Sometimes Green Smoothies and Yoga Aren’t Enough

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After my last post, I feel like I should be writing about how brightly I rebounded from depression by replacing refined sugar with green smoothies, or how receiving some second-series backbends re-energized me.

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 radically changed 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 this time. 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 me 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.

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.

The yoga world is rife with ideology that leaves little room for mental illness or treating it with–shudder–Western medicine. One shala, Ashtanga Yoga 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 googling “yoga and depression” and I was flooded with advice, none that included visiting your 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 asanas 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, real suggestions from publications that the Western yoga community loves to cite. I found this gem today: “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 this fall. 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 practiced yoga. 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, banging my head against 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. 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. I may need a pill every morning to keep me muddling along, but at least I’m muddling.

16 thoughts on “Sometimes Green Smoothies and Yoga Aren’t Enough

  1. Hi Emma. I am going to say that if you are writing paragraphs about this, you are doing a bit better than muddling. I have been in times that a shower and making coffee receive a “what’s the point” comment from my brain, so sitting down to type what is going on is pretty good news if not yet fantastic or ideal news. I will also say that fresh air, good nutrition, and physical activity that requires stamina are non-negotiables for people who suffer from disease and want to keep on top of it, not get worse and prevent it from gaining ground. Just like people with diabetes have to do certain things daily just to not get sicker. They need insulin you need a pill on top of all the other stuff you need to do when you are not as well as other times. I understand what you are saying about “naturals cures” being peddled as miracles, but I do believe that sunshine-fresh air-movement-a sitting practice are essential for basic health maintenance particularly when your mind is lying by repeating
    what is the point. From way over here, you sound good. Congratulations on fighting hard.

  2. Hi Emma,

    Thank you for this post! As a licensed mental health therapist and yoga teacher, I am passionate about educating the yoga community about the importance of encouraging students to extend beyond yoga for anxiety and depression when necessary. Your story is a testament to this and I am grateful that you shared your journey with us.

    Namaste,
    Jamie ❤️

  3. Thanks for sharing! I’m so sorry that the yoga world can bring forth such remarkable judgement and evaluation towards others. I worked for 2 very highly visible yoga studios and it’s awful to see what goes on behind closed curtains. People hiding themselves and their “bad” habits and those who have “no” bad habits except for judging and evaluating those who they think do. It’s competitive and the rock star approach has done harm to those who enter into that world believing it will be their ticket to self love and understanding.

    Yoga rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. People’s brains are wired the way they are wired. My husband and daughter have been diagnosed with clinical depression and may be on antidepressants all their life…so what? They are decent human beings and very sensitive to their inner world and the world around them. I have been diagnosed with anxiety, which a form of depression and took antidepressants for 3 years. I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for 13. Interestingly enough, I needed to take the antidepressants around my 8th year of practice. This had much to do with a big move our family made from a white picket fence scenario to moving out of state, owning our own business, which was a yoga studio, losing our lease 4 years in and our daughter on the verge of committing suicide. Yoga was not enough.

    Thanks for sharing, as I said above and continue as you have done. There are many folks out there just like you and we are all OK!

  4. Emma, thank you, thank you, thank you! One, you’re a beautiful writer… AND person. Two, you’re honest and real. I tried looking for articles within the Western yoga world that would help me make sense of my depression – I felt like I had to keep it hidden because I was this “yoga-positive-healthy-bla-bla-bla” person. Secretly, I would sympathize with struggling people like Virginia Wolf and Robin Williams. Your article hit a chord with me on so many levels. Thank you for bravely sharing the song within you! I raise my lemon-water glass to you… and use it to swallow down my own chemical pill. Namaste with all my heart.

  5. So I have been there also. My kids are on meds and when I asked the doc she looked at me and said “if they had a physical aliment would it be ok to put them on meds to heal it?”. Good point.

    My therapist made me put a quarter into a jar every time I used the words “should” or “have to” in a sentence. Think of the money you could save up to buy more ice cream and latte’s!

    As an older person who has spent many more years running my head into brick walls…there is no right way in anything. You are just you and shit goes the way it goes.

    Best and hope the meds kick in asap!

    JH

  6. this was so great…a wonderful read (you write beautifully) and I couldn’t have said it better. I suffer from depression and anxiety and am on anti-depressants after years of on/off attempts. my healthiest me with yoga, green tea, no sugar etc…still can’t erase the actual mental health issues that exist. After getting sober 4 years ago I was able to focus more on how to rid myself of shame (oh, the shame of it all!) and realize that my brain needs the extra help. And that’s ok. It’s part of what makes me able to be the best me I can be…and of course I’m still training the voices in my head to tell me that every day! :)
    Thanks for sharing and you got this…xoxo

  7. Hello Emma! I met you at the Fusion party on Saturday. You were absolutely delightful and I really enjoyed chatting with you. You write beautifully! Your words are so real and vulnerable. Depression sucks! I feel your pain. I have been there. There is no formula for depression. You can’t make sense of it, and you can’t reason it away. And its not something that you can necessarily fix yourself doing any of the things that “they” say to do. I totally agree that it is ok to take a pill for your disease, depression, we take pills for every other disease without being questioned! I recently wrote a blog about my journey through depression which was about 10 years ago. I always found it validating and encouraging knowing others were struggling as well. Here is a link to it –> http://livingtolovehim.com/2016/01/09/blessed-are-the-poor-in-spirit-a-christian-perspective-on-depression/

    • Kim, thank you so much for reading and commenting! I appreciate your kind words. Depression is a beast indeed. I’m looking forward to reading your work, and I so enjoyed meeting you on Saturday. I wish you and your family peace and blessings.

  8. Hi Emma, Many thanks for your insights and candor. I would love to hand out reprints of your blog at the upcoming Yoga as Lifestyle Medicine Conference in DC. Can I have your permission? I am facilitating a discussion on using yoga in psychotherapy (with a licensed therapist) vs yoga therapy.

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