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How Yoga Helped Me Learn From & Conquer My Depression

I took antidepressants from age 16 to 24. At the time the doctor prescribed them, I was dealing with a lot of hurt and family trauma. I still remember sitting in the "interview" with the psychiatrist, feeling like I was exaggerating my problems- putting all my deepest, darkest thoughts on show just to find a fix for what sadness I was feeling. I wanted so badly to have some sort of explanation for my trauma. Something to erase it. The doctor told me I had depression and qualified it as a mental illness. She explained that my body was lacking in serotonin and my mental and emotional symptoms actually stemmed from a very physical problem. She gave me pills.

My diagnosis led to deep internalization. I heard and understood her words as... "I have depression." (as if it was and alway had been in my possession) and "I am ill." (aka, there is something wrong with me). Depression became a part of me at that moment. Taking a pill was like a ritual. Each time I medicated, it reinforced my deficiencies. My diagnosis left no room to feel control over myself or my supposed disease. So, I wore my depression like a badge of honor. I felt as though somehow my vulnerability made me intriguing, and I demanded empathy from all my loved ones and peers. I believed my battle scars brought me some sort of honor. But no amount of empathy or respect for my depression brought me healing. None of it made me feel better. And for me, medicine never helped.

Eventually, when I was in college, my doctor recommended counseling to supplement my medical routine. During the summer of my freshman year, I booked my first counseling appointment. On that visit, I found myself exaggerating again and morphing myself into a grotesque ball of negativity, hate, and over-emotion as I recounted my stories of childhood atrocities. I was collecting people's reactions to my stories and tears as a way of getting over the hurt that was inflicted on me as a child. Some part of me wanted her to be overwhelmed with me and declare me a lost cause. But, she was pretty impartial- as most good counselors are. She was the first person to tell me that medication could be a tool to enable me to make changes in my life. She said if I wanted to, I could get off of medication provided I find other ways to cope. At one point, she suggested yoga. When I went back to college for my Sophomore year, I looked up yoga studios as a way to manage the stress of school.

The only studio in town was a hot yoga place. I was so eager to get started that I mistakenly wandered my way into a Level 2/3 class. The class was fast and full of challenging postures like crow, deep binds, and inversions. I tried to keep up and attempted every single pose. Where I fell, others flew. But those same people turned around and helped me or smiled, told me "Great Job!", and made me feel I belonged and that I was on the right path. By the time class was over, I laid my body down for meditation. The teacher told me to pay attention to my thoughts and I was surprised to find my mind drowning in chatter. I went to yoga nearly every day that year. Attaining the physical poses is what drew me in, but I soon realized that my mind was tied up in that too. I noticed that when I physically strained and pushed, it was my mind that was the truly eager one. It was when I breathed and slowed down and accepted the place I was in (the amount of flexibility, the amount of strength and skill) that I was able to drop deeper. I was developing awareness of myself, my thoughts, and their effects for the first time in my life! In meditation, I learned to get quiet, notice all thoughts, and replace the negative with positive affirmations, words, and memories. It was then that I understood there is a "Me" that is in control of all these thoughts and emotional reactions. I realized, I have choice! I can choose to pay attention to the oppressive heat, or I can accept it and relax. I can choose to get hung up on my "end point" in child's pose, or I can accept where I am in each moment and find a new "end point" with each breath. With this constant re-evaluation, I got deeper into postures than I had ever been and I felt I was re-wiring my brain. After a year of yoga, I thought I might succeed in ceasing my medication. I tried several times. It never worked. My daily studio yoga practice wasn't a cure-all.

It wasn't until I met (my now husband) Nick, that all the lessons yoga taught me clicked. That I was able to take yoga off of the mat and out of the studio. We met as seniors in college, in our final semester. I had a huge philosophy thesis and an honors project to complete and the stress triggered depression. As usual for me, medicine wasn't helping. I cried and threw fits every night and offered him no way in. No way to help. I could feel our relationship crumbling. I felt guilty that I was crying and that guilt made me sadder. I felt like something was SO VERY WRONG WITH ME.

One night, in the middle of a tantrum, as I was sobbing on the floor, he grabbed my arms, looked me deep in the eyes and said "Hey! Hey.....Just. stop. crying." I got angry. HOW DARE HE?! How dare he imply I have control over this disease. I told him that he didn't understand and that that's what depression is. That I can't help my sadness. It's a disease. My major roadblock to believing him was that I didn't want to accept that If I had the control all along, that meant I was a part of the problem. That I was so neglectful of myself, so in love with the pain and sadness, I allowed my depression to continue. He repeated his advice over and over until finally, I tried it. I quit the charade. I realized that intermingled with this horrible reality that I was at fault, (not just the disease, not just the serotonin imbalance), there was hope. My acceptance of control and responsibility offered hope. I thought, "If I change my course of action NOW, I can forgive myself, move on, and LIVE!!!" I chose my life and my happiness over mental illness. I didn't want to be "broken" my entire life. I flipped a switch in my mind- just like I did when I worked on a hard pose or filtered through thoughts in Savasana- and shifted my perspective. I chose my reality. If I believed I had no control- then I had no control. And I knew that was true with my depression. I experienced the lackluster results that came from believing I was flawed and broken. I tried something new, and employed the radical belief that I had power. That some of my thoughts were not beneficial and some didn't even come from me. And I got off of medication. I practice yoga now as a way to reconnect with this truth and power.

I've never sat down and written this story so fully. I hope it helps some of you who are struggling with feelings of depression. I still get some from time to time- I just know it's temporary and that ultimately I am in control. Ultimately I feel that everyone's depression is different and my experience and path to healing may not be the same as yours. I have more thoughts on mental health. But I'll have to save that for another blog post. Let's open a dialogue....

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