Depression looks different for everyone. For some people, depression can be very loud as they try to fill themselves with substances or friends or other forms of calling out for attention. For me, it manifests as staying in bed until noon when I force myself to get up so that even if I don't do anything that day, at least I'll be able to say that I got out of bed. There’s lots of crying, lots of questioning, and for better or worse there’s lots of contemplation. It's not like this is my life all the time - thank goodness - but in those moments, days, or weeks when that very specific heaviness sets in, it feels like I may never be happy again.
Clinical depression runs in my family. As the youngest in the family, I must admit that I had quite a bit of judgment around depression - specifically in regards to my sister. In her worst moments of depression in her first couple years out of college, I was just entering UC Santa Cruz, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just “get it together”. It all seemed so dramatic to me. Little did I know that this would be another example of needing to live out exactly what I had so harshly judged.
When depression first really hit me, I had already been practicing Yoga regularly for six years, and I had just been certified to teach. Medication seemed like the lazy or false way out, and I was convinced that if I did enough yoga, I shouldn’t have to take something to feel good. Not even good - normal. Nothing in me wanted to even think of trying medication so I leaned more deeply into the practice. I ate cleaner than in any other time of my life, I got outside for exercise every day, and I made sure that I meditated and did Yoga Asana daily. I was sure I could yoga my way out of it. Not only was medication my last resort, but when I had exhausted all other options and finally decided to give it a try, I did it like an unwilling spy - secretively and full of shame.
After a couple weeks taking my new medicine, I could feel myself again. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of feeling like you don’t belong to yourself, or one of feeling that your own mind is an unsafe place, but it is both completely disorienting and terrifying. The fact that I could close my eyes and not be bombarded by thoughts of what is wrong with me, that I could get out of bed at a normal hour and be excited about my day was a revolution. As trite as it sounds, I felt like myself again. I had always known myself as a steadfast supporter of joy and optimism, and so to lose that ability to turn towards the good was crushing. Finally I could start to see the lessons in the madness again. I could look at my feelings with compassion rather than anger. Most importantly, I was available to be in a seat of service to whomever needed it - a skill that was lost to me in the whirlpool of “me me me” that is depression.
In the beginning, I was very open with my friends about my decision to try this more clinical/Western approach to dealing with depression. Everyone was so supportive of my decision often reminding me that if I had diabetes, I wouldn’t give a second thought to going on a life saving medication. And make no mistake about it: anti-depressants are most definitely life savers.
Unfortunately, when I started to tell people in my yoga community, I was surprised to find the reaction to be a very different one: judgment. This shocked me as it didn’t seem to come from the root of the practice, which I see to be kindness, compassion and disciplining ourselves towards higher consciousness.
At first, I worked very hard on not out-sourcing my own self-judgment onto others. We often feel false criticism from those around us because we are simply judging ourselves through their eyes, but after many colleagues and friends responded by saying, “You should really look into other methods of treatment,” or “This is temporary, right? You’re going to work on getting off them?” I decided to keep my depression, and the way I chose to deal with it, a secret so as to be able to avoid this type of reaction.
But then something happened that I could not avoid, and that made me decide to speak out on the topic.
I have a student whose identity I will keep private, but for our purposes I’ll call him Matt. Matt was a long time student who became a friend, and he would be the first person to claim - or rather, exclaim - that yoga was the best thing that ever happened to him. He would come to class and proudly show me his search history on his phone, which would inevitably be related to yoga whether that was through myth, asana, or mantra. He was in his early twenties, and although he had been riddled with anxiety about who he was, what he looked like etc., it had never gotten in the way of his joy. In fact, I met him when he had lost someone very special to him, and even in that pain his light was a beacon for those around him.
A few months prior to Matt really telling me what was going on, he had mentioned a few times that he was going through a bit of a rough patch, and that he wasn’t really feeling like himself. Matt was in his early twenties, which is a common age for some sort of existential crisis, and so when we were first discussing it, I counseled him through the lense of the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. We spoke of how important it was to have some patience and compassion for oneself, particularly in tough times, and how necessary a clean diet and regular exercise was for any lasting well-being. He was always grateful for my insight and he too leaned heavily into all aspects of the practice as he tried to make his own path out.
One night he came to practice with me, and I could tell that he was not feeling so well. Of course his light was still there, but I could tell that he couldn’t feel it. After class, he walked me to my car, and he shared with me how truly deep his depression was. I asked if his family had a history of diagnosed clinical depression, and he said yes. I asked if he had looked into medication. (Mind you, he had been in therapy for years already). He said no.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just feel so ashamed.”
And there it was: shame. A dagger straight into my heart. What makes this razor’s edge even more sharp is that this particular shame is an illusion made up of society’s misunderstanding and fear about mental health.
The cult of “healthy living” can become oppressive when it precludes people from getting the brain vitamins they need to function. I think if we were to check in with ourselves a little more deeply, we would see that this judgment we have is nowhere near in line with living a Yogic Life. Perhaps we can all strive more to be healthy in mind spirit body with an enormous of true compassion for whatever a yogi needs to bring their system into alignment. Curiosity has always been a kinder path for me than condemnation.