By Emma Faesi Hudelson
I suffer from depression and lately, my mat has felt like a life raft. Not in a “yoga is saving my life” way. Not even in a “my practice is the only thing keeping me sane” way. It’s a life raft because I feel like I’ve been shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, and if I don’t hang on to my raft, I’m going to drown.
Depression feels like roadkill looks. Unless I’m in the middle of one of my sobbing spells, I may look OK, but internally, I’m flat and messy as that raccoon I saw on my way to the grocery store this morning, all bared teeth and gaping guts.
When my brain gets like this, my practice changes. Sometimes, it becomes the only bright spot in my days. I look forward to it, even if everything else sucks. My mat is a place of refuge. I may not know if I’ll make it through my day without snapping at my husband or crying because I got hummus on my shirt, but I know I can inhale, exhale, and take a goddamn vinyasa.
More commonly, practice becomes a chore when I’m depressed. It’s another dreaded task on in infinite list. When brushing my teeth feels like an impossible effort, spending ninety minutes jumping around, folding, and twisting seems laughable. Even on those days, I’m sometimes able to force my way through it all, and I usually feel better for it, even if my body is so knotted with emotion that I can barely touch my toes.
The physical part of yoga does help. Working up a sweat means that exercise-induced endorphins release into my bloodstream, giving me a temporary mood boost. Breathing deeply soothes my nervous system. Backbends energize my emotions. The three closing lotuses give me a chance to consciously open a channel to God.
I know all this, but sometimes, I still can’t force myself to practice. Those days are the worst. Not only do I feel so bleak inside that I’m praying I get T-boned by a semi on my way to work, but I can’t do the one thing that I know will make me feel better. It’s hard not to beat myself up.
“You really should have practiced. Why didn’t you practice? You’re so lazy. Practice would have made you feel better. Real yogis practice every day. If you’d done backbends, you wouldn’t need that fourth cup of coffee. Sloth-ass. You’d better practice tomorrow.”
When my inner dialogue gets ugly, it means I’m clinging to practice like a life raft, but I’m holding on so hard that I don’t notice my fingers poking holes in the rubber. I don’t notice that my clinging is making me sink.
The trick is to find gentleness. To ease myself into practice the same way I’d coax an abandoned, flea-bitten kitten out from under a bush. One slow step at a time.
One morning, I came to to my mat, did opening prayer, and then lay down. The curse of home practice includes a bed in my practice space. I coached myself into a sun salutation (“C’mon Emma. Just do one. You can do it. Just one.”), then lay down again, weeping. I did it again. And again. Finally, I completed five Surya Namaskar A’s and did the only thing I knew to do next: Surya Namaskar B. I muddled through the rest of my practice that way. It wasn’t pretty, but I made it.
Another morning, I made it all the way to Supta Kurmasana, a big hip-opening monster that requires wrapping my arms around my legs and binding them behind my back, then wiggling my feet behind my head. After attempting—and failing—this beast of a pose, I burst into big, gulpy tears. I sobbed so hard I couldn’t even do my closing series.
Other days, I couldn’t force myself past sun salutations or the first few standing poses. Or I’d practice in the afternoon or evening instead of the morning, because I could barely get out of bed in time for work.
I had to learn to be okay with that. Otherwise, what I was doing wasn’t yoga, it was self-flagellation. With barbed wire.
The primary thing I forget is that depression is sickness. If I had a broken rib, I wouldn’t expect myself to bend over backward and catch my ankles. If I had the stomach flu, I wouldn’t expect myself to vinyasa on and off the toilet. If I had something like hypothyroidism, or diabetes, or lupus, I’d cut myself a break. I had to start treating my depression like a disease instead of a moral failure.
Ashtanga is good medicine for my depression, but when I turn it into a club and start beating myself, it becomes poison. I have to accept that any practice, even just a single sun salutation, is better than nothing, and if nothing is all I can do, then that’s okay too. All I can do is try.
After trying again (and again and again), I wish I could say I rebounded from depression through the routine of practice bolstered by replacing refined sugar with green smoothies, or about how receiving some second-series backbends cleansed my nerves and cured me once and for all.
But I didn’t. And they didn’t. Cutting out sugar has saved me from spending too much money on cashew-milk ice cream, but I don’t think it’s altered my emotional state. And those deep backbends only made my deficits, both physical and emotional, so much clearer. Thanks, kapotasana.
I needed more than naturopathy. I got back on antidepressants.
Even with the chemical help, I’m still just muddling along in life–and in my practice. However, I’m proud of that. Seven years ago, I wasn’t muddling along. I was at a dead stop.
The difference between today and my darkest days in previous years is that I’m not giving up. In the years before I got sober, being at the butt end of the depression stick meant that I’d do something terrible and spend a few days in the psych ward. In the years after, it meant that I’d quit everything I was doing–-my job, my hobbies, my haircut, my clothes–-and start anew in a wild attempt to fix myself by changing everything around me.
Yoga teaches impermanence above all else, and it’s that awareness of impermanence that keeps me muddling instead of sinking. Today may be bad, really bad. Clawing at my hair bad. Beating my fist against the wall bad. But it isn’t going to last forever. As Patanjali says in Yoga Sutra 2.5, one form of ignorance is “regarding that which is transient as eternal.” All suffering ends. All pleasure ends. It’s all transient. Or, as the Sufis–and supposedly Abraham Lincoln–said, “This too shall pass.”
Muddling along isn’t great, but it’s better than stagnation, and it’s better than quitting. I may not be thriving or experiencing an “abundant” life (whatever that is), but I am continuing, and that’s good enough for me right now.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always feel good enough for the yoga world, an arena that is rife with ideology that leaves little room for mental illness or treating it with–shudder–Western medicine. One shala in Boston even requests that new practitioners disclose any prescription medications or history of alcoholism or substance abuse to the teachers. I’ve practiced there. Had I known that people like me need to self-disclose in order to practice, I might have been uncomfortable putting my mat down. Luckily, I didn’t read their full practice guidelines. Should I have?
I spent two minutes last week googling “yoga and depression” and I was flooded with advice, none that included visiting my doctor: Unable to access your emotions? Sit in baddha konasana for five minutes. Feeling choked up? Do matsyasana to open your throat. Energy flagging? More backbends!
This all-natural self-healing ideology extends beyond poses to diet, lifestyle, and thought patterns. Need to energize and enhance your mood? Drink warm water with lemon in the morning instead of coffee (it will also “hydrate your lymph system”–whatever that means). Can’t concentrate? Try guided meditation. Irritable? Time to detox with an alkalizing juice fast to remove all the inflammation. Depressed? Spend more time outside! All of these are actual suggestions from publications that the Western yoga community loves to cite. This gem is especially infuriating: “mental health is the process of getting rid of the bad thoughts and embracing the good thoughts.” If only it were that easy. I won’t even go into the problematic polarization of thoughts into morally loaded categories of “bad” and “good.”
These are all great ideas, and I’m sure there’s some truth to them, but sometimes, the naturopathic way isn’t enough. It wasn’t for me. I was doing all I could to fight off the depression in “natural” ways. I reduced my time commitments and increased my social connections. I used a sun lamp in the mornings. I took algae supplements. I practiced yoga—both on and off the mat. I stopped eating desserts. I drank green smoothies every day. I used lavender and orange oil on my pulse points. I meditated.
When I still found myself in tears and banging my head on the wall at the prospect of facing another day, I knew it was time to return to medication. I’d gotten off of antidepressants with the help of my psychiatrist and therapist last winter, but I had to reconsider that decision.
As I write this, I’m fighting off shame. I should be able to cure my depression with raw foods and meditation. I should be able to get rid of the negative thoughts through positive thinking. I should be able to calm my racing brain with deep breathing. Knowing that this is all impermanent should be enough. The yoga should be enough. Antidepressants are made in a lab, out of chemicals, and the yoga rhetoric today eschews chemicals in favor of organic produce. I shouldn’t rely on a pill to make me happy.
But I’m not relying on a pill to make me happy. I’m using it as a tool, one of many in my kit. Best of all, it seems to be helping. As a local MD who practices integrative medicine said, why wouldn’t I use every tool at my disposal?
Green smoothies may not be the answer, but I know they’re a better breakfast for my aching little brain than doughnuts. Meditation may not be the only solution, but I know that it has the power to modulate my mindwaves. My yoga practice may not be curing my depression, but it’s helping me to remember that, just like some postures feel like shit, some days feel like shit. I do the posture anyways. I get through the day. Neither lasts forever.
I may need a pill every morning to keep me muddling along, but at least I’m muddling. I’m still practicing. I’m still going to work. I’m still walking my dogs and kissing my husband and drinking those damn green smoothies.
The best thing about impermanence, about having a yoga practice as a life raft, is that it’s always there for me again tomorrow. If it doesn’t work today, the sun will rise in the morning and I can start again, at the beginning, where we all start. Sun salutations. Surya Namaskar A. Inhale, up. Exhale, fold. Continue.
Emma Faesi Hudelson is an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, instructor, and writer from Indianapolis who tries to do all of the above without ever using her yoga teacher voice. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Elephant Journal, NUVO, Booth, Ashtanga Dispatch, xojane, and Miseducated.net. You can find Emma on Instagram as @thebuddhiblog and tweet with her at @emmahudelson.
Thank you! I suffer from depression, anxiety/panic disorder and agoraphobia. I’ve tried all the “fads” too…yoga, meditation, acupressure, tapping, blah, blah, blah! They haven’t helped my problems. I, too, take medication and it’s the only thing that helps somewhat. But, as you said, the other things bring different kinds of relief and that’s good too. But don’t tell people suffering from legitimate medical/mental problems that if they only meditate more they will be magically well. I’m tired of hearing it and I thank you for your wonderful article.
Hey Emma: thank you for writing. I also am a yogi and yoga teacher of seven years; and experienced many, many, many years of believing I could cure my depression ‘naturally.’ I have a lot of opinions myself about depression; but since going on meds, my friends who are serious yoginis in their own ways express all the time there expectation that I can do this naturally.
I found this part especially teling, “This gem is especially infuriating: “mental health is the process of getting rid of the bad thoughts and embracing the good thoughts.” If only it were that easy. I won’t even go into the problematic polarization of thoughts into morally loaded categories of “bad” and “good.””
And overall, really enjoyed your post.
I ABSOLUTELY LOVED this article! I loved reading someone else´s story similar to mine. Thank you for writing this.