.
Sattva Vijaya is a Vedic term that means literally, "winning over the sattva," or "triumphing with sattva." By sattva is meant the positive, pure qualities of the Transcendental Self. The more you are in touch with that infinite field of bliss within, the more you will feel uplifted, blissful and emotionally stable. So shrotas refers to the protocol, the ayurvedic therapies, which restore the connection between heart, mind and Self. They are the dietary, behavioral and environmental choices that allow you to become more self-referral, more aligned with your cosmic, infinite potential rather than remain caught in the small, narrow boundaries of emotional stress.
The most important of these techniques is practicing the Transcendental Meditation® program. The Transcendental Meditation® technique is a tool to release stresses in the mind and heart. It dissolves stresses from the past and also allows you to become more resilient to stresses that you encounter today. Through meditation, you contact the source of pure intelligence, pure bliss, pure sattva within. Once you do that, even when you are confronted with the changes and losses of life, you are able to identify more with the eternal, unchanging state of the Transcendental Self, known as Atma.
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah is a famous aphorism from the Yoga Sutras, and it means literally, "Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind." The ultimate goal of yoga, which means "union," is to become united with the transcendental state of the mind, a state completely untouched by the changing fluctuations of daily life.
It is the habit of returning to this blissful state again and again, cultivated during the practice of Transcendental Meditation®, which allows one to let go of emotional stress and return to the positive flow of life. In other words, the practice of Transcendental Meditation® allows you to process emotional stress more quickly and helps prevent depression.
Modern research has shown that the Transcendental Meditation® program is the most effective self-development program for treating anxiety, depression and other emotional imbalances. Here is a list of ayurvedic guidelines to create shrotas and banish depression.
15 Steps to Emotional Balance
- Practice the Transcendental Meditation® program twice a day to relieve emotional, physical, mental and environmental stress.
- Go to bed before 10:00 p.m. Earlier is even better. Getting enough rest is essential for emotional health, and falling asleep during the Kapha time of night generates a deep, restful sleep that truly refreshes mind and body. If you stay up beyond 10:00 p.m., after the Pitta time of night starts, you are likely to feel hungry and give in to cravings to eat "junk" food. Even eating healthy foods at this hour disrupts digestion, which needs the night time to cleanse impurities and rest. Falling asleep after 10:00 p.m. produces a more restless sleep, and you will be more likely to wake up in the night with emotional distress.
- Wake up with the rising sun. Waking up early is critical to preventing depression, because sleeping during the late morning, after 6:00 a.m., causes the shrotas, or channels of communication, to be clogged with impurities, leading to dullness of mind, depressed moods and slow communication between heart and mind.
- Walk outdoors when the sun is rising and breathe deeply. Daily exercise is essential to combat depression, because exercise helps moved blocked emotions and hormones out of the body. It increases the power of agni and helps improve processing power. Exercise also releases positive neurohormones, elevating mood and positive thoughts. The early morning sun adds an extra boost, because you become infused with the positive energy of the sun when it is at its most sattvic and benevolent for all body types. Walking in the early morning sun helps open the channels, stimulates digestion and elimination, clears the impurities from the previous day, and is an overall tonic for ideal health.
- Make sure you eliminate each morning. Constipation can cause headache, dullness, fatigue and depression. If your elimination is sluggish or blocked, start your day with cooked apples, prunes and figs. Take two Herbal Cleanse capsules at night before bed. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Eat your meals at the same time each day, with the main meal at noon and a lighter meal in the evening. The early morning walk will go a long way toward making your elimination regular as well.
- Don't resist natural urges. According to Charaka Samhita, it is unhealthy to suppress urine, bowel movements, semen, gas, vomit, sneezing, belching, yawning, hunger, thirst, crying, sleep and accelerated breathing due to exertion. The Charaka Samhita states, "The above natural urges should not be suppressed when already manifest and they should not be forcefully stimulated when non-manifest." In other words, don't suppress them and also don't try to force them to happen. Resisting or artificially stimulating natural urges causes an imbalance in the doshas, and can contribute to anxiety and emotional imbalance.
- Eat intelligent foods. Foods that are natural, unprocessed and contain more of nature's intelligence are digested quickly by the body and create ojas. Ojas is the product of good digestion that creates bliss, stable emotions and good health in the body. Intelligent foods are milk, clove, walnut, pear, and coconut. Eat intelligent proteins such as soaked seeds and nuts with raisins and dates; panir (fresh cheese); and ayurvedic buttermilk or lassi rather than yogurt, as these lighter drinks do not increase Kapha and are better for lightening emotions. To make buttermilk, follow this simple recipe. Please note that ayurvedic buttermilk is not the same as the buttermilk you buy in the store. This recipe helps restore the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract, thus helping digestion and assimilation.
- Spices such as black pepper help to enhance Medhya Agni, which means they improve coordination between different functions of the mind. Other spices enhance digestion and balance the emotions.
- Avoid eating "dumb" or junk food if you want to uplift your spirits. Avoid all leftovers, canned, frozen or packaged foods, as these are not fresh and cannot create ojas. Rather, they create ama, the sticky waste-product of incomplete digestion that blocks the channels. Ama slows Sadhaka Agni and blocks the communication between heart and mind, causing negative emotions to be stored in the body instead of being released. If the shrotas, or channels, are clear, negative emotions and stress can be processed more easily and released quickly. Another type of food to avoid is the nightshade family of vegetables, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and green, yellow and red peppers. These vegetables cause clogged shrotas and therefore should be avoided.
- Give yourself a daily abhyanga (ayurvedic oil massage). Massage has many benefits: it increases circulation, allows toxins to be cleared from the tissues, invigorates the body, calms the mind and soothes emotions. The sense of touch is associated with emotions, and even if you are massaging yourself you are giving your skin the tactile stimulation needed to balance Vata dosha and calm anxiety and stress. For your massage oil, use 50% Youthful Skin Massage Oil and 50% Moisturizing Massage Oil. Follow your massage with a warm bath to flush out the toxins that have been pushed out from the cells with the massage.
- Do moderate exercise such as yoga asanas. In addition to your half-hour walk in the early morning sun, it's important to include Vedic exercise such as yoga asanas in your schedule. Yoga asanas enhance digestion, stimulate the Sadhaka Agni, cleanse toxins from the channels and cells of the body and improve overall balance and health. They are excellent for clearing away the toxins that lead to depression.
- Do gentle breathing exercises such as pranayama. Prana is the life force, and pranayama opens the mental channels, the tiny, microscopic channels that convey oxygen to the brain. It balances the solar and lunar energy in the body: the element of agni, or heat, and the quality of soma or ojas. Pranayama clears away impurities, and creates clearer thinking and balanced emotions.
- Take Maharishi Ayurveda rasayanas. Rasayanas are elixirs for bliss and rejuvenation, and are the cream of the herbal kingdom, prepared according to ancient methods that can take weeks. Maharishi Amrit Kalash is the most powerful of all the Rasayanas, and it has the ability to create bliss, contentment, and ideal health. Like any true rasayana, Maharishi Amrit Kalash has the ability to enhance medha, or the coordination between the mental functions of learning, retention and recall. This kind of coordination is important for balancing the emotions and helping to prevent depression.
- Practice Achara Rasayanas, or behavioral rasayanas. According to Charaka Samhita, if you practice these positive behaviors on a daily basis, you will gain in overall health and well-being. You'll be interested to see many of the suggestions we have already discussed listed here.
- Freedom from anger
- Non-indulgence in alcohol
- Avoiding overexertion
- Sweet speech
- Engaged in meditation
- Respect toward teachers, parents and elders
- Love and compassion
- Balanced in sleep and wakefulness
- Using ghee regularly
- Knowing the measure of time and place with propriety
- Lack of conceit
- Control of the senses
- Keeping the company of the wise
- Positive attitude
- Devoted to Vedic scriptures
Create a loving environment. It's very important to surround yourself with positive, loving people who support you emotionally, and who also support you in leading a sattvic life. Choose friends or co-workers who also are interested in following a healthy routine and eating healthy foods. You'll also want to choose the company of people who respect you and who create an uplifting feeling.
A description of suitable and unsuitable company is outlined in Charaka Samhita. Those who are considered suitable company are mature in wisdom, learning, conduct, patience, memory and the practice of meditation. Also recommended are those who are acquainted with human nature, devoid of anxieties, well-behaved with everyone, peaceful, and who advocate right conduct and follow a righteous course of action.
Those who are considered unsuitable as friends or associates are negative in thought, speech and conduct; those who are quarrelsome by nature; and those devoid of compassion. Also not recommended are people who habitually speak ill of others, cruel or greedy people, those who envy the prosperity of others, those who indulge in sarcastic remarks about others, and those who do not follow a virtuous course of life.
Q: Are there any herbal food supplements specifically designed to help balance the emotions?
A: Yes. Blissful Joy is an excellent nutritional support for emotional balance. Blissful Joy helps balance three subdoshas: Tarpaka Kapha, Prana Vata and Sadhaka Pitta. Tarpaka Kapha governs fluid balance in the brain, healthy brain tissue, and communication between brain cells. When in balance, it contributes to a stable personality. Prana Vata, which governs energy, creativity, perception, growth of consciousness and self-realization, is also nourished by Blissful Joy. Finally, Blissful Joy supports Sadhaka Pitta, which is responsible for balanced emotions, self-confidence, healthy desires, motivation and a feeling of fulfillment.
Blissful Joy also improves metabolism and clears away toxins from the microcirculatory channels (shrotas) that deliver nutrients to the cells. Blocked shrotas deprive the cells of energy and vitality and slow down cell regeneration. When your body has more old cells than new ones, fatigue and depression can result. Blissful Joy improves metabolism and helps revitalize cell growth.
One of the herbs included in Blissful Joy is Arjuna Myrobalans, known to strengthen the heart and emotions. Ashwagandha and Holy Basil assist the body's natural resistance to stressful situations. Ashwagandha is also effective in balancing Prana Vata and improving emotional stability. Arjuna Myrobalans also helps strengthen the body's natural rejuvenative mechanisms, hastening the replacement of dead or weak cells with fresh, vital ones.
If in addition to fragile emotions you also feel overwhelmed or mentally fatigued, it's recommended that you also take Worry Free.
Q: Arjuna Myrobalans is included in Blissful Joy — what are the special qualities of this herb?
A: I'm glad you asked that. Arjuna Myrobalans is a special Vedic herb for uplifting the spirits and promoting emotional stability and strength. There is an interesting story associated with it. In the great Indian epic of the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a small section, the greatest warrior and hero of the times was Arjuna. He was faced with a dilemma: whether to fight on the side of good even if that meant fighting against his own cousins and teacher. Unable to decide which the path of virtue was, and faced with wavering emotions, he was literally paralyzed with fear and anxiety. In ayurvedic terms, you could say he was having a severe imbalance of Sadhaka Pitta.
The entire Bhagavad Gita is about the teaching of Lord Krishna, who explains to Arjuna how to come out of the field of change, of indecision and depression, and to think and act from the changeless field of the absolute. Only by establishing his mind in the eternal field of pure consciousness does Arjuna finally master his emotions and is able to take the most evolutionary action.
Now Lord Brahma was watching this discourse, and he realized that if Arjuna, the most highly developed man of his times, was weighed down by deep depression when confronted with adversity, then how would the common man survive in the future age? In his compassion, Lord Brahma created a huge tree to give mankind a long lifespan and emotional strength, and he named that tree with all the names of Arjuna that Lord Krishna used in the Bhagavad Gita.
Now in this modern age, when stress is a problem for so many people, this herb Arjuna can help restore emotional balance. It is a main ingredient in Blissful Joy.
Q: Is there a reason why twice as many women suffer from depression as men?
A: Part of the reason is due to changing cycles in a woman's life, such as menstruation, menopause and even childbirth and postpartum. After a baby is born, for instance, Vata dosha is aggravated and the digestive fire goes so low during the exertion of giving birth that in some cases it's almost gone altogether. This can lead to fluctuating emotions, anxiety and depression. That's why Maharishi Ayurveda advises women to eat agni-enhancing spices such as ginger and fennel during this time. These heating herbs help enhance the mother's ability to process not only food but also emotions.
There is another reason why women are more susceptible to depression. Women by nature are governed by lunar energy and thus possess more of the nourishing, cooling qualities of soma. Men, on the other hand, are governed by solar energy and contain more of the fire, or agni, element. The naturally-cooling soma quality of the woman's nervous system is a positive thing, because it makes women in general more nourishing, more motherly, more spiritual. However, if out of balance, it can make the cooking or processing of thoughts slower, and thus women are more prone to depression. It's interesting to note that menstrual cycles are also related to the cycles of the moon, or to the ebb and flow of lunar energy.
Q: Doctors are reporting an alarming growth in childhood depression in America and other developed countries. What is the ayurvedic explanation for this phenomenon?
A: The main reason is that with both parents working and with the fast pace of life in general, parents often do not have adequate time to talk to their children and answer their questions. Childhood is the Kapha time of life, and thus children naturally take longer to process or cook thoughts, due to the slower quality of Kapha dosha. Yet they are curious and open — at no other time in life are the heart and mind so eager to learn. So they have questions about nearly everything they encounter. If the mother and father are not there to answer their questions, or if they cannot take the time to talk regularly with their children, then the child's heart remains unsatisfied. An emotionally imbalanced state then develops more easily.
The diet of children in America can also cause emotional imbalance, because so many children today eat "junk" food or "dumb" food, which clogs the channels, slows the metabolism, and leads to frustration, dullness and depressed emotions.
Q: Thank you. You've certainly given us some unique insights into the problem of emotional imbalance and low mood states. Do you have anything to add — perhaps some words of advice for those of us who have friends or loved ones that suffer from emotional imbalance from time to time?
A: If you process emotions quickly, you may think that someone who takes a long time to process them is a little imbalanced emotionally. But it's important to realize that to the low-agni person, a high-agni person like yourself may appear to be a little too high-energy! It's good to support your friend or loved one with loving thoughts.
The important thing is to gain the knowledge to help your friend, wife or husband who may cook their thoughts more slowly, and therefore may need more time to process a traumatic event than you do. As we have seen, mild emotional imbalance can be counteracted with simple guidelines for creating a more profound connection between the heart, mind and consciousness.
Of course, it is always recommended that you and your loved ones talk to a qualified Maharishi Ayurveda physician, who can do a pulse assessment and tailor a program for the unique emotional makeup and needs of each individual at a given time.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.