Yoga with Depression

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Around this time last year I and this whole community lost two people I cared about an awful lot to depression.

They were both a lot older than me, had been struggling a long time, and I met both of them at the same yoga studio. In fact, both of them began teacher training with me in 2009, but weren’t able to finish the training at that point in time for reasons I won’t guess at. Holidays have always been stressful for me and I think the lack of sunshine makes this time of year hard for many, but the memories around this sad anniversary are extra troubling.

Even Robin Williams’ death hit me surprisingly hard. I don’t usually have emotional reactions to the goings-on in the celebrity world, but for some reason this event permeated my thoughts and rested heavy in my heart for several weeks.

I have been struggling with depression for a long time and when I hear about people twice my age still battling that demon, sometimes to no avail, it scares me. When I was in middle school I thought I’d grow out of my fear and shyness. In high school I hoped eventually to grow into my social awkwardness and anxiety. In college my panic attacks got worse but I still hoped that I’d be better once I was “grown-up”.

But it’s never gone away. I’ve just gotten incrementally better at managing the side effects. And knowing that there’s a good chance that this will never leave me–that it doesn’t leave good, beautiful people who try real fucking hard but just have to leave this life because it’s too much– is very discouraging.

Let me pause for a moment for some honest disclosure. I am writing this while depressed, after about a week of almost unrelenting heartache. And writing while depressed can be a lot like writing while drunk…some of this might not make complete sense to me later when I’m “ok”.

I would be lying if I said I had never considered suicide myself or that I hadn’t even tried it. My friends and family are reportedly proud and relieved that I have “recovered” from my eating disorder and I’d sure hate to disappoint them…but the fact of the matter is I really, truly believe that my eating disorder has always just been my form of medicating myself away from feeling everything that comes along with deep depression and anxiety. I take care of my body now, but that means that I am no longer numb to the painful sensations that come up in depression. Now, instead of the dull murmur of life which was all I could feel when I was undernourished and unengaged, I can feel all of it.

Of course I know better. If anyone knows about self-care and taking deep breaths it should be a yoga teacher, right? I couldn’t possibly describe fully my gratitude for this practice. It certainly does help me put one foot in front of the other and reminds me that I carry purpose, whether I recognize what that purpose is all the time or not.

Unfortunately, in some sense, “knowing better” almost makes me feel worse at times. Because yea, I could drink that whiskey or move in with one of my parents and become a hermit (dad? mom?) or smoke weed all day or abuse pills again or even just start dieting  and purging again. All of those things would take the edge off my incessant feeling and thinking. But I know better.

I’m very much a normal human being and sometimes I wish I didn’t know better.

I think a lot of people go to yoga because it makes them feel happy and I’m not here to discourage that at all. We all fall in different place on our path and I can’t produce any proof or reason to believe that I have anything figured out. But I don’t practice yoga to feel happy anymore. it doesn’t work that way for me.

When I practice yoga, I always choose to be present. That means the the practice is inherently confrontational because rare are the days where my emotional self and my intellectual self and my ego self and my physical self are all getting along perfectly.

Sometimes the confrontation is downright funny in its own way. Sometimes the confrontation is so faint that the practice pulls the joy that was resting right at my  core to the surface and then up out of me and I feel absolute bliss with plenty to share. But when I’m depressed, the practice forces me to look at facets of my reality/flaws in my perception that I’d prefer to avoid. It hurts. It often involves crying. It is healing and cathartic and productive, yes. But I wouldn’t call it joyful.

Depression is real, and I hope that with all that has happened in the public eye this last year that mental illness in this society can be viewed with more compassion, empathy and understanding. I hope that my experiences with this particular obstacle makes me a more empathetic being and that I am able to share any insights I’ve gained with my yoga students. Yes, those who suffer with depression can make choices that ease the pain. But you can say that about a lot of diseases and disorders and it isn’t easy to make those choices if you’re trying really hard to hide your struggle or doing it all alone.

Yoga is useful in treating depression for many reasons that you’re welcome to research on your own. It’s been proven to help people with PTSD and addiction and all kinds of things. But the thing I want to say about yoga for depression  right now is this: yoga teaches you the opposite of what the depressed mind tries to convince you is true.

Instead of broken, you are whole. Instead of being weak, you have an amazing capacity to feel. Instead of alone, you are an irreplaceable part of something bigger. Instead of chaos, you can practice very hard to try to nurture the harmony that could exist among all your “parts”. The practice of yoga isn’t just the neat shapes you might be able to make with your bendy body. It is the practice of illuminating strength where you thought there was only weakness. Yoga helps us to replace the wagon ruts in our mind where old thoughts move unopposed with new, fresh thought and clarity. Yoga helps us to release the lies.

Maybe today you’re able to treat your body with respect and that’s it but your body and your brain and your emotions are not as separate as they often appear to be.  SO, treating the body with sweetness and patience is a good first step.

Taking five minutes to try to breathe deeply is a good step.

Calling a friend and being completely honest with them about how you are feeling without attaching to their reaction either way is a really good fucking step.

Preparing  a delicious, healthy meal that looks pretty and makes you feel nourished is a good step.

Getting out of bed when you really don’t want to is a good step.

Saying “no” to someone who is asking too much of you energetically is a good, brave step.

Replacing self-medicating behaviors like drinking or binging or whatever it may be with something healthier –maybe music? maybe exercise?–as often as you can is an amazing step.

I know all of these things are much harder than they sound when you are depressed, but please remember that this is hard because it is worth it-NOT because you are weak. You are not weak. If you have depression and you make life happen, you’re brave. And that’s not to say that people who have succumbed to the darkness were not brave. I just hope our society evolves into a place where people aren’t afraid or too embarrassed to ask for help. And by writing this, I hope I am contributing in some small way to the destigmatization  of mental illness.


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