The Pure Calm

A Tucson yoga instructor's new book guides readers through the pain of everyday life

In the Hindu classic, The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells the young archer, Arjuna, that the discipline of yoga can loosen the "bonds of suffering," leading practitioners to "peace, the pure calm that exists. ..." A new book by Amy Weintraub, Tucson writer and yoga instructor, attests to that ancient teaching.

Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga is a comprehensive introduction to the principles and mechanics of yoga. Weintraub, who has practiced yoga for nearly 20 years, examines yoga's beneficial effects, pointing to scientific findings as well as personal accounts, including her own recovery from depression.

Indeed, Weintraub writes with the immediacy of someone who's been there. She tells of a time in her life of "stultifying numbness" when she sometimes "rose in the morning with what felt like a layer of cotton batting between my brain and my cranium." According to her account, her depression began to subside after her first yoga class, and "within a year of beginning my yoga practice, I was free of anti-depressant medication." Since then, she writes, she has been better than simply depression-free, at times "feeling so abundant, so grateful to be alive, to be a part of the reality that is here and now."

Along with her own story, Weintraub details the positive, yoga-related experiences of many students and colleagues, including people struggling with grief, suffering from the after-effects of war and terrorism, and dealing with the long-term repercussions of childhood trauma.

These optimistic reports are bound to hearten many readers. Weintraub, however, doesn't contend that practicing yoga will lead to a life free of discomfort.

"None of us," she says, "can escape the pain of daily life." Nevertheless, she declares, yoga can help people to coexist peacefully with pain and to grow from it.

Although Weintraub writes that she is "passionate about sharing the gifts I have received on my yoga mat," she is realistic about the nature of depression and open-minded about its treatment. She concedes that "if you are genetically programmed to be depressed, yoga cannot change your DNA." She cautions against abandoning anti-depressant medication too quickly.

Weintraub is an excellent writer, and her depiction of the yoga experience is thorough. Writing that yoga's body-centered approach often triggers the release of repressed emotions buried in the tissues, Weintraub cites numerous studies that have measured yoga's healthy effects on physiological functions.

Although Weintraub asserts that "a person suffering from depression will do better practicing in a class," she takes readers through a myriad of detailed, well-illustrated postures and breathing exercises that can be learned at home. She also examines a number of meditation techniques, offers pointers on what qualities to look for in a yoga instructor and discusses various schools of yoga, such as Bikram, Iyengar and Viniyoga.

Weintraub is an empathetic and tireless mentor. She delivers frequent pep talks, gently yet steadily pushing readers past their resistances. At one point, she urges those suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder not to "wait to finish reading this book to find a yoga class." She acknowledges that when a person is depressed, "there are times when doing something that's good for you, even if you know you'll feel better afterward, is the last thing you're able to do." In that case she recommends small steps, something as simple as sitting "up in bed instead of lying down."

While this book does a first-rate job elucidating the nuts and bolts of yoga, it also gives a clear sense of yoga's philosophical underpinnings. Many readers may feel better just reading about these ideas.

Writing that "there is no original sin in the system of yoga ... only wholeness and separation," Weintraub outlines yoga's Eight-Limbed Path, of which "samadhi" is the ultimate goal--a sense of union with the cosmos. Yoga practitioners, she says, learn to accept their mental and emotional states, even the painful ones, recognizing their impermanent nature. Weintraub tells us that when we resist pain, "we reduce our capacity for joy as well as our ability to connect with others."

Weintraub asserts that yoga's emphasis on "Witness Consciousness"--self-observation without self-judgment--can help us combat negative thinking, become more fully present, uproot preconceived notions about ourselves and the world, and clear "a pathway through your symptoms to the ground of your being."

For anyone fighting depression, or who simply wants to know more about yoga, this book is a worthwhile read. Weintraub writes that "anything you love to do can become your practice as long as you bring the principles of self-acceptance and Witness Consciousness to your actions." Indeed, her inspiriting book celebrates the broad range of possibilities in the world and in ourselves.