Treating Depression
with Ayurveda

by Amrit Kumar


In the West, we have a cultural tendency to put everything into boxes. We categorise types of people, events and phenomena. We stereotype and judge according to labels that only reflect a minute proportion of the glorious whole of existence that we experience, observe and interact with. In terms of health - physical, emotional and mental - such categorisation can serve to draw our attention away from the complexity and uniqueness of the individual, and also away from the underlying problems from which certain symptoms may arise. Hence we all too often treat symptoms as opposed to trying to find the root cause of their manifestation and analyse the chain of events from cause to symptom. In terms of emotional and mental illness, it is the norm to clump signs and symptoms into conditions such as personality disorders, depression, anxiety etc. The moment we have given a set of symptoms a named disease, we concentrate on that disease instead of its cause. The aim of Ayurveda is to treat everybody as an individual and to always look beneath the surface layer of symptoms to the underlying cause of physical or mental disorder and to resolve the incidents which act as catalysts for imbalance and dysfunction.

The current issue of depression is vitally important as more and more people are ending up on antidepressants and reaching out for psychological and psychiatric assistance. Depression is in essence the imbalance of negative over positive emotions and thoughts over a prolonged period of time, and is usually precipitated by an inner conflict regarding the age-old issues of right and wrong/good and bad. Its physiological basis is expressed through a chemical imbalance in the brain and nervous system, which can result in feelings of being overwhelmed by negative experiences, fatalistic thoughts, lethargy, apathy and a general inability to cope with day-to-day life. Most commonly, when a person exhibits signs of depression, they are treated with antidepressants and a variety of psychological techniques such as cognitive-behavioural therapy.

According to Ayurveda, it is essential to not only discover the cause of depressive feelings and behaviour, but also to address the effect that key stressful incidents have had on the psyche of that person.

In order to do this we must go back to the nature of mankind itself. We need to recognise that despite our individuality, people generally have similar reactions to certain incidents. Circumstances have a general type of impact upon all human beings. For example, humans generally recoil from savage acts of violence. We are horrified and scared by them, especially if they are committed without apparent reason. But the effects of such acts on each person will be unique. Firstly, it is important to recognise that everything in the universe is made up of energy. Consequently, every occurrence emits energy and this energy can be said to “collide” with the people involved through their sensory perception. This energy has an impact on the energy of the individual, who will absorb this energy, react to it and deal with it in very specific ways according to their constitution and background.

hough we all may be horrified by senseless violence, the act of witnessing it or being the victim of it will impact each of us differently. The energy of any event will mix with the energy of an individual and influence that person’s chemistry according to their constitution.

Ayurveda looks at the human constitution in terms of three elements: Vata (air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (earth and water). In addition to our constitution, Ayurveda recognises that our personal history works to condition us to react to situations in highly specific ways. Therefore, our tolerance for a negative experience will differ according to our unique constitution and background.

A vital aspect to the development of depression is the concept of accumulation. If we have a negative experience, which is not dealt with and resolved as it happens, it will create an emotional residue. This residue will then impact upon the next negative experience, which again will create more emotional baggage if not resolved. If the cycle continues, tolerance levels will decrease and people will exhibit signs and symptoms of that intolerance. Control over one’s emotional reactions and dysfunctional behaviour may be lost. One may become apathetic in an attempt to block out any more pain or trauma. One can lose perspective and resign oneself to the apparent hopelessness of life.

In terms of the three constitutional elements, Ayurveda sees all commonly known mental illnesses as the result of aggravated Vata. As this wind energy governs the nervous system, the tolerance levels of people with a Vata dominated constitution to depression and other mental disorders will be much less than those with a Kapha dominated constitution in particular. Pitta people will be susceptible in a different way again, as their reactions are more likely to be expressed through aggression and excitability. In times of stress and negative life experiences, Vata dominated people will tend to seek comfort and diversion in a frivolous manner and may take up drinking or drugs as a means to soothe their nervous system. They are likely to appear talkative, sociable, pleasant and even artistic. Kapha people however will retreat inwards and are likely to become very introvert and isolated. They will brood and feel sorry for themselves and perhaps blame others for all the misfortune in their lives. They will seek comfort in food, especially sweets, which can increase emotional imbalance through hormonal imbalance and also compromise the digestive system. Pitta dominated people are also likely to resort to drugs and alcohol during times of acute stress and emotional pain but for different reasons than Vata people. Their reaction to such stimuli is likely to be violent and angry. All of these reactions to depression and other emotional disorders are of course likely to aggravate the problem and leave people with a greater sense of despair and darkness.

Such behavioural reactions are also likely to result in secondary illnesses. As already mentioned, Kapha people tend to comfort eat and in a depressed state they are likely to also become sedentary. One of the most common side effects of depression is bad digestion. If the Kapha person overloads on food, particularly foods high in sugar and carbohydrates and if this food is not metabolised, their sugar levels will increase and over a period of time, they can develop diabetes. The Pitta person will naturally have high acidity levels. During times of depression when the digestive system is compromised, the acidity levels will be aggravated further and can result in ulcers and hyperacidity. Vata dominated people are prone to arthritis, joint pain and even paralysis if depression is not managed and resolved. Over time un-metabolised foods become toxins called “Aama” that vitiate the Vata energy, corrode the nervous system, which can result in paralysis in severe circumstances, and then lodge in the joints causing arthritic pain.

The treatment of depression by Ayurvedic physicians is always carefully tailored to a person’s basic constitution. The key is to locate the original cause of the imbalance in a person’s negative perception of life, and to alleviate the negativity by directing the person to resolve the issues according to their constitution.

All constitutions will respond well to yoga, meditation and the observance of daily and seasonal routines that are referred to in Ayurveda as “Dincharya” and “Ritucharya” respectively. It is essential for all sufferers of depression to maintain regular eating and sleeping habits, ideally going to bed early and waking early. Such routine is calming for the mind and helps to bring the body back into balance. Although yoga is beneficial for all types, it is imperative that the postures or “asanas” are tailored to each individual according to their body type and emotional state. Just any type of yoga will not do as it may serve to exacerbate both mental and physical problems. The Vata dominated person will easily give up yoga if it is too hard and stressful. Postures must be chosen for the Vata dominated person that are gentle and generally not difficult. The Pitta dominated person will thrive on challenge and will greatly benefit from difficult postures. They need to be fully engaged and they take pride in overcoming physical challenges of any sort. Any strenuous exercise is wonderful for Pitta people and will redirect their intense energy that can otherwise manifest in aggression and anger. Kapha people lie somewhere in the middle. They are by nature comfort lovers and like Vata people, will be put off by yoga if they are pushed too hard. They also need postures which are not too difficult and that are soothing for the nervous system.

In addition, an Ayurvedic treatment known as Shirodhara is an excellent treatment for all types, but especially for Vata dominated people. This treatment involves lying on a flat bed for half an hour to an hour while a continuous stream of medicated oil drips onto the “third eye”. This treatment is incredibly calming for the mind and rehydrating for the body. Like Yoga and meditation, Shirodhara will help a depressed person to soothe the inner conflicts that create turmoil within themselves. Regularity, stability and positive, productive behaviour will rebuild a person’s self-image and aid them in regaining control of their emotions and dysfunctional behaviour.

Kapha people will respond well if encouraged to perform community service and other acts of voluntary work. They are generous by nature and find meaning within themselves and the world around them when they feel like they are making a difference to other peoples lives. Pitta people should be directed towards physical activity because it is a positive outlet for an otherwise aggressive response. Vata people are often very creative and take enormous pleasure from beauty and social activity. They should be encouraged to express their emotions and thoughts through creative outlets such as the arts or cooking for friends. Gardening is also a rewarding activity for Vata people.

For the treatment of depression, the most important thing is change of lifestyle. However, some herbs are used to soothe the nervous system, boost the mind, ensure healthy circulation and a well-balanced endocrine system (which regulates the secretion of hormones and adrenals). Some common herbs that are used are Amlaki, Haritaki, Ashwaganda, Shatavari and Brahmi.

It cannot be stressed enough that Ayurveda is not a do-it-yourself type of medical system. It is highly complex and holistic and demands years of training in order to come to an understanding of the subtleties which differentiate one human being from another. As a holistic science, it is tremendously complicated and involves every aspect of the human condition. The expertise of a fully trained physician must be consulted before administering any type of Ayurvedic treatment.

Finally, let it be said that depression is becoming increasingly common as people become increasingly isolated, materialistic and overwhelmed by the myriad choices and decisions that we must make every day. Let us not forget that there is beauty in simplicity, peace in contemplation and the greatest reward in sharing love and laughter with other human beings. Life doesn’t have to be boring in order to be healthy, and the greatest source of fulfilment is “meaning”. If you don’t have meaning in your life; in your work, your relationships, your recreation, then you may find yourself empty and lost and even depressed. Don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that there are any formulas for happiness or any guarantees. There aren’t. I simply urge everybody to consider his or her values. What do you want from life? Think about it; don’t just be pushed by circumstances.

All we can do is strive everyday to be the best person we can be. Sometimes we fail ourselves, sometimes we fail others, but in the end it’s the trying that counts.

Amrit Kumar is the Sales and Marketing Manager for her father’s company Australerba Herbal Products and Spagyric Laboratories. Through her father Dr. Krishna Kumar she has been associated with Ayurvedic Medicine throughout her life. She has a passion for natural health of both the body and mind that is reflected in her work and her studies in the fields of Philosophy and Psychology.

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