a location that cannot be intentionally or willfully discovered.
It is naturally felt when the whole body is relaxed and participating
in its life and relationships. You can't try and be deep. It arises"
"Yoga is about moving and breathing from a place of depth,
a location that cannot be intentionally or willfully discovered.
It is naturally felt when the whole body is relaxed and participating
in its life and relationships. You can't try and be deep. It arises"
I stumbled upon this amazing essay about yoga and depression...
by Catherine Ghosh of Secret Yoga via Elephant Journal.
The concerning calls would arrive late at night, just before all the asrama residents turned in for the night. Normally, we women in the asrama were not allowed to receive calls from males. We all practiced celibacy and although we were mostly Americans, adhered to certain codes of conduct that oddly resembled those of medieval India, right down to covering our heads with our saris. (Those were the days!)
Chastity, we were told, was a spiritual pillar for women, so we avoided members of the opposite sex like the plague, and particularly those clad in saffron robes who lived in the temple down the street from us. The monks reciprocated with us in kind, and none of them would ever dare telephone the women’s asrama. But his calls always slipped through because he was a swami, you see.
The senior girls at the asrama always handed me the phone because they thought that surely the swami was calling me to offer me some spiritual guidance, or to engage me in some service, offer me a special seva. I was the lucky one, they thought. But the swami called me for an entirely different reason.
I sat on my futon each night and listened to him unwind heartbreaking stories of his rush into the life of a renunciant, and the young child he had abandoned in the process. He trusted me with his pain, with his guilt, with his fear of sharing these uncomfortable emotions with the other senior monks in the community. It was an international organization, and a depressed swami just wasn’t good PR. He felt ashamed and weak, and so very alone that he wanted to disappear. The loneliness had become utterly unbearable, he told me.
At the end of each call, the swami would apologize profusely and rush off as we both needed to rise at 4:00 am for the morning prayers. During the day the sad swami smiled, and gave classes as usual, and conducted prayer rituals, and looked like a swami is “supposed” to look: happy.
The swami had sworn me to confidence and I didn’t know what to do!
I was a teenager, and fairly new at the asrama. He was in his forties and had served the religious organization for many years, yet each night he told me about how isolating it had become for him, and how exhausting it was to continue as he had been. Sometimes, the anguish would run so deep the swami would break down and cry.
The sad swami represents one of millions of individuals worldwide suffering from depression. In the United States alone the depression statistics exceed seventeen million. Like the swami, many individuals who suffer from depression invest much of their energy into trying to conceal it, and appear normal to others. Perhaps this is especially true within social contexts in which people feel an expectation to act happy and peaceful, like spiritual communities or sangas, spiritual residences or asramas, yoga circles, etc. Practitioners of yoga might subscribe to an unspoken standard of creating a sacred space that does not allow the admission of depression into it.
“Leave your misery at the door, this is a bliss-only space!” they seem to warn.
But depression doesn’t always mystically vanish as soon as one starts practicing yoga. Consequently, every time you enter a spiritual community, or a yoga class, you are inevitably sharing it with people who have either suffered through depression in their past, or are currently struggling with it. And, as the swami taught me, sometimes the yogi who appears to be the least likely candidate for depression, ends up being the one in the most torment. You just never know! (Interestingly, the exploding popularity of yoga simultaneously arrives with the growing depression epidemic.)
Although the conversations I had with the sad swami occurred over twenty years ago, I remember the anxiousness in his voice as if I had just gotten off the phone with him. The swami was a caring, sensitive man and spoke about pressures to be a good example to others. He wrestled with his duty to society and his own inner conflicts. He also shared his fears of being harshly judged by the other swamis, and the rest of the community leaders, should they find out about his struggles.
It made me sad to think that of all the people he had practiced yoga with over the years, the swami felt safest opening up his woes to me, a virtual stranger to him. What did I have to offer him that he felt they didn’t?
Well, for one thing, I didn’t judge the swami for his sadness. I told him I did not see his depression as a sign of spiritual failure. Instead, I suspected it was just the opposite: a cleansing of sorts. A conscious connecting with layers of grief that had been unconsciously interfering with taking his practice to a deeper level: a much needed emotional purging of sorts.
The swami was finally connecting with uncomfortable feelings he had repressed for years! He was courageously expressing them, and making efforts to contextualize them within his role as a swami. In essence, the swami was asking:
What role does this depression play in my yoga practice?
Yet the anguishing subtext was clearly: But swamis are not supposed to be depressed! Or are they?
Yoga is dangerously full of pretty pictures of what yogis are “supposed” to look like. My naive, adolescent ideals of what makes a swami, or a yogi, or a longtime spiritual practitioner, were promptly shattered that first year I lived in the asrama, as the swami’s tears painted a very human picture for me, of everything that constitutes a spiritual practice. (Yes, swamis are humans too).
I discovered that yoga is not all chanting and dancing, serenity and bliss, endless savasanas and full breaths. Yoga is not just about ecstatic kirtans, inspiring classes and happy people who are always relaxed. Instead, yoga is a practice that, in the most traditional (yet often overlooked) sense, embraces and engages every human experience that appears during one’s journey as a viable means to elevate consciousness. Yes, depression included. Yoga does not assume that it’s practitioners will not have to face depression at one point or another. In fact, yoga anticipates this likely possibility.
According to the World Health Organization, in nine years, it is estimated that depression will become the second most devastating illness in the world, only after heart disease. It would be foolish to believe that the sages of antiquity failed to address this depression crisis in the yoga texts they left for us. In fact, The Bhagavad Gita wastes no time by beginning with painting a portrait of a man who is so depressed, he even questions the use of remaining alive.
Arjuna’s utter despair speaks to the twenty million people who attempt to take their own life each year on our planet.
This staggering figure exceeds the number of people killed in wars and through other murders on an annual basis worldwide, yet suicide is not as readily addressed as warfare. Contrary to this, the Bhagavad Gita’s narrative, although set within the outer context of a killing field on the verge of violence, begins by immediately exposing the inner chaos Arjuna battles with: the conflict and despair that makes him sound suicidal.
It is not coincidental that the issues Arjuna struggles with in the Gita’s first chapter closely resemble those the swami shared with me when I was a teenager. After all, Arjuna’s personal challenges are meant to resonate with grievances all humans can relate to. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are thus very deliberately presented through an intimate conversation that occurs between two people, in which we find one of the participants paralyzed by an overwhelming depression.
The conversation in the Bhagavad Gita instantly creates a setting most of us are familiar with: two friends engaging in dialogue, in the midst of the world’s state of crisis, in which one party makes themselves very vulnerable by admitting that they’ve given up on life. In the course of our human experience, all of us will have at least once been on either the listening end, or the tormented end of such a conversation.
Beginning with verse 29 of the Bhagavad Gita’s first chapter, we hear Arjuna describe his limp limbs falling at his side, his mouth drying out, his temperature rising, nausea and dizziness setting in, his mind reeling in agony and the dropping his bow and arrow. This slipping of Arjuna’s bow from his hand is a dramatic gesture of how helpless the great warrior feels in the face of his deep sorrow. It symbolizes the inactive, stagnant state that threatens any one of us when deeply depressed, causing us to withdraw our voluntary participation from life, and go against the soul’s nature to be active.
Speaking directly to the theme of the classic text, Arjuna’s despondence, like that of the swami’s, seems to beg the question: How do I act in light of all this? Incidentally, as elaborated upon in Graham Schweig’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita, this fundamental theme announces itself in the very first verse of the Bhagavad Gita; the bija, or seed verse, said to contain the essence of the entire text within it. In this rich verse King Dhritarasthra asks his minister Sanjaya: How did they act? when inquiring about the activities that were unfolding upon the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
The question is then answered, not by a detailed description of the external killings, which were enacted between the two armies. Instead, it is answered with over seven hundred verses that illuminate the internal “killings” of paralyzing perspectives that Arjuna needed to make in order to pick up his bow again and energetically reenter his life. This gives the readers a clear direction of how imperative tending to one’s inner conflicts is when practicing yoga. In fact, it is part of the yoga process itself, as how we fight our inner battles is so often reflected in how we interact with the world around us.
Do we participate fully in each of our lives, or do we cower away from being ourselves?
More importantly, what is the means through which we access our yogic selves during depression?
If we look to the example that Arjuna and Krishna gave us in the Bhagavad Gita, our depression can become part of our yoga practice, when we become courageous enough to share it with someone we trust. The transformative dynamic that can be generated to act upon our consciousness within a relationship is nothing short of a miracle! Within the yoga tradition, this phenomenon is referred to as sangha, or that union which leaves each participant feeling elevated, energized and enlivened.
In searching out those who provide such uplifting sanga for us when we are depressed, we begin to mirror Arjuna, who opened his heart to Krishna on the battlefield. Such connections naturally open up sacred spaces in which perspectives can be explored and broadened. They engage our dark nights of the soul to explore new depths of self awareness, as the Bhagavad Gita reminds us in a double-entendre verse found in the second chapter: “During that which is night for all beings, the deeply meditative person is awake.”
As the light shines even brighter in the dark, sincere practitioners of yoga take times of inner and outer conflict and despair, as opportunities for deeper absorption.
Though depression may indeed appear like a dark night, for the sincere practitioner of yoga it could very well become the catalyst that wakes them up.
My friend, the sad swami, taught me a very important lesson just as I was diving into my practice, that depression is something that can potentially touch all of us. In fact, statistically, it will touch most of us in some way or another, at some time in our lives regardless of how many years we have invested in an active yoga practice. It is important, therefore, to remember that there are many causes for depression other than just circumstantial or environmental, as Arjuna’s appeared to be.
Today, everything is being explored as a potential cause for depression from hormonal imbalances, to neurological malfunctions, to chemical, genetic, nutritional and even astrological culprits, just to name a few! If one suffers from depression, it is nothing to be ashamed of, and like any other physical illness, it does not reflect spiritual impotence!
Perhaps it is time to rid ourselves of this negative stigma which surrounds depression in yoga circles, (lest we isolate more sad swamis), and embrace a more holistic approach to yoga, in which everything becomes a tool for our enlightenment, even our bouts with depression. And in which we can offer a loving, compassionate ear to those who have dropped their bows, as Krishna did with Arjuna.
And if the sad swami is reading this, (whom I never heard from again), I just wanted to thank you for showing me that the bravest, spiritual warriors have the softest hearts of all.
"When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, 'If I jog, I'll be a much better person.' ' If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person.' ' If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person.' Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, 'If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage.' 'If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get on, my job would be just great.' And 'If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.'
"But lovingkindness — maitri — toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest"
by Pema Chodron - Awakening Loving - Kindness
When I was a young girl I could naturally wrap both legs around my head. I would sit in full lotus pose and then walk around on my knees laughing. I loved flipping over into wheel from standing and then into handstand and then back on to my feet. Splits were no problem. I would be outside in the front yard doing this kind of stuff for hours. It was my escape from the painful reality of my home life. I had no idea back then that this was yoga or asana. At night I would lie outside and contemplate the stars and the moon in silence. The vast universe soothed me and told me I am not alone in my pain. I was an extremely sensitive, intuitive child. I would constantly dream things that came true. I would know when something was about to happen. I could sense danger or dark energy coming off people instantly. I would pick up on people and animals emotional pain and want to help them by sending love and energy to them silently, consciously. I was a shy, skinny, introverted child who felt awkward in body, intense in mind and completely overwhelmed in heart n soul…
The first time I heard of the word yoga was in 2000. I was 26 years old. I had just left a 4 ½ year rocky, live in relationship where my ex boyfriend had lost his dad, his mother, his brother and his best friend in a 2 year span. Talk about a reality check with death head on. Illnesses, suicide, drugs… oh it was a dark, dark time. I was seeing a psychologist during this period, pouring my heart out to her about all this stuff I went through with my ex and then opening up about my messed up childhood. I will never forget what Anna my psychologist said to me after I had been seeing her for awhile:
She said, “Pamela there is nothing wrong with you. You just needed someone to talk to about all this heavy stuff. You are a very strong, healthy lady who unfortunately has been around a lot of toxic people and heart wrenching circumstances throughout your life. You are like a Lotus flower. It grows in the darkness; in murky, muddy waters. And it rises up, out of it all, into a beautiful flower. Have you ever tried yoga? I think you would like it.”
That afternoon I left with the vision of this flower in my mind. I went and researched the flower and then I looked up yoga in New Westminster where I was living at the time. The Dancing Cat Yoga Centre popped up and off I went to my first yoga class…
***Wow I just googled the studio and the teacher Gail is still there! So cool!***
…Anyways, I remember leaving my first class like I was high. I had found myself in the asana, in the breath, in the meditation. My awkward flexi body did have a place in this world. Everything she spoke about touched my soul. I was smiling all the way home giddy, like I stumbled upon the secret to life...
I had only taken a few classes with Gail when life threw a curve ball and I was transferred from my job in New Westminster to Kerrisdale in the early 2000’s. Shortly after, I moved to Kitsilano. During this time, I had been taking Latin ballroom dancing downtown and decided it was time to find more yoga classes. I found Semperviva just down the road from my place. They had just started up I believe and the class was really small. Again in class, I was overcome with absolute surrender and peace. I had arrived in my body, in my mind, in my heart. There are 2 pivotal moments during this time frame that I remember: One time after a class, I was getting up after savasana and a student beside me turned to me and said “You don’t need to be doing yoga, you need to be teaching yoga!” I looked at her shocked; half smiled and said nothing, thinking that was odd? Me teach yoga? Are you crazy? The second pivotal moment I remember is when my teacher came over to do a correction. (I think I was in seated forward fold) When he touched my back, a bolt of intense energy surged through the base of my spine all the way up into my head. I remember lying there frozen thinking WTF just happened? ***I never returned to yoga until 2008***
In April of 2005, I was in a car accident on my way to a wedding to do a dance performance with my ex husband. My legs were crossed and my head was turned to the left talking to him at a red light. We were hit extremely hard from behind without seeing it coming. The moment of impact I remember my head flying forward like a whip and then back again with my ponytail slamming into the seat and then forward again. I remember sitting there stunned and in shock. I felt no pain in that moment but my head felt like a bobble head and I knew something was terribly wrong. We went straight to the doctors’ office and the next day I could barely get up and walk. I was basically sprained from my neck to my tailbone. The swelling and spasm along my spine was so intense that it was affecting my nerves. One time sitting on the couch a spasm was so intense that I couldn’t move any part of my body for about 5 minutes. In those 5 long minutes I was paralyzed. I remember being alone, tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t even move my arm and reach for the phone that was next to me to call for help. Thank goodness it was only 5 scary minutes and then it released. The next 2 years were all about doctors, physiotherapists, massage therapists, cranial sacral, chiropractors, Chinese medicine, acupuncture… you name it I did it. My dancing took a plunge down hill with many relapses to my back every time I went back to try. Dance became a place of constant disappointment. All my passion and joy for it was sucked out of me and replaced with anger, frustration, anxiety and heart wrenching torture. Something I once loved so much, that was such a huge part of me and my ex husband’s life together, was now a place I couldn’t stand to be. Depression, anger, anxiety set in, I gained weight. Choreography and performing became a challenge and extreme fear set off my anxiety. My marriage was destined to unravel and I didn’t even know it. I had a private eye following me around from ICBC for 2 years filming me, trying to prove I was faking my injuries. I cannot even begin to explain the physical, the emotional, and the mental and psychological pain I suffered during this period of my life. I really wanted to die. I was literally on autopilot. A walking zombie. On the outside I looked fine and I was good at faking it. Inside, inside I was broken barely hanging on…
In 2008 talking to another wonderful psychologist named Susan, we started talking about yoga. Ironically, she practiced at the same place with the same teacher. She said you really should try and go back. At this point everything was a complete and utter mess in my life. I was in constant chronic pain, my marriage was a disaster, my cats both died and my biological dad (who I was not raised with) died suddenly from a massive stroke leaving a trail of shocking secrets that unravelled right into my life and down another rabbit hole I went… I developed serious anxiety problems which were diagnosed as PTSD. The worst kind of anxiety a person could have. I would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I was having a heart attack. I was not in control of this. It was like someone else was living inside my heart freaking out and punching me from the inside out. I was seriously sleep deprived from the chronic pain and anxiety attacks. I hadn’t slept through the night in years. I developed night terrors (google that one!) I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night like I was being murdered. My poor ex husband would then wake up screaming because I scared him so bad, and then I would wake up from him screaming. It was crazy! I would sleep walk and hurt myself in my sleep. The worst episode was when I tried to walk through our glass solarium and almost broke my nose…
So back on the mat, 2008, I faced all of this insanity. On a physical level I couldn’t even do Chaturanga (top of a push up). My injuries had centralized to my mid upper back between my shoulder blades. I was so very weak. I had lost my abdominal strength as well. I was pissed and frustrated and humbled beyond belief. The simplest moves were so hard and challenging. I would sob silently in the dark in savasana for many yoga practices to come. I can only imagine what my yoga instructors were thinking about me during this time. One day a week slowly turned into 2-3 days a week. Then 4-5 days a week. I started feeling results. The breath work (Pranayama) was like a magic pill helping control my anxiety and peace started to wash over me once again. A year passed by with me getting deeper and deeper into my practice. It became my whole reason to just function and live. I had hope, I had peace and I was healing from everything that was poisoning my heart and soul.
The night terrors ended and my dreams started turning into the most blissful states of being. It was this sacred place of healing in the most amazing white light and then in vivid colors. My soul had found healing and love in a place I cannot even begin to describe...
In the spring of 2009 I saw a post for a 40 day challenge and I was like wow, I think I can actually do this, when the year prior I could barely get through one day a week. That 40 day challenge was another pivotal time in my life. Everything was so clear afterwards. I had new energy from healing. My body was strong and my flexibility came back. My heart was so wide open I thought I was going to burst. I was left longing for more and then one of my teachers told me she thought I could be a yoga instructor and that a teacher training was coming up in the summer. I was taken a back. Again, someone else was telling me I should be a teacher. For me, being a student was all I ever needed or considered. I have always loved being a student whether in dance or yoga or any other skill I have acquired over the years. It is a safe place to explore, learn and create yourself anew, without any pressure. Teaching for me, was like, “What the hell? I would have to speak and who would want to listen to me?” I would get anxiety just thinking about doing it. I decided to take the 200 hour program for the sake of learning only and ended up at Prana Yoga College. 200 hours later, a month later, I was certified. I also felt like I came out of a yoga cave and striped naked. I was like NO MORE YOGA! I took a trip to San Diego and detoxed off of yoga school and focused on saving my marriage.
A month later in Sept 2009, I was teaching yoga at UBC 3 days a week and I don’t even know how it happened. I continued my practice with my favourite teachers, taking workshops and practicing on my own. With each class I taught, I realized that I could really teach. It came very easily and naturally and my confidence built with my students appreciation and gratitude towards me. I never chose this path. The path chose me. I truly believe that. Something so powerful was working through me, guiding me through all this pain and brought me out on the other side…
In a spontaneous moment of clarity, I ended up going to the Philippines to deal with some insane, personal family stuff and landed in Manila literally right after the Oct 2009 tsunami hit! 3 weeks of fear in a third world country, alone, with people I barely knew after a tsunami. Bring on the PTSD. Kids walking through polluted rivers with groceries on their heads going to their homes in the slums. Meanwhile our fancy hotel is right next door. I would go to a bank or bank machine and a guard with an automatic machine gun would be standing right next to me. I would be propositioned for sex in the oddest places with money almost being thrown at me. The Philippines is one of the top 4 countries in the world for child trafficking. The things that I learnt being done to children there was so disgusting and mind blowing. I felt utterly helpless… When I returned to Canada I was depleted. I was numb and I was a changed person. I became really, really sick at the end of my trip in the Philippines with a really weird virus (I really think it was H1N1) and it took me 2 months resting back in Canada afterwards to detox from what I went through and to physically get healthy again. I returned to teaching and my practice in Jan 2010. Anxiety bound yet again, I found relief and peace on the mat. How I surrendered to my mat, to my teachers, to my students, to myself…
July 2010 my marriage ended. It was one of the most horrible, humbling and painful experiences I have ever been through. No person gets married thinking they will ever get a divorce. It is a death to thy self, a death to your partner, a death to family, a death to friends. Yoga became my sanctuary. Whether teaching or practicing, it was relief from all the things happening that I could not control. In utter despair, I focused on teaching, loving myself and giving my energy to my students. I made a conscious decision to not be involved with anyone romantically for at least a year no matter how attracted I was to them. I would not act from my emotions but rather observe them without action. I have seen so many people coming out of relationships not wanting to be alone, rebounding into unhealthy relationships for physical contact and drowning and numbing themselves into alcohol, drugs and tobacco; not taking the time to heal and find themselves in a raw organic state. I was determined not to do that, no matter how painful and lonely I would be. I am very proud to say it has been over a year and ½ of being completely alone with myself. (Well, minus a hot fling outside in a lightening storm in Costa Rica with a guy who saved my life! Sigh. Seriously, thank-you universe! lol!) To know yourself alone and become whole is to fine yourself and be able to attract the right people and circumstances into your life. Yoga has helped me face myself, see myself, pause and observe myself before action. It has re-programmed my mind to let go of expectation and fear; to just be here in the now observing and listening to what arises within before acting on my emotions. Because of yoga, I know who I am. I know what I need and I know what I do not want…
'It is a long, hard journey to find our authentic self.