Are You Hiding Depression Behind Your Yoga?

Via on May 2, 2011

The Sad Swami: Yoga & Depression

The concerning calls would arrive late at night, just before all the asrama residents turned in for the night. Normally, we women in the asrama were not allowed to receive calls from males. We all practiced celibacy and although we were mostly Americans, adhered to certain codes of conduct that oddly resembled those of medieval India, right down to covering our heads with our saris. (Those were the days!)

Chastity, we were told, was a spiritual pillar for women, so we avoided members of the opposite sex like the plague, and particularly those clad in saffron robes who lived in the temple down the street from us. The monks reciprocated with us in kind, and none of them would ever dare telephone the women’s asrama. But his calls always slipped through because he was a swami, you see.

The senior girls at the asrama always handed me the phone because they thought that surely the swami was calling me to offer me some spiritual guidance, or to engage me in some service, offer me a special seva. I was the lucky one, they thought. But the swami called me for an entirely different reason.

I sat on my futon each night and listened to him unwind heartbreaking stories of his rush into the life of a renunciant, and the young child he had abandoned in the process. He trusted me with his pain, with his guilt, with his fear of sharing these uncomfortable emotions with the other senior monks in the community. It was an international organization, and a depressed swami just wasn’t good PR. He felt ashamed and weak, and so very alone that he wanted to disappear. The loneliness had become utterly unbearable, he told me.

At the end of each call, the swami would apologize profusely and rush off as we both needed to rise at 4:00 am for the morning prayers. During the day the sad swami smiled, and gave classes as usual, and conducted prayer rituals, and looked like a swami is “supposed” to look: happy.

The swami had sworn me to confidence and I didn’t know what to do!

I was a teenager, and fairly new at the asrama. He was in his forties and had served the religious organization for many years, yet each night he told me about how isolating it had become for him, and how exhausting it was to continue as he had been. Sometimes, the anguish would run so deep the swami would break down and cry.

The sad swami represents one of millions of individuals worldwide suffering from depression. In the United States alone the depression statistics exceed seventeen million. Like the swami, many individuals who suffer from depression invest much of their energy into trying to conceal it, and appear normal to others. Perhaps this is especially true within social contexts in which people feel an expectation to act happy and peaceful, like spiritual communities or sangas, spiritual residences or asramas, yoga circles, etc. Practitioners of yoga might subscribe to an unspoken standard of creating a sacred space that does not allow the admission of depression into it.

“Leave your misery at the door, this is a bliss-only space!” they seem to warn.

But depression doesn’t always mystically vanish as soon as one starts practicing yoga. Consequently, every time you enter a spiritual community, or a yoga class, you are inevitably sharing it with people who have either suffered through depression in their past, or are currently struggling with it. And, as the swami taught me, sometimes the yogi who appears to be the least likely candidate for depression, ends up being the one in the most torment. You just never know! (Interestingly, the exploding popularity of yoga simultaneously arrives with the growing depression epidemic.)

Although the conversations I had with the sad swami occurred over twenty years ago, I remember the anxiousness in his voice as if I had just gotten off the phone with him. The swami was a caring, sensitive man and spoke about pressures to be a good example to others. He wrestled with his duty to society and his own inner conflicts. He also shared his fears of being harshly judged by the other swamis, and the rest of the community leaders, should they find out about his struggles.

It made me sad to think that of all the people he had practiced yoga with over the years, the swami felt safest opening up his woes to me, a virtual stranger to him. What did I have to offer him that he felt they didn’t?

Well, for one thing, I didn’t judge the swami for his sadness. I told him I did not see his depression as a sign of spiritual failure. Instead, I suspected it was just the opposite: a cleansing of sorts. A conscious connecting with layers of grief that had been unconsciously interfering with taking his practice to a deeper level: a much needed emotional purging of sorts.

The swami was finally connecting with uncomfortable feelings he had repressed for years! He was courageously expressing them, and making efforts to contextualize them within his role as a swami. In essence, the swami was asking:

What role does this depression play in my yoga practice?

Yet the anguishing subtext was clearly: But swamis are not supposed to be depressed! Or are they?

Yoga is dangerously full of pretty pictures of what yogis are “supposed” to look like. My naive, adolescent ideals of what makes a swami, or a yogi, or a longtime spiritual practitioner, were promptly shattered that first year I lived in the asrama, as the swami’s tears painted a very human picture for me, of everything that constitutes a spiritual practice. (Yes, swamis are humans too).

I discovered that yoga is not all chanting and dancing, serenity and bliss, endless savasanas and full breaths. Yoga is not just about ecstatic kirtans, inspiring classes and happy people who are always relaxed. Instead, yoga is a practice that, in the most traditional (yet often overlooked) sense, embraces and engages every human experience that appears during one’s journey as a viable means to elevate consciousness. Yes, depression included. Yoga does not assume that it’s practitioners will not have to face depression at one point or another. In fact, yoga anticipates this likely possibility.

According to the World Health Organization, in nine years, it is estimated that depression will become the second most devastating illness in the world, only after heart disease. It would be foolish to believe that the sages of antiquity failed to address this depression crisis in the yoga texts they left for us. In fact, The Bhagavad Gita wastes no time by beginning with painting a portrait of a man who is so depressed, he even questions the use of remaining alive.

Arjuna’s utter despair speaks to the twenty million people who attempt to take their own life each year on our planet.

This staggering figure exceeds the number of people killed in wars and through other murders on an annual basis worldwide, yet suicide is not as readily addressed as warfare. Contrary to this, the Bhagavad Gita’s narrative, although set within the outer context of a killing field on the verge of violence, begins by immediately exposing the inner chaos Arjuna battles with: the conflict and despair that makes him sound suicidal.

It is not coincidental that the issues Arjuna struggles with in the Gita’s first chapter closely resemble those the swami shared with me when I was a teenager. After all, Arjuna’s personal challenges are meant to resonate with grievances all humans can relate to. The teachings of the Bhagavad Gita are thus very deliberately presented through an intimate conversation that occurs between two people, in which we find one of the participants paralyzed by an overwhelming depression.

The conversation in the Bhagavad Gita instantly creates a setting most of us are familiar with: two friends engaging in dialogue, in the midst of the world’s state of crisis, in which one party makes themselves very vulnerable by admitting that they’ve given up on life. In the course of our human experience, all of us will have at least once been on either the listening end, or the tormented end of such a conversation.

Beginning with verse 29 of the Bhagavad Gita’s first chapter, we hear Arjuna describe his limp limbs falling at his side, his mouth drying out, his temperature rising, nausea and dizziness setting in, his mind reeling in agony and the dropping his bow and arrow. This slipping of Arjuna’s bow from his hand is a dramatic gesture of how helpless the great warrior feels in the face of his deep sorrow. It symbolizes the inactive, stagnant state that threatens any one of us when deeply depressed, causing us to withdraw our voluntary participation from life, and go against the soul’s nature to be active.

Speaking directly to the theme of the classic text, Arjuna’s despondence, like that of the swami’s, seems to beg the question: How do I act in light of all this? Incidentally, as elaborated upon in Graham Schweig’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita, this fundamental theme announces itself in the very first verse of the Bhagavad Gita; the bija, or seed verse, said to contain the essence of the entire text within it. In this rich verse King Dhritarasthra asks his minister Sanjaya: How did they act? when inquiring about the activities that were unfolding upon the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

The question is then answered, not by a detailed description of the external killings, which were enacted between the two armies. Instead, it is answered with over seven hundred verses that illuminate the internal “killings” of paralyzing perspectives that Arjuna needed to make in order to pick up his bow again and energetically reenter his life. This gives the readers a clear direction of how imperative tending to one’s inner conflicts is when practicing yoga. In fact, it is part of the yoga process itself, as how we fight our inner battles is so often reflected in how we interact with the world around us.

Do we participate fully in each of our lives, or do we cower away from being ourselves?

More importantly, what is the means through which we access our yogic selves during depression?

If we look to the example that Arjuna and Krishna gave us in the Bhagavad Gita, our depression can become part of our yoga practice, when we become courageous enough to share it with someone we trust. The transformative dynamic that can be generated to act upon our consciousness within a relationship is nothing short of a miracle! Within the yoga tradition, this phenomenon is referred to as sangha, or that union which leaves each participant feeling elevated, energized and enlivened.

In searching out those who provide such uplifting sanga for us when we are depressed, we begin to mirror Arjuna, who opened his heart to Krishna on the battlefield. Such connections naturally open up sacred spaces in which perspectives can be explored and broadened. They engage our dark nights of the soul to explore new depths of self awareness, as the Bhagavad Gita reminds us in a double-entendre verse found in the second chapter: “During that which is night for all beings, the deeply meditative person is awake.”

As the light shines even brighter in the dark, sincere practitioners of yoga take times of inner and outer conflict and despair, as opportunities for deeper absorption.

Though depression may indeed appear like a dark night, for the sincere practitioner of yoga it could very well become the catalyst that wakes them up.

My friend, the sad swami, taught me a very important lesson just as I was diving into my practice, that depression is something that can potentially touch all of us. In fact, statistically, it will touch most of us in some way or another, at some time in our lives regardless of how many years we have invested in an active yoga practice. It is important, therefore, to remember that there are many causes for depression other than just circumstantial or environmental, as Arjuna’s appeared to be.

Today, everything is being explored as a potential cause for depression from hormonal imbalances, to neurological malfunctions, to chemical, genetic, nutritional and even astrological culprits, just to name a few! If one suffers from depression, it is nothing to be ashamed of, and like any other physical illness, it does not reflect spiritual impotence!

Perhaps it is time to rid ourselves of this negative stigma which surrounds depression in yoga circles, (lest we isolate more sad swamis), and embrace a more holistic approach to yoga, in which everything becomes a tool for our enlightenment, even our bouts with depression. And in which we can offer a loving, compassionate ear to those who have dropped their bows, as Krishna did with Arjuna.

And if the sad swami is reading this, (whom I never heard from again), I just wanted to thank you for showing me that the bravest, spiritual warriors have the softest hearts of all.

About Catherine Ghosh

Catherine L. Ghosh, RYT, was introduced to Yoga when she was only two years old by her mother. In her mid-teens, she formally took up the practice of meditational and devotional Yoga with teachers in India as well as the West. Catherine, also known as Krishna Kanta Dasi, traveled to India several times, visiting holy places, meeting teachers and deepening her passion for the study of Bhakti Yoga and Eastern philosophy. She is a contributing editor for Integral Yoga Magazine . Together with Graham M. Schweig, PhD, she develops workshops on “The Secret Yoga.” For more information please visit: www.secretyoga.com. or find her on facebook. Read the entire Yoga In The Gita series. Or take a peek at her Women's Spiritual Poetry site Journey of The Heart .

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39 Responses to “Are You Hiding Depression Behind Your Yoga?”

  1. I was totally enthralled by this essay, Catherine. And that was even before I got to the brilliant Gita analysis at the end.

    Thanks for being here.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Agreed. I always thought it was a "Western" idea to shun depression and run away from feelings of sadness. This made me realize it is also a problem in spiritual circles. Feeling what you feel

  3. That got cut off … I was about to note: Feeling what you feel, freely and totally, really is what it's all about.

  4. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  5. Good post Catherine and thank you for that.

    In my experience many people do want a yoga teacher who seems more than human but I've never met one that was. Students are often looking for a haven and often look to the yoga teacher to possess the imagined superior powers of a doctor or airline pilot or whoever you must rely on for refuge and safe journey. So it does allow teachers so inclined to take on an air of knowing that they might not possess. I am surprised by the amount of students who seem fooled by that. There are some good actors out there. If the teacher is experiencing doubts or disillusionment, he/she must take care to not burden the student with that if it is a specific personal issue. On the other hand, it might also be a service to express feelings if they are issues that others likely share. Then all will benefit from that honest exchange, from that place that allows doubt to come to light and be dealt with together.

    It would be good for the yoga student to see that he or she is not a lesser being despite sorrow or anger or insecurity. It is a wise teacher who reveals her own weaknesses and the example that those do not diminish her gifts.

  6. Gordon says:

    What an amazing place the universe is. Just this morning I linked to an article on "spiritual bypassing" on Facebook.

    And here it is.
    http://www.tricycle.com/interview/human-nature-bu

    The conversation afterwards, however, is even more interesting, in which the idea of love (western concept/tradition contrasted with eastern) sheds a lot of interesting, oblique light on questions about the definition of depression, the relationships between depression and ego and feelings of loss and culture … I'd be interested, Catherine, in reading what you thought about BOTH the article AND the conversation, as I'm struggling with this (among several other) issues at the moment.

    • Thank you for the link Gordon! I thoroughly enjoyed that beautiful articulation of the very phenomenon I lightly touch on in my article. Undoubtedly, this is a rich subject with many layers to unpack, and one I have also been reflecting on, like yourself, for years. You bring up the concept of love, which the author identifies as: "The core psychological wound, so prevalent in the modern world, forms out of not feeling loved or intrinsically lovable as we are.", which then takes us into semantics, if we really wish to dissect what "love" is, through the lenses of Eastern and Western, modern and ancient traditions. But, it is interesting you should raise this point, as in the Bhagavad Gita, towards the end of the conversation Krishna has with Arjuna, he introduces as "the greatest secret of all" this concept of Divine Love, from which the soul feels disconnected, and thus depressed. (Chapter 18, verses 63-78) . In the "spiritual bypassing" phenomenon, one attempts to jump over necessary parts of the process that prepare consciousness for the experience of this "love" (Sanskrit has dozens of words for love!), and thus unwittingly shortchange themselves! To be "present", or a "witness" to every constituent of our conditioned self, we secure a complete participation in our own spiritual practice, thus guaranteeing that the progress we make is genuine, and profound. Just the tip of the iceberg, of course! Thank you for your stimulating and thoughtful reflections, Gordon. We are, in fact, engaging in the type of dialogue prescribed by the Bhagavad Gita! Very enlivening.

  7. Bill says:

    Depression is often looked upon as "that" part which no one wants to open up to. When caught in it the last thing anyone wants to do is to be open about it. Its as if its contagious and can be inhaled and caught by anyone you come in contact with.
    That its a part of the path or can be included in our practice would be surprising to some.
    Its where my practice started, working up the nerve to even walk into a class let alone when the teacher locked the door behind us. Feeling isolated but not wanting to live as if there were only a wall of gray in my face I decided to give a go. It was a Tuesday night and when were done I felt an exhilaration or aliveness I hadn't felt in a very long time. At this point I had a feeling life could be manageable and very soon found out there was nothing to be cured from as well. I had been playing the WHY game too long.
    I had found a place to be comfortable again inside and in the world. Through that an online sangha was found and with it many friends and a place to share with folks I am happy to call family. I really am not alone with this and slowly the isolation began to lift, thus the sharing of what had been taking place.
    This piece catches my attention for all the reasons that got me started. Thanks so Catharine…

    • I congratulate you for your bravery, Bill, as the first step is often the hardest. Your seeking out that place in which you felt comfortable again was a very courageous step. Just as the one the swami took with me. To come out of isolation with our hard feelings is one of the most effective ways to ensure a thriving practice. And I much appreciate your presenting the internet as a potential "sacred space" in which others can find nourishing and supportive sangha. These online sanghas are truly revolutionizing the ways in which yoga is practiced in the modern world! If messages such as these can reach out to souls, and help them out of their loneliness, then we have, together, successfully turned the internet into a healing tool upon our spiritual path. Thank you for your open sharing. Much appreciated! :-)

  8. Jenya dasi says:

    Catherine, your style is so engaging and rich with realization. Please do keep writing!

    thanks,
    Jenya

  9. Max says:

    Thanks great article :) People who are humble enough to share their experiences, challenges & the depth of their feelings are the ones we can learn from & who can inspire us the most as they are the ones to get down off their pedestal & practice what they preach…. Yoga & spiritual well being is a continuous journey that needs constant daily attention as it is when we take our eye off the ball & think we have got it sorted do we fall short of our living as our trueselves…. Every day, hour & minute is a chance to learn, grow & look inward…

    Namaste

    Maxine Geary – Yoga Teacher UK
    maxine@yoga-spirit.co.uk

    • Thank you so much, Maxine! Yes, continual attention (especially to our challenges) is what makes for a thriving practice! I am happy you enjoyed the article.

  10. [...] The Sad Swami: Yoga & Depression by Catherine Ghosh [...]

  11. bj galvan says:

    Nice exposition and have to agree with Baba that Arjuna wasn't so much depressed as he was conflicted. Everyone will have challenging conflict, like Arjuna, and maybe at some point everyone will experience depression. Either way, depending on the choice of yoga style, yoga can offer the tools to ameliorate and appropriately experience either scenario.

  12. melinda says:

    I don’t believe that a caring, sensitive man in his forties would have routinely unloaded his supposed personal anguish on a teenager. This to me is a sick abuse of power. What did you have to offer, you ask? He identified the person who was one of the most unexperienced and least likely to blow his cover. This sounds to me like it may have even been a twisted way of seeking an intimate relationship. Nothing about this sounds courageous. It was a self-protecting act of selfishness and cowardice to share this with you and then insist you could tell no one, with no concern of the impact that it would have on you. This is the behavior of an abuser. He was emotionally manipulating you. I would bet if you had shared this information with anyone, he would have turned on you and denied ever having these conversations. He might have even reported that he was attempting to counsel YOU. We will never know. You lost me right from the beginning with what sounds to me like a sick tale. He may well have had a mental illness, but it doesn’t sound like depression to me. I myself have suffered and battled with severe depression. When I have been in that state I have often slept for 16 hours at a time, and have had no energy at all for spiritual practices or rising at 4 am. If looking back on this event of 20 years ago, you are still unable to see the abuse this much older man was subjecting you to, than you are not someone whose judgement I would trust to advise us on the issue of depression and how it may or may not relate to yoga practice.

    • Thank you for pointing out this other, very valid angle to my experience with the swami. You are certainly correct in asserting that for the swami to unload this burden on my teenage self was downright inappropriate, and could have perhaps evolved to an abusive situation. Swamis have a lot of authority, no doubt, and to abuse that power is -I agree- not courageous, but cowardly. I have considered this perspective before, but feel that the swami was sincere in his anguish. Perhaps my estimation is wrong, but I perceived him as genuinely suffering from depression. Granted, not a severe depression like the one you describe, but nevertheless, he appeared to be plagued with intense, conflicting emotions, like the one's Arjuna experienced in the GIta, so I engaged this part of my personal history to shed some light on how Arjuna potentially represents any one of us. I apologize for not being more sensitive in my choice of presentation, when depicting a person suffering from depression. Perhaps I should have drawn from another story. But even if this had been the abusive situation you describe, it still characterizes a person suffering from an internal conflict and despair, and thus candidate for symbolizing the state of the soul Krishna addresses in the Bhagavad Gita. I thank you VERY much for your valuable insights, as they serve to alert others to develop healthy boundaries when it comes to such situations. Apparently, as a new teenager in the asrama I had yet to do so. I appreciate this exchange we are having, as it offer a deeper views into the many layers that can co-exist in a story. If I were to rewrite this article, I would pick another part os my life to draw from. And yes, my views (not advice), have shortcomings, but I hope that whatever I offer in my writings, at least illuminate something of value, to someone. Thank you again Melinda.

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  19. I finally got around to reading this, Catherine….well done :)

  20. [...] offers Arjuna for overcoming his inability to participate in his life. Arjuna had fallen into despondence and Krishna presents yoga to him as an alternative way of being. Yoga appeared to Arjuna via his [...]

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  23. Heather says:

    Thank you, this was beautiful. A must share with my patients!

  24. lincoln briant says:

    Just a little update Catherine, I recently happened across some current pics of the "sad swami". He looks quite happy now, thought you'd be glad to know! I guess all's well that ends well..

  25. Thank you for the article reference on "spiritual bypassing" Phil. I will have to look that one up! And I did have some post editing afterthoughts on wishing I had included precisely what you so astutely sensed was missing from this piece: an encouragement for those who are challenged with depression to unreservedly seek our help. Definitely! But I must add, that the type of "spiritually sophisticated therapist" you describe in your comment seems to be a rare breed! (At least from my experience.) Because I couldn't agree with you more when you assert that yogis who suffer from depression would require a more, should we say, customized treatment of it, from a specialized therapist. The trick is finding one such therapist!

  26. Gordon says:

    Part 3. And I connect with it through my yoga and meditation practice … and know, through that connection, that in spite of the best efforts of my alcoholic mother, emotionally abusive partner, emotionally absent father, and those that have over the years done their best to devalue me … that I am lovable, in whatever eastern or western sense you use the word.

  27. Thank you Mark! Point well taken! Others have also echoed your sentiments here; that I have failed to define depression accurately. Indeed, clinical depression is a process, and not just a quickly-entered-into-condition. Your clinical definition certainly would make it appear that Arjuna does not suffer from depression. However, this was not a state he developed "just before the battle". If you read the Mahabharata, which, as you may know, is the greater story-line from which the GIta is extracted, you will see there that Arjuna had indeed been struggling with such feelings for quite some months leading up to the battle. And, the battlefield triggered their full release, including him questioning his own reason to remain alive. It was NOT a "fear of dying". It was a contemplation of enacting his own death. Perhaps a review of the Gita's first chapter, along with the greater Mahbharata context in which it appears, might help you better appreciate my use of the word depression in m y article. And I apologize if it appears to influence others to think they are depressed. That was not at all my motive. I actually meant to communicate much of what you were here! Which is that depression is indeed a "process" and so is Yoga. To integrate the two would be helpful, as I see it, as far as developing a holistic approach to healing/growing spiritually, etc. Thank you so much for your comment!

  28. Diane DeMatteis says:

    Very informative article. Most of us have experienced some sort of depression in our lives. The question to ask ourselves,is this clinical or warranted depression. Two years ago I had to end a fifteen year relationship due to my partners deepening mental illness, this was an extremely painful ordeal for both of us. One year later I lost a twenty year job that I loved, which also caused a great deal of sadness and stress. Some of my friends were concerned that I was falling into depression. For me, I felt depression was the appropriate mood for such great losses. Not to be depressed would be to deny ones feelings, depression was a "normal" state to be in after such great losses.
    Fortunately for me I have fully recovered from this dark period in my life, even though I still feel the loss of two great loves, but these losses have just become part of who I am, a stronger more understanding human being for this experience. LOVE Diane

  29. Yes, the dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita shows us that there are many angles from which to view who we are in relation to the world, and to all the things that overwhelm, or depress us. In this book, Krishna gently offers Arjuna various lenses through which to view his "issues". By the end of the book, Arjuna choses to regard his life circumstances as calling him fully participate in them, instead of putting his bow down, and lamenting. Opening up to those who genuinely care and love us is always a step in the direction of lessening our despair and depression, as Krishna and Arjuna demonstrate, for divinity wishes for all of us to truly participate ion our lives! Thank YOU for sharing, Mary! I wish you well with finding support for your struggles with depression.

  30. MarySol says:

    Thank you Catherine for your helpful advice :-) Life seems an uphill struggle at times. Connecting with people willing to care and share their insight with others is a true blessing.

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