Yoga And Depression

 Michael L Smith

Michael L Smith

I am “out­ing” myself: I have suf­fered from depres­sion since child­hood, even though I did not know what to call my per­sis­tent, cycli­cal blues until 1993. When I turned 40, the depres­sion started wors­en­ing — in another era it would be called a mid-​​life cri­sis or ner­vous break­down.

In a series of melt­downs, I lost jobs and burned through life sav­ings and a home. I lay­ered on mul­ti­ple coats of guilt and shame on top of what was happen­ing to me. The con­di­tion made me inca­pable of writ­ing and crit­i­cal think­ing. For some­one who lived off writ­ing and whose very self-​​definition was based on being a writer, it was a bit­ter real­iza­tion. In 1996, my psy­chi­a­trist told me that he could not promise that I would ever write pro­fes­sion­ally again — time to look for another career.

If it weren’t for my fam­ily, I would have been des­ti­tute. I lived in my parent’s base­ment for 16 months. My kids stopped their uni­ver­sity stud­ies so that they could con­tribute to sup­port­ing the house­hold. [Thanks, Stephanie]

A case of refrac­tory depres­sion is a very hum­bling expe­ri­ence — you can only focus on now. You look back on all the deci­sions and fail­ures driven by your ill­ness, the dis­ap­point­ments and the pain, the suf­fer­ing to your loved ones. You have to release all that because there is noth­ing you can do now to change that. The future becomes some­thing dis­tant, and impos­si­ble to plan because you can­not guar­an­tee that you can perform. You are stripped down to now, the present. You just have to take one day at a time and try to build on it. It also makes you very self­ish because you have your hands full resolv­ing your own prob­lems, and can’t take on other people’s problems.

I can­not say that yoga “cured” my depres­sion — relief came from my med­ica­tion and an extended con­va­les­cence that stretched over nearly a decade. I tried sev­eral drugs, trial and error, until my psy­chi­a­trist found the right com­bi­na­tion, and the drugs required years to pull me out of a deep hole. I had also tried other treat­ments, like reg­u­lar exer­cise, psy­cho­analy­sis, prayer. I came back slowly, started a new career, found a new employer, got a grad­u­ate degree, dis­cov­ered that writ­ing was still my call­ing — things that seven years ago I thought unattainable.

But there is always the lin­ger­ing fear that depres­sion will come back. It has scarred my mind and body, quite lit­er­ally: I assume that things will turn out badly or that cer­tain goals are beyond reach. Like a dia­betic or a HIV car­rier, I con­sider myself to be a chronic depres­sive and I can relapse.

Early last year, I felt depres­sion rais­ing its head again. I was close to panic. One night I got on a mat and things started to click. Although I had read Jon Kabat-​​Zinn and Rod­ney Yee, played around with yoga in the base­ment, it had seemed more like a work­out than a response to my problem. Sud­denly, it all started to make sense, and I was at ease. And then I felt the peace of savasana — over­whelm­ing, purg­ing, releasing.

I started a search for help. I read the book, Yoga for Depres­sion: A Com­pas­sion­ate Guide to Relieve Suf­fer­ing Through Yoga by Amy Wein­traub. That lead me to yoga classes, the Art of Liv­ing Foun­da­tion and a daily prac­tice of pranayama and med­i­ta­tion. In my first, ten­ta­tive classes, I almost felt as if I would break mentally.

What is so good about yoga, pranayama and med­i­ta­tion? They are empow­er­ing and allowed me a change in atti­tude, from vic­tim to war­rior. They give me tools and tech­niques that I can use to help myself. When I had to rely solely on med­ica­tion and ther­a­pists, I feel help­less, at the mercy of an unpre­dictable, faulty, chem­i­cal chain reac­tion under­way in my ner­vous sys­tem. I also learn that it’s the daily prac­tice that gets results; no mat­ter how mod­est at first over time they pay big dividends.

Only my fam­ily and a few other peo­ple know that I have this prob­lem. I never wanted word to spread at my work place because the knowl­edge of my ill­ness might affect the per­cep­tion of my per­for­mance. I hated writ­ing about my depres­sion. I did not want to dig­nify or reward this beast that had soiled my life by let­ting it be the focus of my writing.

Yoga has released from my feel­ing of bit­ter­ness and guilt by giv­ing me a fresh, expan­sive vision of my plight and human kind’s. I am not the tar­get of dark forces in my psy­che or my body chem­istry. Depres­sion is just my per­sonal, unique man­i­fes­ta­tion of the broader con­di­tion of human suf­fer­ing. Yoga is about reliev­ing human suf­fer­ing. The yogic sages knew how to trans­form suf­fer­ing into a lib­er­at­ing process by bringing mind, body and spirit back into bal­ance. Because I am scarred by decades of depres­sive think­ing, I want to address those issues and rebuild my life on an affir­ma­tive plat­form — instead of a vic­tim, I want to be proac­tive. In order to trans­form myself, I have to face it frontally and work through it, just as we would with resis­tance in an asana.

Why am I mak­ing this pub­lic dec­la­ra­tion now? Depres­sion has defined me as a per­son. In my pre­vi­ous post­ing on “How has yoga changed your life?,” I found myself try­ing to write around my depres­sion in explain­ing why yoga has become so impor­tant for me. This past month, Kelly McGo­ni­gal has had us reflect on purifi­ca­tion. I have come to real­ize that this con­fes­sion is about puri­fy­ing myself and my self-​​perception so that I can move on to heal­ing these scars (sam­skaras in San­scrit) that have been seared into my mind over decades.

This article was written by Michael L. Smith probably in 2009. The original article can be found here. It has links to additional resources relating to yoga and depression.

2 CommentsAdd a Comment »

2 Responses to Yoga And Depression

  1. Lory says:

    Thank you.

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you, Michael, for contributing to lift the stigma around depression and for your bravery. I have felt a relapse of my depression lately and yoga, meditation and listening to podcasts of dharma talks have helped me immensely to find some balance and a way to take care of myself. I can recognize that the major compounding occurs when I make myself wrong and judge myself for having the depressive symptoms. When I can stay with the feelings instead of pushing them away and breathe through them, sometimes an opening and space is created and it dissolves.

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