I suffer from depression. Maybe it came with the alcoholism. Maybe it led to the alcoholism. Either way, it’s part of my life and sometimes, like recently, it’s all-consuming.
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 poor squirrel I saw on my way to the grocery store this morning.
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.
Somehow, Ashtanga 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 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 Ashtangis practice every day. If you’d done backbends, you wouldn’t need that fourth cup of coffee. Sloth-ass. You’d better practice tomorrow.”
As you can imagine, that’s not helpful. 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.
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 samasthiti, did opening prayer, 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 Surya A. You can do it. Just Surya A”), 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 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 K, then burst into big, gulpy tears. I sobbed so hard I couldn’t even do closing series. Other days, I couldn’t force myself past sun salutations or standing series. 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’d forgotten was that I was sick. If I had a broken rib, I wouldn’t expect myself to 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 turns into poison. I had to accept that any practice, even just a single Surya A, was better than nothing, and if nothing was all I could do, then that was okay too.
The best thing about having an Ashtanga practice as a life raft is that it’s always there for you again tomorrow.
I’d once heard Deborah Quibel say that we often can use the mat to simply grind our mental grooves deeper instead of releasing those patterns.
This year I went through a somewhat similar phase of self flagellation. I was accepting that it was difficult because that’s what good ashtangis do, soldier on. After months, and months, of ripping my emotional self to shreds, I realised that thst wasnt accepting but defeatist and a very dark place to be. Acceptance needed the key missing ingredient: self compassion.
Best of luck to all of us!
Indeed, Shaz! Thanks for reading.
Emma, dear girl….I’ve been there. For me it wasn’t Ashtanga that brought me back from the brink, but simply sitting and breathing. I struggled with depression for over 20 years. The past six months or so I’ve finally felt a relief I never knew before. I don’t have a solution for you, but I can offer empathy. I know how it feels. And I know we can overcome the disease. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Reach out and get help. Don’t try to go it all alone, because you know you aren’t alone in your struggles.
I’m rootin’ for you!!! Stay strong and stay Emma!
Thanks so much, Kendra. Kind words from a woman who understands!
Hugs to you Emma!
Hugs, Em. Always remember to breathe.
Thanks Jerry! Namaste to you.
Thank you so much for this post. I practice Ashtanga and suffer from depression as well, though find it difficult to blog about. I recently started an anti-depressant, as my depression had become unmanageable, and for that, I beat myself up. Here’s what I hear in my head: “I should be stronger than the depression. My practice should have pulled me through and shouldn’t need a pill. I should just be able to wake up and be happy. If I just try harder, I won’t be depressed.” You put it best when you said: “I had to start treating my depression like a disease instead of a moral failure.” That’s good advice to take to heart! Thanks again.
Angela, I hear that same voice. Sometimes, practice alone can’t save us and that’s really ok! Thanks for reading and commenting, and best of luck to you in practice–both on and off the mat.
Thank you thank you thank you for this post. I teach in public and practice at home, and I was so ashamed earlier this year when I fell into a very deep depression. None of my spiritual tools that have always worked in the past helped. There were days when my sun salutes were just laying in a crumpled heap trying to coax myself into not wanting to die. The mat became my life raft too, the place in my house where I called a friend and admitted I needed help and I needed her to check in on me pretty regularly.
When I went to the psychiatrist, he told me high-functioning people often have the hardest time with depression, because we think we can be better than it, instead of realizing we’re sick.
Thank you for this post and for letting me know I’m not the only ashtangi out here on the ocean. Oh and and meds + meditation for me. No shame.
Clare, thank you for this honest response. I just got back on meds, so it was helpful to hear you say you use them, too–may both our oceans be smoother because of it.
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From fully into it to I can’t have it – this is soo typical! Did you ever took the time to practice actual yoga, to use it as a tool to understand who you are and were you are at? Your words show you never actually got a glance of it. It feels like you were expecting a miracle just by following the recipe, like a solution to pollution. You did it all, 6 days a week, the days you are supposed to, like as if it made a difference, the vegan raw lettuce organic diet, etc. What about yourself, did you ever consider who you are, where you came from and what does this all “tradition” + random concepts stated by a load of people in their writings, workshops, etc + a load of gossip around ashtanga yoga that have become mainstream knowledge, actually mean to you, wherever you are from? You are not Mr Jois who came from a small village, I am pretty sure you are not Indian, you weren’t born immersed in the culture so is silly to expect this tradition to be fully applicable to you, to actually understand a little of it, to try to embrace you need to use a couple more than two brain cells. Be who you are and if there is something about yoga you like, take it by the hand and walk with it, don’t assume is a limousine that will take you to heaven and this method was dropped in this world tailor made to you. You are obviously dealing with Ashtangarexia and looking for the Authorisation, yoga practice is about self development, doesn’t have anything to do with a career or a final solution to all problems. If you came to Mysore you obviously didn’t hear anything Sharath ever said. I bet you didn’t get the Authorisation either otherwise you would have been a happy bunny by now Maybe Sharath saw this confusion in you in the mist of 200 other people, maybe he is not that stupid at all. You clearly did not get what tradition means, and you are talking about a yoga practice as religion sometimes and then you quickly turn it into a career. Didn’t you get is neither of the two. Next time you get into something, use more than two brain cells, it might save you 6 years and the hassle of making a blog post complaining about it. This is typical human behaviour, ones gets into something blindly and then comes out of it angry and throwing the responsibility elsewhere. Next time, take responsibility for your own actions, try, slowly. See if it works for you. If it doesn’t, just step out and understand that whatever there is in this world might not fit everyone, or perhaps use more than two brain cells while doing it and balance it to your own self.
Strong words, Nagesh. Thanks for offering your point of view.
I find it strange that a yoga teacher would resort to name calling and bashing, especially to something they obviously don’t understand….
Sounds pretty judgemental, pretty lacking in compassion or humility, and, frankly, pretty shallow and nasty to me, Nagesh. Given that you clearly believe yourself qualified to attack and criticise someone you’ve never met, perhaps you could consider looking at yourself through the lens that you use to judge others?
Thank you for writing so honestly and with such humility about this issue, Emma.