illustration by @ksenia_sapunkova

Don’t Sweep the Sadness Under the Mat

“Rock ‘n’ Roll might not solve your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.”

– Pete Townshend

Yoga does that too – well, maybe “vinyasa” all over them. I’m a yogi (and a rock drummer for that matter), and I get depressed. I don’t mean the occasionally sad mood – I mean complete loss of interest, barely able to function, emptiness.

I generally feel better when I down dog than when I don’t, but it’s still a band-aid on a deep wound. Asana helps, but it does not cure.

I used to pretend it did. In fact, my public face as “the yoga guy” made me less inclined to share my truth. Instead, I put on the “everything is awesome” happy face like the one dramatized in a current antidepressant commercial.

But the reality is, I often require the strength of a forklift to get me out of bed and push me out the door. Accomplishing simple tasks like laundry and getting ready for work are eventually accomplished, but with the sensation of trudging through quickly hardening cement. Socializing at times requires an acting performance worthy of a Tony nomination. Things that usually bring joy are spoiled by an air of what I call “What’s-the-Pointness” with a side of the “Can’t-Be-Bothereds.” (The scientific term is anhedonia.)

Almost as bad as the episodes themselves are the times in between, when I’m ok but in fear of the black dog, as Winston Churchill called it, returning. It is those times that I find myself feverishly trying to accomplish as much as I can before the beast returns.

There are many yoga teachers out there who struggle with this very despair, but their students would never suspect. Haven’t they evolved beyond such mental misery?

How can that smiling, serene presence at the front of my class be so sad inside? Teachers might be inclined to preserve that illusion, no matter what’s really going on inside. The mask of the super-yogi is preferred to the messy reality of the human being.

Michael Stone, the beloved Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, hid his own bipolar disorder for years, fighting his battle virtually alone while he dedicated his life to serving his students. According to his family, he “feared the stigma of his diagnosis,” but was considering coming out publicly when he succumbed to an accidental overdose of opioids in July 2017. He left behind a legion of grieving students who had no idea what he had been going through.

Michael Stone, the beloved Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, hid his own bipolar disorder for years

I didn’t have the honor of practicing with Michael, but the circumstances of his tragic loss were a wake-up call. It made me realize that hiding was not the answer. The way forward and through this illness, for me and all those who suffer in silence, is to talk about it.

I discussed the subject with a few colleagues in the community, who honored me with their honesty and vulnerability.

Rachel Turner is a Florida-born Ashtanga instructor who was traveling through Sri Lanka in 2004 at the time of the historic and devastating tsunami.

“I woke up and walked out my bungalow door and noticed the water had risen,” she says. “I was only awake for about two minutes before I had to turn around and start running. To this day, I still don’t understand how I outran it.”

Despite her miraculous escape, the horror of the event eventually formed a dark cloud that refused to pass. Rachel began waking up in the middle of the night, screaming.

“I would have so much anxiety my boyfriend would hold me down and tell me to pretend his eyes were mine,” she says. I struggled to leave the house. When I heard loud noises, I thought the worst.  I know that I appeared rock solid and full of confidence to my friends and family, but I actually went through a suicidal state.”

Determined to not succumb, Rachel searched for a way back. Eventually she found yoga, but it wasn’t just the asana that helped her to heal; more importantly, she had found a place where she could be honest about what she was going through.

“I started taking an Ashtanga class, and got on very well with the teacher,” she says. “She was aware of my problems and started working with me and encouraging progress in the practice. After a few months, I was able to do asanas that I never thought I would be able to do. Inadvertently, this helped me realize that I could also change my anxiety if I took it one step at a time.”

Rachel says it took about 5 years for the PTSD to subside. Now as a teacher, she doesn’t pretend to be ok when she’s not but has the tools to find her way back to herself.

“When I’m not feeling myself, I push through it,” she asserts. “I have no time to worry about how I’m feeling.”

Seattle Yogi Lori Thom believes that the effectiveness of yoga on mood disorder depends more on the conditions in which one practices, rather than the poses themselves.

Lori found the classic Hot Yoga environment to be a safe place

“Yoga makes a huge difference in coping with depression,” she says. “But it has to be the right environment. There are some studios or teachers who put a lot of emphasis on the fitness aspect of yoga, and during desperate times, that’s the LAST thing I need. I’m hard enough on myself as it is, and there are some days when no matter how many times an instructor reminds me to forgive myself or permit myself to try again, it’s just another straw on the camel’s back…another thing to put on the list of “Reasons I’m Not Good Enough.” Those are my own demons, and I recognize them and do what I can to not feed them.”

Lori finds the classic Hot Yoga environment to be the right fit.

“It’s a very safe place to be imperfect,” she says. “Nobody in a hot yoga class is expecting perfection from me. Just showing up and staying in the room is 100% success, so the bar is as low or as high as you want it to be.

“I know that if I don’t care for myself, I run the risk of injury or passing out; but if I listen to what my body needs and just do my best at the moment, I will leave class feeling like I am physically and mentally prepared for the next day. The instructors know that too, and they encourage me to give myself what I need at any given moment. They’re really good about telling me to push myself while also reminding me to give myself a break.”

Honesty, Self-care and Environment were the key words I took from our discussions. I then scoured yoga cyberspace for further testimony, and as suspected, found little. “How Yoga Fights Depression” gets plenty of Google results; but “Yoga Teachers Living with Depression”? Virtual crickets.

YYoga College Director Rachel Scott is one of the few to share the truth, in a Huffington Post article that stunningly declares, “Not Everyone Who Practices Yoga Is Happy, and That’s OK.”

“Our mats are not places to be perfect or even places where we have to be particularly happy,” Rachel says in the piece. “They are places to be authentic. And how freeing is that?”

Miami instructor Adrian Molina is the Founder of Warrior Flow, has practiced for 13 years, and has battled clinical depression.

“I was diagnosed with depression about a year ago, after a series of traumatic events. A lot of things happening that I had no control over,” says Adrian. “My husband and closest friends said, ‘everything seems fine when you’re teaching, doing your workshops and retreats, but the person you are behind closed doors is different.’”

Miami instructor Adrian Molina has practiced for 13 years and has battled clinical depression

Though he continued to teach, Adrian’s own practice did not provide relief. “I didn’t have the energy to move a finger,” he remembers. “It didn’t help to practice. I was totally disconnected, totally out of it even though I was still teaching full-time and that made me feel great.”

With the encouragement of his loved ones, Adrian sought help.

The question was, should I announce it to the world or just keep it quiet?

Adrian chose to share: His Spring 2017 Huffington Post Blog states plainly, “I Am a Yoga Teacher and I Was Depressed.” — as if he were bracing himself for the gasps of disbelief.

“For me it was important for people to know,” he says. “People think that if you do yoga, everything is perfect. And it’s far from that.”

When he went for therapy and was diagnosed, intellectual curiosity took over, and he began to think about how to address depression in the yoga community head-on.

“I began to study in-depth about depression and the effect of yoga on it,” he says. “My husband Dennis Hunter is the director of marketing for Kula for Karma, who do therapeutic yoga for depression, trauma and addiction, and body-image issues. I took my training in that and began to learn how I could have a positive effect on depression through yoga. In turn, I became more knowledgeable about what depression is and regained the energy to take classes, and it compelled me to approach teaching my regular classes in a different way­ – with the understanding that everyone experiences depression and trauma.”

Adrian began teaching workshops through Kula for Karma, educating on the best way to serve students with depression and trauma. “It’s very healing and nurturing, just being able to speak about the things that I went through,” he says. “Then you care share it with your students and also with other teachers so that they can become more sensitive when they instruct their classes, to recognize the symptoms of someone who may be depressed.”

Adrian notes the impact of an honest, authentic dialogue has been profound. “When I open up about my struggle with depression, a lot of my students reach out to me to say they are going through the same thing,” he says. And some people who didn’t even realize they were depressed were now able to recognize the symptoms. Two of my students actually sought consultation as a result.”

Adrian admits that his decision to be real did not come without some trepidation.

“When you are associated with teaching yoga and holistic wellbeing full-time, and you have depression, you think, ‘What am I going to do? How is this going to affect my students if I share that I have it? Am I going to lose my credibility as an instructor?’ I asked myself all these questions before I wrote the article, and decided I really didn’t care. This is who I am, this is what I’m going through. And I had a feeling that sharing was going to help people.”

What am I going to do? How is this going to affect my students if I share that I have it? Am I going to lose my credibility as an instructor?

Adrian came to realize it wasn’t as big a deal after all. “You don’t lose your students, you don’t lose your income, and you are actually connected to people on a deeper level, which helps them relate to you better as an instructor.”

Thanks to Adrian I’ve added Education and Action to my keywords in fighting depression.

Today Adrian, Lori, and Rachels Turner and Scott are freer than they’ve ever been because they face their illness head on and share it bravely. Lori thinks all yogis should have a true safe space to do so.

“I have often thought about how wonderful it would be if I could find a yoga/therapy group,” she says. “I love the idea of sharing my struggles and offering support to others on top of a mindful yoga practice where the instructor knows magical poses that will help me through whatever I’m dealing with. I have been in yoga classes where all I want to do is sit down and sob, but I don’t. Someone should do a “Yoga for Sobbing People” class.

So yes, Virginia, even yogis get the blues. But there’s no need to Om and bear it, when being honest is the first step in setting yourself free.

Illustration by Ksenia Sapunkova.

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