In my early 20s, I was struggling.
I was constantly fatigued, plagued by headaches, and the activities I used to find enjoyable like music and dance seemed blah at best.
I was regularly irritated even by small things, and I just felt like I’d lost my fun-loving, caring, spontaneous personality. I was missing that spark that I used to have.
It took me a long while to figure out what was going on with me, but the best I could come up with was depression. I didn’t want the label, but it stuck.
As I was chasing my tail, trying to figure out to get my spark back, I was introduced to yoga.
A girl moved into my neighbourhood. She was a yoga teacher in her home town and wanted to start up a class. I agreed to attend her first class for moral support, since I’d only ever tried yoga once at the gym and I didn’t hate it.
Little did I know, but that first yoga class planted the seeds for a personal transformation. I had just taken my first baby step toward healing myself from depression.
It had been a long while since I had done any real exercise. Apart from not having enough time, or at least thinking I didn’t, I had also lost all motivation to try. I used to play sports in high school and regularly danced and played recreational sports in college, but lately I couldn’t find a team or class that fit around my tight schedule. My husband at the time was a runner, but I hated running and was never fast enough to keep up, which only made me feel worse about myself.
Yoga was different. It was gentle but challenging, and it connected me with my body in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
Instead of leaving classes feeling drained, I left feeling energetic and focused, which at that point seemed almost like a foreign concept.
After my very first yoga class I felt better.
Not permanently of course, but it was enough to motivate me to keep practicing. I was lucky to have a kind, compassionate teacher, who encouraged me not to worry about perfecting the pose, but to concentrate on being in the moment and finding happiness in where I was right then.
So I kept going back and I kept feeling better.
By committing to a regular practice of listening to and moving my body, while calming my mind and negative thoughts, I not only felt better, but I was able to more clearly address the other areas of my life that were contributing to my depressed mood.
Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, who also used daily yoga practice to overcome the symptoms of her depression, came to a similar conclusion:
“Most of us come to yoga practice after years of abuse to our bodies—exercising without stretching, or no exercise, overeating, or addictions to substances, sex, or work. If we are depressed, our energy is probably low and we may bring to the mat a mind troubled by negative self-talk, worry, or fear…Yoga…invite[s] your mind to pay attention to the sensations in your body, [while] maintaining a calm and steady breath as you practice.”
In depression, our mind and the body can feel separated, even at war sometimes, as negative thoughts and rumination lead the way and our body is stuck in a seemingly permanent state of fatigue. At least that’s how I felt. But the more consistently I came to my mat, the easier it was to quiet my negative thoughts and focus on the present.
After practicing yoga for a few months, I realized that the lessons my instructors and my body were teaching me could be taken off the mat and into my daily life.
Yoga taught me not to fear my thoughts, my body, or my emotions. It taught me to come to terms with loss and pain in a way that would help me grow, and to lean into discomfort and sit with it for a while.
Pema Chodron, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, shares a humorous analogy of how we can face our own negativity and find peace, just like I had been learning in my yoga classes (though maybe not in such explicit terms):
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do… We can explore the nature of this piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there is a better “me” who one day will emerge… It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises”
Part of what I came to understand from yoga is the need to take a look at what is unpleasant in my life, and instead of reacting to it, examine it for what it is. I often have a tendency to feel like things are happening to me, rather than simply happening. By practicing self-reflection through yoga, I learned to create more space between what is happening and how I interpret it. This space allows me to find contentment even amidst emotional turmoil.
Something I’ve heard my yoga teachers say throughout the years is that “yoga is the practice of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
If you’ve ever struggled with depression, you may have been told to “keep your chin up” or “shake it off.” In reality, this is much harder to do than these simple phrases suggest, and may not be what is called for.
What I’ve found is that the road to healing might require us to sit with our sadness for a while.
To examine it with compassion and mindfulness from multiple angles, before we are ready to set it aside and begin seeking joy again.
Yoga continues to teach me to compassionately and carefully examine my emotions and thoughts, even when they are unpleasant. I try to use this powerful lesson everyday, especially as life gets rough.
The more willing I am to turn in and not shy away from uncomfortable emotions or thoughts, but to examine them and sit with them if necessary, the easier it is for me to not let these occurrences drag me down into depression.
Author: Lauren Roerick
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Images: courtesy of the author