Since the 1970s, meditation and other stress-reduction techniques have been studied as possible treatments for depression and anxiety. Many types of alternative therapies for treating mental issues have surfaced in the past years. One that has gained a lot of popularity has been using yoga as a way to treat depression.
“When people do yoga they can achieve the ability to calm themselves down, to be present, they can be aware of what is making them anxious” says Kate Sortino, 35, a Yoga instructor who specializes in yoga for depression. “We as therapists try to bring our clients to the present so they can create awareness and like this they may realize what it is that is triggering this depression within them, what is it that is bringing them down, so they can be aware of it when it comes up.”
Sortino took a great interest in Yoga Therapy as a way of treating depression because this is the reason why she started doing yoga in the first place. Prior to becoming a Yoga instructor she was a musical theater actress in New York.
“The highs of that profession are amazing, but the daily lifestyle of it was very challenging,” says Sortino. “Its not the type of profession where it ever becomes easier, and my personal life was really taking a dive”
So in 2008 she decided to take a break from New York City life and moved to Key West. Once she was there she started practicing Yoga about four times a week at a local studio.
“I was being treated for depression at the time, and I was doing yoga about 4 times a week,” she explains “I was noticing a big change within me, I noticed I had a lot more energy and it completely changed my state of mind. I do feel yoga was largely responsible for turning things around for me.”
Thanks to her yoga practice she didn’t feel so trapped anymore in the things that had happened in the past or what was going on in the future, she just came back to center.
After discovering the amounts of benefits yoga could have on people dealing with depression and anxiety she thought to herself: “I want to be the person teaching this.” So as soon as she returned to New York City in 2010, she did her yoga instructor training in a studio called Yoga High on the Lower East Side. She had done a few workshops about dealing with anxiety but felt she needed to get more education regarding the subject of depression.
This is why in October 2013 she attended a program that was being hosted by Ganesh Mohan called Svasta Yoga Therapy, which was being held at the Broome Street Yoga Temple. This program had specific modules dedicated to different types of yoga therapy like yoga for back care and yoga as physical therapy. But there was a specific module that was dedicated to yoga for depression, anxiety and addictions.
“I started working with a few private clients who were dealing with depression,” she says.
“And what I learned through my clients is that some of us will build up a situation to seem like a catastrophe when something bad happens, but if we give ourselves a moment to calm down and to breathe we can stop ourselves from overthinking situations and feeling that they are larger than they actually are.”
Her therapy consists on giving her clients slow flowing movement with breath that will keep them calm. She does guided meditation while focusing of the person’s breathing. However she tries to keep the meditations to a minimum, since sitting in silence for long periods of time can result as more anxiety.
“It’s about finding a balance really,” explains Sortino as she strokes her long red hair. “You want to give the person you are treating energy but at the same time you don’t want to give someone so much energy that they go off and kill themselves. You don’t want to have so much stillness either.”
She says the most important aspect of Yoga Therapy is teaching your student how to breathe properly. Someone who is dealing with depression and anxiety may not be breathing correctly which can lead to physical discomfort. They also tend to have a lot of tension in places like their shoulders and their back, so giving them the ability to stretch out these muscles really helps release those places where they are holding all of these emotions.
“Emotional pain tends to cause physical pain,” she says. “By teaching someone how to breathe properly not only are you avoiding that, you are also teaching them a technique to calm themselves down.”
Breath work and mindfulness are the two aspects that make Yoga Therapy so effective. Most people who are suffering from anxiety or depression are extremely preoccupied with the past and the future, so the ultimate goal is to get them to stay present.
When asked if she would consider Yoga Therapy as an alternative to psychotherapy she replies: “I think psychotherapy is a great thing to do in conjunction to yoga, because you can’t really talk with you yoga teacher about specific emotional things that are going on in your life. What a yoga teacher is going to be able to do is to help you be present and be aware.”
She is also no opposed to psychiatrists prescribing their patients with medication to treat their depression.
“I’m not opposed to medication I am just opposed to doctors who prescribe it without doing any kind of follow up on the patient,” she says. “If you are being medicated but you are not figuring out what is causing your depression then there is a very big chance that you are going to relapse.”
She works with a lot of private clients to help them deal with their depression and anxiety but in her group classes she focuses mostly on Vinyasa and power yoga. In the future she would like to incorporate the things she learned with Ganesh into her group settings.
“People walk into a yoga class for so many different reasons,” she says. “And I want them to know that if they are doing so to deal with depression or anxiety, they are not alone.”
She currently works at New York Yoga in Yorkville, Reflections Yoga in Grammercy, she does hiking yoga in Central Park, she works in the Mercedes Club in Hells Kitchen and she works a lot with private clients. However, she’s still a member of the actor’s equity “Just in case” she smirks.