July 7, 2016

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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