At various points since my mid teens, tough times in my life have tipped from ‘difficult but doable’ to ‘major depression.’ For some reason I have responded to the normal stresses and difficulties of life by turning on myself, getting myself stuck and unable to cope, in a situation that it takes time and help to move out of. These times are marked by repetitive, relentless thought patterns that are, by now, very familiar. One of the strongest thought patterns that comes with depression, for me, is about failure. I have failed, I am currently failing, and I will continue to fail. Forever. Irreparably.
Recently I’ve been in a period of depression that is much worse than it has been for several years; the first time it has been this bad since I have been teaching yoga. And this new feature of my life – the fact that I teach yoga – has given the failure stories something new to hook on to, so they can begin to tell me a new twist on an old, old story. Depression-thinking has told me in no uncertain terms that the fact that I am depressed now – the fact that remembering to have a shower every day (let alone move house and find new work, both of which I have been trying to do through this fog) feels like too much pressure – is a sign of a new failure. I have ‘failed at yoga’; I am a fraud; I have not fully integrated that which I am trying (failing, obviously) to teach. That still being vulnerable to the old patterns of body and mind that have been part of my life for over a decade makes me weak, a failure, and that in continuing to teach I am somehow letting my students down, or selling them a lie.
Despite the power and insistence of these thoughts, I know on another level that they are not true. The notion that I am somehow fraudulent by continuing to teach this practice is based on an assumption (one I didn’t realise until now that I still held) that yoga is about fixing you. That somehow this combination of movement, breath and stillness might magically make you immune to stress, or illness, injury, or despair. That if we just tried hard enough our lives could be all rainbows and green juice and bliss. I don’t think this is true, and I hope that it is not something that is conveyed in my own teaching, but it’s a message that is sold insidiously through some ‘yoga lifestyle’ stuff and it seems on some level to still have a hold on me.
So I want to be honest and open and dispel any lingering hopes that people might have – yoga is not about fixing, and it does not make you immune to the darkness and the shadows that are part of every single life. But it does help. It has helped me. I want to talk about what yoga has made possible despite, through, and with depression. The simple lessons that I am gently reminded of each time I practice.
The deepening self-awareness that comes from patiently, repeatedly and gently observing my own experience means that I am more able now to separate and understand the thoughts and the bodily sensations that make up my own patterns of depression. The thoughts are still there – and they are insistent – but I now have the capacity, some of the time, to recognise them for what they are. Not all of the time. Not even most of the time. But more often than I used to.
Yoga has helped me to realise the importance of genuine self-care. The notion that I might be worthy and deserving of care – from myself as well as others – has developed (from a painfully low starting point) through the practice of consciously cultivating compassion. Recognising the particular sensations in my body that signal exhaustion, I am able to see more often that they are a sign of my need to rest, rather than a sign of my weakness and need to just get more done. Of course those thoughts still come, but I feel like I have more of a choice now. I can retreat to bed, or my mat, or an enormous pile of cushions, with less guilt.
Through yoga I have become more familiar with my own boundaries, capacities, and needs. I am clearer about where my boundaries lie, and more interested in respecting them. Coming close to my physical and mental limits on my mat, and respecting them, has seeped out into the rest of my life. This familiarity with my capacities, combined with a growing compassion for myself, enables me to say no when I need to, to ask for help with I need to, and to be less perturbed by some of the guilt and confusion that arises in response to this. This is particularly important during a period marked by depression, when I need to say no more than ever, and when my need for help, love, and support is at its greatest.
Coming onto my mat and into my body is a means to drop away from my thoughts and remember that existence and experience are made up of many more layers than thought alone. Anxiety and depression are both marked by the way I get ‘stuck in my head’. Losing touch with the other layers of experience means that life begins to narrow down and the part I am left with – the endless, hopeless, pernicious thoughts – takes on more power. The practice of coming in to my body, of moving and just observing how things feel, reminds me that experience is broader than it seems at times. There is more space, when I can touch my bodily sensations and the sounds and smells around me, to step back from those thoughts. To make sure that even if it’s only for a second, or a minute, or an hour, they are not dominating my attention.
And this capacity to experience things in terms of fleeting fractions of time – being able to notice the shifting sensations from one moment to the next – is important. Being able to feel and enjoy the warmth of sunshine on my skin right now, and to recognise the way my breath lightens in response to the sight of a body of water, matters. Because even if for much of the day I am still stuck, and numb to these subtle sensations, the fact that I am aware of them sometimes – that I spend a period of time every day reminding myself of the truth that things change constantly – means that many of the thoughts – the ‘I am always like this’ thoughts, the ‘this will never change’ thoughts, the endless boring hopelessness of it all – those thoughts lose some of their sting.
The fact that I can lie in the sun and feel earth beneath me now doesn’t negate the fact that three days ago I was sitting on the floor weeping, unable to feel my body or to take a full breath. But being able to enjoy the fragments of pleasure – and even neutrality – in a period that is marked by a predominance of pain makes that pain easier to bear. I am reminded that it is not endless.
So yoga hasn’t fixed me, and it hasn’t made me immune, but it has helped. It has made my experience of all this richer, deeper, and in some ways easier to live with. This is the experience I teach from, and these are things I don’t feel fraudulent sharing. And if they feel like things you’d like to be reminded of from time to time, then I’ll see you on the mat.