How Yoga Saved Me.

Favi Santos/Flickr

I’m not a blogger, I’m not a professional journalist or novelist, but I have something I want to share about my life, something I have never told anyone in great detail, until now.

Yoga saved me. It saved my life.

I know that’s a big statement, but if I didn’t step into my first class when I did in early spring 2009, I’m sure I would have committed suicide by summertime.

I had a demanding job in the event industry, a hellish boss, and a long commute to a job I hated every day. My sister and my best friend both encouraged me to try yoga to help reduce my crushingly high stress levels. They weren’t aware that I was so deeply depressed that I considered driving my new shiny Prius off the highway every single day. That’s how I would do it, I decided; I would abruptly yank the steering wheel to the right, drive off the road at high speed, and roll into a ditch, killing me instantly without pain. Or at least I hoped I wouldn’t survive and be in any more pain. But I kept this plan hidden inside, where it was eating me alive.

I was petrified to go to the yoga studio and had no idea what to expect. But at the same time, I was desperate to do something, anything, to alleviate the emotional pain inside me. The fear of the unknown was actually what propelled me into my first class. I wasn’t sure what my future would be and was uncertain what the answer to my problem was but suicidal thoughts entered my mind every day, and I lived with the uncertainty of if, when, and how I would make it happen.

Then one day in the freezing cold month of March, I stepped onto a borrowed mat at the local studio.

I don’t remember the specifics of my first Hatha class, who the teacher was, or how many students were in the class but I remember feeling my feet on the ground, stable and comfortable in my body in mountain pose. I could feel the steady beating of my heart and despite feeling so deep into a hole that I couldn’t crawl out, I knew that by standing tall on my mat, I was still alive.

One class a week led to two, followed by three. I dabbled in Vinyasa classes, but really enjoyed the studio’s Sunday morning class, “Yoga for Stress Reduction,” which was a mix of slow flow and restorative asanas, pranayama, and meditation. The class focus was on relieving and reducing stress in the body and mind, and creating a more peaceful state both on and off the yoga mat.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of what was happening in and out of my body and mind, but the stress reduction I felt on the mat trickled into my everyday life. My migraines lessened and my chronic fatigue eased. I could finally relax the tension in my shoulders and neck, and my severe acid reflux began to subside. Nearly every day I sought the peace I felt with yoga; I shut my bedroom door, lay on the floor, and felt my breath underneath my hands, which made a gentle connection to my torso. I would tune into sensations that I had never felt, and I began to see my depression more clearly.

I experienced the mind-body connection and came to realize that my emotional health was not only important to my livelihood—it was crucial if I wanted to live.

The place I called “home” for 22 years was filled with memories I wished to forget, and enough turbulent relationships that I wanted to run away from. I was haunted by the events of my past, but began to see that through yoga, the universe may have a future for me.

Several months after I began my yoga journey, I was finally empowered to leave the job that made me miserable, move out of my parents’ house, and relocate my life to a new city. Looking back at this time in my life, I now see that the veil of depression lifted just enough for me to see the future possibilities for my life and the need for a fresh start. Maybe the universe had a plan for me, a plan that was yet to be revealed.

In my new city, I found a small studio near my apartment and attended gentle classes twice a week. I never thought I would be a daily practitioner, until one day a teacher asked me, “Why wouldn’t you get on your mat every day?” I didn’t have a response. It was then that I woke up to my new reality. It would be just like washing my face or brushing my teeth daily; it soon became part of my regular routine. I was able to attend a 7:30 am class, and if evening traffic allowed, I could also make it to the 6:30 pm class. I was hooked on daily practice and, not surprisingly, my depression eased during this time. Without the guidance of a doctor, I stopped my anti-depressant medication. Yoga was “good enough” to manage my mood and symptoms for a time, but eventually depression crept back into my soul, and soon I needed to find a psychiatrist and resume taking medication.

Several years later, I decided to pursue yoga teacher training. I completed my 200-hour training and continued my yogic education, spending thousands of dollars on more trainings, workshops and classes. I loved being in the studio, and pretty soon I wasn’t even aware of the deep depression I had been hiding for over 15 years.

Feeling “stuck in a rut” was an everyday occurrence for me prior to my daily yoga practice. Once I began connecting my body and breath with movement and meditation, the depression lessened, my self-esteem increased, and I felt empowered to take control of my own life. I witnessed my internal world and focused on self-directed compassion. My external world became clearer through my eyes. I realized the transformation that was possible when the connection of my body, breath, spirit and soul connected in union.

I’m not going to pretend I reached enlightenment; I’m far away from that status. I’m also not going to pretend that I haven’t had any depressive episodes; I have. And yet, I started seeing the value of my life more clearly, and I have never returned to that deep well of despair that I experienced during the darkest, most debilitating periods of my life.

If you have read this far, here’s my message to you: I know the practice of yoga can help individuals work through tough times on their journey to optimal well-being. Your life circumstances can and will change; everything is impermanent, transient, and in a constant state of flux. No matter what you are dealing with in your life, you can find something, anything, which will evoke a light within your spirit. It doesn’t have to be yoga (though I do encourage everyone to try at least three different classes).

As an aspiring yoga therapist, I see individuals for whom the depression, anxiety, and trauma is weighing too heavily on their spirits, and I gently encourage them to reach out for help. If you identify with my story, please talk to a trusted person who cares about you, and take the step to see a trained healthcare provider. And finally, my wish for you is to see that you are worthy, and your life matters in this world.

You are responsible for living a glorious, joyful, and fulfilling life. You can find what your soul is searching for by taking the first step forward toward the rest of your life.


Author: Joanna Barrett

Image: Flavi Santos/Flickr

Editors: Katarina Tavčar; Caitlin Oriel

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Joanna Barrett

Joanna Barrett is a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200) and Yoga as Therapy provider, offering yoga to clients with anxiety, depression, and those with trauma histories. She is focused on helping women reach their full potential and optimal well-being. Joanna’s experience in holistic wellness and mind-body modalities for healing has led her toward guiding women to develop life skills for both personal and professional relationships.

Joanna brings with her over 500 hours of yoga training in various styles, primarily in therapeutic yoga and trauma-sensitive yoga. To round out her knowledge, she is currently completing her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University. Her career includes the Cambridge Insight Mediation Center, Harvard University’s School of Public Health, South Boston Yoga, Healing Tree Yoga & Wellness Center, and a private practice in the Boston area. She is a member of the American Psychological Association, National Counseling Association, International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance. See more at her website.