For pretty much my entire life, I have dealt with anxiety. I know, I know, me and everyone else on the planet, right? But did you see what I just did in that second sentence? I didn’t even give myself a single transitional phrase before trying to minimize one of the greatest challenges of my existence. And of course I had to toss in some knee-jerk defense mechanism humor and just the right amount of self-deprecation that hopefully I won’t scare anyone off. God, it’s exhausting keeping up with my own nonsense. I hope I am not already exhausting you.
As I am sure many of you already know, severe anxiety absolutely blows. It feels like dread and doom and terror and rage all rolled into one. Like the end of the world is about to happen, while at the same time it already has. And somehow, inexplicably, it happened all because of you! Anxiety can have such a corrosive, permeating effect that at its peak, it leaves room for nothing else; it is like gas filling the volume of whatever container it is in.
To make matters worse, when anxiety does finally start to subside, the depression hangover is at the ready. And of course depression wouldn’t be caught dead without its BFF, shame. They go everywhere together, at least in my mental landscape.
But before I drag you down into the morass, I have great news! There is hope! But it ain’t yoga. Well it ain’t only, yoga, let’s say. For me (and honestly, for most) yoga alone will not cure your anxiety or depression. Can it help? Definitely. Is it an amazingly valuable tool, a powerful coping mechanism, a helpful lens through which to understand yourself? Absolutely. But is it a cure? ‘Fraid not.
Yoga is one tile in the mosaic of mental health. Yes it might be a pretty huge one that connects to thousands of others, but it is not the whole shebang. Yoga is not a panacea. And it is definitely not Prozac. And guys? Some of us need Prozac more than we need yoga.
I realize that I may have just lost half my readers with that last sentence. This is supposed to be a blog about yoga, right? And here this fraud is spewing the big pharma company line! But please; hear me out. I promise that is not what I am trying to do. And this is probably a good time to state the obvious that I am IN NO WAY suggesting that I know what is medically best for anyone besides myself. Hell, I struggle with that most of the time. But isn’t that the point? To struggle, to grapple, to really do the work of figuring your stuff out?
When I was in my twenties, I had a terrible experience with an Ayurvedic doctor. He was well-known in his field and had connections with the yoga studio where I was training, so I had a certain amount of trust in him just because of that. I probably should have known something was off when he passed around nude pictures of himself on an Ayurvedic cleansing retreat to all the teacher trainees to illustrate how some ancient detox technique worked. (Remember my post about how yoga people are so bad at boundaries? Yeah. Case in point.) I think I can speak for all of us there in saying that we definitely did not need to see his junk to get the picture.
And yet, I went to him as a patient! That should give you a sense of how impressionable I was at that point in my life. And I was also deeply ashamed that I was taking psych meds. I thought I should be able to be fine without them, especially as a dutiful yoga practitioner and newly minted certified teacher. It was a time in my life when I was actually feeling pretty good, probably in large part because I was finally on medication to help manage my anxiety. But here is the thing with psych meds; once they get you to a place where you feel healthy and stable, you think you don’t need them anymore because you feel healthy and stable! It’s a real mind trip.
Within ten minutes of my appointment, Dr. Ayurveda (not his real name but I am guessing you caught that) concurred that I did not need to be on anti-depressants and that I had been “forgotten” by the doctor who first prescribed them to me and the medical establishment in general. Ten whole minutes it took for him to get there! Right on. I thought. He was confirming exactly what those harsh, needling voices in my head were also saying. You don’t need to be on this stuff. It is toxic! Do this the natural way! Herbs and yoga, baby! That’s the real medicine! Oh, you sweet little naive twenty-something. If only.
He gave me some herbs, a few dietary recommendations, and advised me to start weaning off the meds, which I was very proud of. I won’t go into detail about the castor oil cleanse he also put me on because it was just as disgusting as it sounds. Pretty soon I was off meds and had dumped my psychiatrist to boot. I felt like a total badass sticking it to the western medicine man. Of course I couldn’t afford to keep seeing Dr. Ayurveda at his exorbitant rates, so I stopped seeing him too. I was sticking it to all the men!
Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for me to relapse. My anxiety blossomed into full-blown panic and showed no signs of going anywhere. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, could barely make it out of the apartment. I thought I was dying. I remember teaching a yoga class having not slept in days, my chest so tight I thought it would implode, and thinking: This is it. I am going to have a heart attack and die in front of all my students. And they had no idea. That is how good I was at hiding it.
I have always thought that “relapse” is the wrong word for what it actually is. Relapse sounds so neat, so clinical, and has an almost rhythmic cadence to it. I can assure you, it is none of those things. It is a ton of bricks falling on you at once. It is drowning, but no one can see. It is flailing. And failing. It is ice-cold blood running at warp speed through constricted veins. It is hell.
I wish I could say that the time in my twenties was my one and only major relapse, that I got back into therapy and stayed on meds, but unfortunately that is not the case. It has taken me many ups and downs and the better part of two decades to fully accept that I am, quite simply, a healthier person on anti-depressants. They give me a buffer, a neuro-chemical safety net that helps me move through life without constantly feeling an imaginary floor fall out from under me. Because I no longer have to expend every ounce of energy just coping, I am able to engage in my life, be more present for my family, my daughters, my friends. I am able to actually be myself, and even occasionally enjoy my own company.
So what does any of this have to do with yoga? A hell of a lot. Two of the biggest components of yoga are self-understanding and self-acceptance. These are the exact same qualities that have led me to know unequivocally that I need medication in order to thrive. By accepting my own shortcomings and giving myself the help I need, I am showing myself love and, indeed, growing in my yoga.
So given all of that, can you see why it just burns me up when I hear yoga folks preach about how bad medication is? Or lead students to believe that yoga will cure them of everything? Or turn western medicine into the devil? Or say that yoga is the “real” medicine? God, how many times have I heard that one. Do you know how that makes people feel who need medication? Like crap, that’s how. And no one comes to yoga in order to feel like crap. No one should have to defend their medical choices to their yoga teachers, and certainly no one should have to feel shamed.
I cannot overstate how dangerous it is for yoga teachers to even hint that a student on medication of any sort should try and get off of it. You are not their doctor; that is not your job, and it can do real damage. Some of you may be thinking: Well, duh. Does anyone actually do that? Oh, yes. They certainly do, both subtly and overtly. Most often it is not as obvious as with Dr. Ayurveda, but it often comes across in what teachers say, how they say it, and even sometimes by what they wear. Ever seen those ridiculous Heavily Meditated t-shirts? I really hate those. They read as so superior, so shaming of medication, and so totally oblivious to the fact that many people (like me) meditate and medicate. And wanna know what? The two go great together.
I don’t blame Dr. Ayurveda for my relapse so many years ago. That one was totally on me. I went to him wanting some sort of misguided permission to get off meds, and he played right along. But what if he had acted differently? What if he had honored the boundary of his own practice and suggested that I manage coming off meds with a psychiatrist who actually knew me and was trained to do such things? I still might not have listened, but at least he would have been doing the ethical thing within the scope of his practice.
As yoga teachers, we don’t have a neat succinct code of conduct or ethics to refer back to, which is too bad. But some things should be pretty obvious and universal such as:
- Never giving students medical advice
- Never making students feel shamed or like they have to hide who they are
- Never assuming that what is best for you is best for others
Be careful with what you say and how you say it. Encouraging students to get off medications in any way, subtly or overtly, is unethical. In my book, that is the opposite of yoga. In my book, that is malpractice.