Depression? Backbends FTW!
Depression is a familiar companion, yet it isn’t quite an old friend of mine. Neither an enemy, but rather, an acquaintance that goes back as far as I can remember. Sure, I had happy moments throughout my life, but I always felt this underlying pervading sadness.
Why? A whole confluence of factors contribute, and it’s hard to pinpoint just one. Environment? Nature? Nurture? Family history? Brain chemistry? Growing up deaf in a hearing world? I seemed normal, but I didn’t quite fit in, missing out on the nuances of social interaction such as small talk.
It could even be written in the stars, as an expression of the twelfth house moon in my natal chart. The moon is associated with one’s emotions and the twelfth house is the last house of the zodiac, the house of mystery. It’s the bottomless, watery depths of the psyche, associated with the unknown. It’s the eternal self that fades into the nothingness of eternity. Twelfth house moons often experience intense emotions, but within the shadows of the bottomless waters, they often don’t understand why they feel the way they do.
Who knows why depression is a part of my legacy. The fact is, it’s there.
Depression isn’t just sadness. It’s separation. It’s rage. Turned inward, against the heart.
The heart is our own internal sun. In TCM, the heart is the emperor of the body, and all the other organs serve her. The heart creates the grand cross of the chakra system, uniting the lower chakras of the outer world of manifestation and the upper chakras of the inner world, with the arms radiating out directly from the heart. What we do with our hands in the world is the direct expression of what is in our hearts.
With that in mind, why am I not surprised by the prevalence of depression and other mental health issues in the West, and more or less only in First World Countries? Is it because we’re so privileged as a society that our basic survival needs are met that we can finally focus on our inner emotional states? Or is it the self-inflicted oppression of fitting into little boxes, sitting for nine hours a day in cubicles, only using our hands to type on computers, rather than the manual labor of our forefathers?
When I first started doing Mysore, the self-guided version of Ashtanga yoga, I could barely do low cobra without back pain while Upward Facing Dog is the standard, to be done no matter what. On one of my pathetic attempts at Upward Facing Dog, the instructor gave me a deep adjustment that forced my shoulders back. As a result, my lower back screamed in agony, but what happened in my heart center made the pain worth it; I became aware of my heart as a warm ball of glowing white light expanding with every inhale. For the rest of the day, I felt the intense warmth from that adjustment as well as a deep sense of peace and joy.
Backbends are yoga’s way of expressing the radiance of our own internal suns.
As I grow older, my depressions seem to have an underlying message presented as nudges from the universe at large to guide me on my path. My last big depression emerged in the spring of 2010. It forced me to a journey inward, towards self-reflection. It felt like the lights had been dimmed. I wasn’t sure of my purpose. Tears, creative expression through art and journaling and just plain moping around marked my days. I met with an energy worker to help understand the repressed emotions and past traumas stored in my body that no longer served me, that I needed to forgive. Emotions that I needed to send love towards. The expansion that followed in my personal yoga practice resulted in deeper backbends, more intense hip openers without pain in pigeon and hanumanasana.
And I was happy. I felt free. I was right with my place in the world.
In teaching backbends, I often see my students rushing towards the expansion of the backbend with little awareness towards the grounding, the turning inwards. Without a connection to the earth, knowing where your feet are, the grounding current from the lower body created by the contraction of the quads and the rooting of the feet into the earth, the expansion often comes with pain and discomfort. With the grounding current established firmly, backbends may not be as deep, but they have the strong foundation to support the expansion of the heart center.
I got through the dark night of my soul, and by mid-summer, backbends were an integral part of my yoga practice. I’m fortunate to live in Chicago near the shores of Lake Michigan, and that summer I found my backbends were absolutely amazing. I was trippy from the sun, the fresh air wafting off of the water, the green of the grass and trees.
Green is the color of the heart charka. The sun radiates her energy through sunlight and plants take in that energy through the process of photosynthesis and expelling oxygen. We breathe in that oxygen into our lungs, which are the metaphorical wings of the heart. With every breath inhaled, these wings massage our own internal sun and oxygenates the blood, which is then sent throughout the entire body through the circulatory system, infusing our organs and tissues with the energy of the larger sun.
With that, how can we think that we’re separate from one another and the universe at large?
When depressed, it can be terrifying to gaze down at the dark hole of the soul, but that’s exactly how to get through the dark and approach the light. Not around, through. It’s not easy. But it’s the work that needs to be done.
Jerry Mikutis, a Chicago yoga teacher, has been enchanted by yoga ever since she stepped onto the mat in 2005. It was the only place where she found clarity from the mental stresses of life and ended up losing 50 pounds in the process. In addition to yoga, she is fascinated by meditation, Reiki, running, knitting, service for the higher good through volunteerism and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.