May 2, 2011

Are You Hiding Depression Behind Your Yoga?

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.

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