Dear Yoga Teachers and Yoga Students who manage Anxiety and Depression,
You are not alone.
I have seen an increasing number of my peers and colleagues within yoga share openly about their experiences with crushing depression and crippling anxiety, scary panic attacks and debilitating lows. And for that, I am truly grateful for the vulnerability, courage, and strength they show, and what it inspires in me every time. I am sorry you hurt. I hurt, too.
It was nearly four years ago that I had my earth-shattering mental health crisis. The diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder was shameful to me, at the time. I should be smarter than that, stronger than that – I was a yoga teacher, for godssake. I kept this information close to me for a long time, fearful of the implications of the news being public.
The first yoga teachers I told were actually my bosses at the time, and I only told them because they were pressuring me to tell them what was going on. They were also the triggers of my meltdown. I told them, and I asked them to please back off, because they were not my therapists. One of them actually replied, “I know I’m not a therapist, but sometimes I do play one at the studio…” I don’t remember what she said after that, because I completely shut down. Another one told me she also struggled with anxiety, and was upset and hurt that I hadn’t told her sooner.
The next yoga teacher I confided in about my anxiety, I had only just met. She spoke about how anxiety was what had brought her to the practice of yoga to begin with, and so I thought I had found an ally. I carefully began to navigate sharing little pieces of my own experience, and was surprised to find it a relief to share. As we left lunch, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Should you really be teaching yoga? How can you teach if it’s not coming from a place of peace within you?” Apparently, she had been completely “healed” of her anxiety, and I was clearly not doing something right if I was still struggling. I told her I was managing just fine, thanks.
Dear Yoga Teachers and Yoga Students who do not currently or have never struggled with Anxiety and/or Depression; you are not better than those who do struggle. You are not “doing yoga better” than them. Than us. Than me.
For those of you who struggling quietly with your own challenges, you’re not alone. And you’re not broken. I wish I had known I was not alone four years ago, and that is why I talk about my anxiety disorder so openly now.
The cornerstone epic of yoga philosophy is the Bhagavad Gita. In it, prized warrior Arjuna stands on the battlefield moments before going to war, looking out at the side of his family who have betrayed him. He does not want to fight – but Krishna, his cousin (and also the embodiment of the Universal/Divine), tells him he must. Whether or not Arjuna chooses to step on the battlefield, the war will still be fought. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Arjuna must take action in order to participate in making real change happen.
Anxiety is my battlefield, and so often I am Arjuna, curled up in a ball on the floor of my chariot, lamenting that I can’t possibly fight this fight. I’ll just lay here, wake me up when it’s over. But then I remember that life goes on, whether or not I get up out of bed. It is my dharma, my sacred path, to step into the battlefield of chaos that is so oftentimes of my own busy brain’s making, fighting invisible enemies and opponents who sometimes are so bold as to disguise themselves with the faces of people I love and care about – until I realize that I’m often fighting with myself, against myself.
Yoga has been my Krishna, my guide out of the darkness and into the light. And not the physical stuff (which quite honestly fell to the wayside as anxiety’s ol’ pal fibromyalgia made its way into my life) – it has been the philosophy, the self-study, the community; all part of the greatest yoga practice of finding my way home to my own heart.
YOGA SHOWS ME THE WAY TO IDENTIFY ALL OF MY WHOLENESS, ON THE DAYS WHERE SOME OF MY PIECES ARE CONCEALED IN DARKNESS AND SHADOW.
There is no amount of downward dog or ujjayi breath or connecting vinyasas or handstands or Namastes that will miraculously “heal” or “fix” my anxiety disorder. I’ve had it my entire life, and it will continue to ebb and flow in varying degrees for all my years to come. Nor do I expect any one of my friends, my colleagues, my students, or acquaintances to “heal” or “fix” themselves through the practice of yoga. Besides, healing is not black-and-white – it exists on a spectrum. You are not either “broken/sick” or “whole/healed.” There’s a lot of space in between.
“Yoga is the practice of dealing with the consequences of being yourself,” the Bhagavad Gita says. It doesn’t say “fixing” yourself, nor does it say “because you’re broken.” It’s just learning to deal with what you’ve been dealt as best as you can.
What yoga has taught me is that while I may have felt broken, and while I may still sometimes feel broken, I am NOT broken. I am whole. Yoga shows me the way to identify all of my wholeness, which can be especially challenging on the days where some of my pieces are concealed in darkness and shadow. There will still be shadows, there will still be dark days – I do not expect those to just magically disappear. But remembering there is always light – that, to me, is how I practice “healing.”
When I began teaching yoga a decade ago, I heard from a lot of other teachers things like, “Who needs therapy when you have yoga?!” That statement set a narrative in my head that yoga should be enough, and if it’s not, then you’re not doing it “right” – like when someone struggling with clinical depression is told to “just cheer up” or “take more walks in the park.” It’s not always that simple. Today, I strongly believe everyone could benefit from actual therapy of some sort with a mental health professional. I certainly have, having spent the last four years in counseling on a weekly basis (sometimes twice a week, in the midst of my greatest lows).
Literally everything I have done in the past three and a half years with Yoga Buzz has been as a direct result of my mental health crisis; what I learned from it about myself, my relationship with yoga and the people in it, and the change I demand to see within the culture of mainstream yoga.
Thank you to those who step up and speak out in the face of stigma – together we are turning the tide for one another.
For those who are not ready to speak about your experience, you do not owe anyone your story or baring your pain. I speak up in hopes of easing your own quiet burden.
For those who are struggling and not sure how to manage, I always recommend Care and Counseling, Inc. in St. Louis, which has a number of mental health professionals with different specialties, and also offers services on a sliding scale. BetterHelp and Talkspace offer online counseling services, which you can do from your phone, text message, or video chat.
With deep love and respect,
Learn more about Elle’s relationship with her anxiety disorder, the mental health crisis that birthed Yoga Buzz, and more about yoga beyond the mat, accessibility, and activism in this interview with The Yoke (filmed February 2017).