My journey: Yoga and Depression

Health and wellness is about the whole person- physical, mental and emotional. It's mind body and soul. When one piece is affected the entire body like a contagion in a choregraphed dance - it can ripple through with grace, or it can simply fall apart because one fragment isn't doing it's job. 

When I think of my own health and well-being, I think more in terms of mental health. In the past, I've struggled with adult stress eating, anorexia in high school and unhealthy body image which played into a feeling of unworthiness for so many years. I have abstained from hard alcohol or drugs due to a history of addiction in my family. Cancer within my family made for many nights up til my 30's on my knees in prayer. A case of idiopathic frozen shoulders where both shoulders were literally frozen and prevented me from being able to lift my arms was ultimately caused by stress. Bouts with deep depression gripped me- once during my divorce and another time this past Christmas as I wrestled with grief and loss. Overall throughout my life, though, I have not had any major illnesses, surgeries or other health issues.

What strikes me most in my journey to healing, is my relationship with depression.  For me, depression felt like being enveloped in a darkened cave over an extended period of time, where I'm unable to see the exit. I know the exit is there but any amount of searching in the dark was fruitless and found me bumping into walls and doors causing invisible scars in my mind.  

There is still a lot of shame associated with depression because we are often told that we should just deal with it or just change at will. Speaking as someone who has been affected by it myself, it's simply not possible to will myself to change. It required very deliberate decisions to heal and become whole again and support from others when I couldn't ask for it and didn't even know how to ask. 

If we can take away the stigma of health issues like depression, that would be a huge step forward for those who suffer to hopefully realize they're not alone. Similar to this #metoo campaign for sexual assault and power inequality, I imagine there is a #hashtagfordepression, but I'm not aware of it. 

It's amazing to me how many people turn to yoga because their doctor recommended it, or as self - treatment for various health issues or simply because it's something they feel like they should do. They're looking for something to fill an empty space within them.

"It’s not news that depression has become a kind of invisible epidemic, afflicting millions of people. We live at a time when depression is approached as a disease. That has a good side. Depressed people are not judged against as weak or self-indulgent, as if they only need to try harder to lift themselves out of their sadness. Yet depression, for all the publicity surrounding it, remains mysterious, and those who suffer from it tend to hide their condition – the medical model hasn’t removed a sense of shame. When you’re in the throes of depression, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are a failure and that the future is hopeless." ~ Deepak Chopra

This past year that was a lot of hullabaloo surrounding international yoga teacher Hemalayaa​'s (now removed) admittedly insensitive blog post about depression and her strong feelings against anti-depressants. It's been a subtle platform for me as a yoga teacher to create awareness and dive deeper into what depression is, the treatment options for it, and how to show empathy for those who have it. 
"Depression isn’t one disorder, and even though an array of antidepressants have been thrown at the problem, the basic cause for depression remains unknown. For a diagnosis of major depression, which is more serious than mild to moderate depression, at least five of the following symptoms must be present during the same 2-week period. 
  • Depressed mood (feeling sad or empty; being tearful)
  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities
  • Significant weight loss when not dieting, or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too little or too much)
  • Slowing of thoughts and physical movements
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or specific plan for committing suicide" *

While for some it's a pure chemical imbalance that only drugs can help with, others have found relief through tools like yoga, counseling, changes in lifestyle or work to reduce stress, cutting out destructive relationships, nutrition, a passion (some kind of exercise or art or whatever makes you come alive), mindfulness, etc. 

Personally, in my own struggle with depression over the years, it's been a combination of yoga, sunshine, counseling, journaling, moving my body with breath awareness in some way every day, spirituality/meditation and connection that have helped me overcome the worst of it. I am someone who needs to be with and enjoys people, specifically teaching and sharing my love for yoga. 

As independent as I am, I have come to realize I am not a Lone Ranger or Super Woman. It took years to let go of that. I cannot do it all on my own. In addition, I am just re-learning how to date myself and truly love who I am. It's a life-long process to let go of old habits and internal dialog of inadequacy, co-dependence, and unworthiness. 

I think the most beautiful thing we can offer those who suffer from it is consistent, compassionate presence, not our strong opinions. To be told how to live or what to do to "fix it" is usually not helpful. To know that I am cared for and have support is huge. Offering a listening ear and compassion, now that's powerful. Having a network of friends who will check in can also been a lifeline. 

There was a time during the early stages of my divorce, that I felt abandoned by a certain group of friends and loved ones. I think people didn't know what to say or how to behave and frankly, I think everyone's just so busy with their own problems to remember to check on someone who seemingly disappeared from social life. When someone is depressed, they just don't have the ability to reach out or call you or go to dinner, let alone eat. As a friend, knowing this can be so helpful. Even something as simple as a call or an email letting them know you care with no expectation of a reply means a lot. 
"May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within." ~ John O'Donohue
I believe yoga heals. However, I feel it takes a holistic approach to wellness and healing through mind, body and spirit whether you suffer from depression, addiction, PTSD or any kind of injury or illness. 

May we all learn from this at the very least to become more active nonjudgmental listeners, consistent friends and loving to all. Let's regard one another with beauty and reverence and begin to learn to gaze upon ourselves with a sacred awe. 

*article on depression by Deepak Chopra


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