August 23, 2015

Take Heart Yogi, You Don’t Have to Earn Happiness.

yoga beach

In my first week of taking Citalopram, 29 posts about how yoga cures depression popped up on my various news feeds, 13 posts about how inflammation causes depression, 4 about overmedication in the US and one article spreading like wildfire about a woman who got off her anti-anxiety medication and has never been happier.

I’m not searching––I’m just scrolling, like usual, through my generic newsfeed full of yogi friends.

I hoped, semi-desperately, that my obsessive googling about my anti-depressant would push these stories far out of my newsfeed—that there was some kindness in the algorithms—but, more than ever, my Facebook ads are geared toward yoga for the depressed.

When I started doing yoga, I was 15, on a cocktail of medications that didn’t work for me, seeing a therapist I didn’t like, and my mother was dying. When I found yoga, I found something that felt authentic, real and full of possibility for healing.

I also found anti-medication rhetoric––not a year or two down the line, but in class three. So, I started reading.

Being on antidepressants at the age of 12 and still suffering, I discovered the stories of people similar to me who were healed through yoga. I took five months to withdraw slowly off the drugs and I listened deeply to what I heard in class and what I read about suffering––the only way out is through, sensation is the gate, heal the body then the mind, don’t attach to the negative, flip the switch.

I was––still am––the person who cries in class.

An instructor once said something about pain being this shining thing through which I can walk, and I sobbed with hope. I so, so wanted that to be my truth. I worked so hard for that to be my truth. When I asked my teachers if my feelings were normal––thoughts about death and feeling like life isn’t worth living and not being able to get out of bed––they told me, “Yes. Yoga can stir things up inside you, but it will settle.”

Then, it didn’t.

Without medication, I slept for sixteen hours a day. I became completely disinterested in any activity outside of yoga. I could not focus enough to read. I cancelled dinner plans to stay home and lay in bed. I could not keep up with new friends. I dropped out of college. I went to work and towards the end, my work performance was dropping—and fast. I yelled at my boyfriend. I felt guilt for any small thing.

I only ate because if I didn’t I would pass out teaching yoga (which happened to me––quietly––more than once).

Without medication, I was suffering so much that I slowly turned away from the one thing I did have the energy to do: practice. What was once a safe space now felt like an assault. I understood for a year before I went on medication that I would need to and so listening in class to people tell me that I could change my mind or flip a switch on my own made me feel even more guilty and full of grief.

I turned away from practice, left some of my favorite teachers, and felt I heard people loud and clear: You have to earn happiness, or you can’t have it at all. If you don’t earn peace through non-attachment, you will suffer your whole life.

I have been practicing yoga for eight years, and time and time again I have been told I am a beginner and all is coming. However, this past year I watched multiple young and successful and loved people I know die from depression.

Non-attachment suddenly had a new meaning to me, and long ago I accepted this as my mantra: I will die trying. I will die trying to love this world.

I will die trying not to die.

I will let things go when they go, I will smother nothing, but goddammit I will not watch life in a haze, and I will not let life go. This idea that after eight years of practice and worsening depression I––and other yogis––should simply keep going and not attach to and accept the chemical imbalances shooting off signals in our brains—it says that we have failed.

And while I know that is no one’s intention, that every teacher means well when they talk about the healing powers of yoga, there must be room in yoga to say: Yoga stood no chance against my depression.

No. F***king. Chance.

Flipping a switch is a gift I was not given. Non-attachment is a privilege—a privilege. Waking up happy is not something all of us can do and what happens when every day we try and fail? And what happens, too, when we tell people that yoga can heal everything and it can’t heal them? Are we, then, responsible for some part of their death?

It hurts to feel betrayed by your biggest love—by the practice that has changed you and gave you wonderment at your own body. It hurts to feel like those without chemical imbalances are worthy of the healing powers of yoga––the flipping of the switch, the choosing of happiness––but those of us trapped behind our mental illness are not.

I once heard that depression is like drowning while you can see everyone breathing, and when I looked around the room the last few months before I got on antidepressants, that was horribly true for me as a student and a teacher.

I felt like I was in a nightmare.

I knew if I didn’t get on antidepressants, I would die, and it wasn’t until I had my first full day of happiness that I realized how close to death I was—how deeply I was suffering—and for what?

For the practice.

I struggle, because yoga did help me. Yoga taught me how to cope with the worst of my anxiety, but my depression stayed stubborn as a tick. There are so many of us out there.

I know you.

You are my students, my colleagues and the ex-pats of yoga. You are powerful leaders who used to be unable to get out of bed. You are crisis center phone bankers who were once on the other line. You are yogis who go into classes where you are told to change your mind, and you love the practice anyway. You are quietly strong, biting your tongue when people say that if you eat better, you won’t be depressed, and later, at home, you laugh about it with your loved ones over pizza; you say, “I wish.”

And I’m here to tell you, on behalf of yoga and every other yogi on medication: You are not alone.

You do not have to earn your happiness. You can do yoga without needing to suffer. Attach to life, grab on, stay. Sometimes, you have to grab on to the mountain that’s life and climb up before you’re on your feet at the top and can let go.

Grab hold.



Depression: Why we Need to Stop Saying we’re Fine.


Author: Kirstie Marie Kimball

Apprentice Editor: Keeley Milne / Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Michael Pravin/Flickr

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