A student once called our yoga space a “modern day temple”. In some ways it is - it can offer individuals a safe, non-dogmatic, non-judgmental place to explore themselves in a deeper way while simultaneously expressing their connection to an awareness beyond the personal ego. So how did this “temple” of breath and movement save my life? In the way that the best gifts come to you when you least expect it, because I was a year into a depression before I even realized that yoga was sustaining me. I hadn’t connected the dots at first to know that I was depressed. I thought the fact that I was still functioning in the world meant that I was coping with a devastating loss in my life. And I was…just very badly, because it created this exhaustive split between the face I presented to the world, and the one it was covering.
I had many of the symptoms of depression: weight loss, lack of appetite, lethargy, poor sleeping patterns, memory loss, profound sadness, feeling isolated, physical pains and lack of focus. But the most debilitating of the symptoms was the persistent, negative self-talk or what I called “the voice” which concocted thoughts such as: “you’re not good enough”, “you’re not lovable”, “no one cares” and “you should just end it now” (yeah, that last one was brutal). This “voice” was of course my own, but it was not my friend, it was my mind turned against me. This was the voice of my ego unleashed and the volume turned way up.
I finally sought the help of a clinical psychologist who confirmed my self-diagnosis and told me that I had “dysthymia” or persistent depressive disorder. Talk-therapy certainly helped me to intellectually gain some clarity and perspective, but I needed a tool that I could use in the moment when “the voice” started. So, I began to actively practice the yogic technique of “watching” my mind with discernment (viveka).
Until that point, I was very much at the mercy of the negative self-talk which sometimes came like tsunamis. They would pummel me to the point where sometimes I was unable to leave my house. I eventually trained myself to watch those negative thoughts arise (like watching a film on the screen), and not identify with, attach to or believe in them, and then watch as they gradually receded. I began to slowly discern thoughts that were true and ones that were not. I also learned to notice where in my body the thoughts were causing sensations or tension and just observe them without creating a whole story around them. When thoughts are very potent, they always leave a physical impression. I saw that we have an ability to create space between our thoughts and the “self” that witnesses the thoughts. Understanding the connection between mind and body, I tried to allow the sensations to move through me rather than get stuck. The key with all of this was the breath – slow, deep, conscious breaths – and then training myself to anchor to my breath when those tsunamis came. The goal was always simply: just take another breath.
This is the practice of yoga off the mat. Yoga is a tool of self-regulation and self-awareness. As a yoga teacher, I spend a great deal of time talking about being gentle with ourselves, and peaceful with each other. But how are we supposed to create a peaceful world if we don’t know first how to create a peaceful mind? So this became my daily practice…and still is. It is like developing an internal muscle, so it takes time, practice and patience.
On the mat, this looks like staying mindful of the breath and remaining centered, even in the midst of those passing moments of intensity or “eustress” (beneficial stress) when the body is moving through challenging postures. It is finding steadiness and ease in the body and mind. When thoughts arise, notice them, and return to the breath, sensations in the body, or to your alignment. Thoughts have power when we believe in them. A thought with no belief and given no attention has no power to make you act or feel a particular way. It will dissolve on its own accord. Steadying the awareness on the breath through the fluctuating tendencies of the mind eventually reveals an underlying quiet, stillness and peace.
Yoga saved my life in another unexpected way. We are taught in the Sivananda Yoga school that to teach is to serve. This has been the main guiding principle for how I approach teaching, and it became even more important to me during the depths of depression. Some days the only thing which got me out of bed was that I had a class to teach. And even then, I might get up with absolutely no idea what or how I was going to teach, feeling completely empty inside, feeling I had nothing to give. I would arrive on my mat and pray – something simple such as “help me”. And, almost miraculously, help came. For that hour, somehow “I” (my little self with all of its baggage) disappeared. I had guidance, encouragement and wisdom to share with my students that seemed beyond what I was capable of giving at the time (we teach that which we need to know). There is a saying that if you are going through a difficult time, help someone else; that our suffering can be alleviated when we put someone else’s needs before our own. I lived the simple truth of this statement. The freedom that I experienced in that hour was enough to show me that even depression is not a permanent state of being, and that somehow, mysteriously, grace flows towards us at all times.
For each person, depression manifests differently and its treatments are varied. My journey is my own, it’s not a commentary on anyone else’s. However, if my journey finds overlap with yours, or if it inspires you or even just lets you know that you are not alone as you navigate your own mental health challenge, then my sharing has served its purpose. While I am now in a very different mental space than I was 4 years ago, I still battle with my mind at times, but the waves are less tsunami-like, and when they come I am better equipped to manage. Each person who struggles with depression must find the tools that work for her or him, whether that is therapy, medication, yoga, lifestyle change, all of the above or something else.
If you have read to the end of this, well done and thank you. We live in a time when it is vital that mental health is taken seriously, discussed and de-stigmatized. Sometimes there's a misconception that yoga teachers are always peaceful and somehow impervious to the normal human frailties. We are not. I am not. So it was important to share my story because I have learned that my ability to hold that very sacred space for my students to move, grow and heal in class is equal only to the degree to which I am willing to face my own shadows and pain, and chart a way through to my own healing. This was a truly humbling recognition, and continues to inform my practice because the more compassion I can generate for myself, the more I can have for others, and the closer we move to an experience of our true Oneness.
In deep gratitude,