I recently came across an article – thanks, naturally, to my Facebook feed – on yoga and mental illness that immediately intrigued me. But, after reading it a few times, I found myself getting angry and pretty defensive – protective, I guess, of my beloved practice.
Though the challenges I face are not identical to the author’s, I have struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my adult life. Although there have been times when the struggle was intense, my symptoms have been manageable for several years. I attribute that in large part to yoga.
In the spirit of complete candor, I should mention that I have been on and off antidepressants for the better part of two decades. And I can honestly say that they were instrumental in helping me to lead a relatively symptom-free existence. I don’t know if the powerful effects yoga has had on my life would have been possible without the medication first clearing a path for them.
I guess that is why I don’t see a black and white universe where medication and yoga exist separately. There are many cases, including my own, where antidepressants and other medication can help one to lead a “normal” life (whatever that means).
What frustrated me about the article was that the author seemed to veer entirely in the other direction; her tone patronizing (at least as I interpreted her words) when it came to what she referred to as “holding crystals, chanting, or doing any special mood-elevating yoga poses,” though she indicating that “all of that is good and fun and safe when done in conjunction with medical care.”
In my opinion, yoga is far more than “good and fun” (although, it’s that, too!). Yoga is powerful stuff, refined over thousands of years. A combination of pranayama, calming asana and meditation can help to ameliorate anxiety – I know this because I’ve experienced it first-hand. And I have enough anecdotal evidence from others to believe my experience wasn’t a fluke.
I found it not only belittling of the practice but also pandering to stereotypes when the author says, “I would love to eschew my medications in exchange for an organic mushroom vitamin or a series of Kundalini kriya exercises, but that just isn’t possible or safe.” Such sarcasm and condescension is shocking to me coming from a yoga teacher. I don’t argue that, for many people, medication is absolutely necessary. But yoga is—and has been scientifically proven to be—efficacious in its own right. In my view, it is downright dangerous to suggest otherwise.
<span “font-size:=”” 13.5pt;line-height:115%;color:black”=””>Again, let me be clear, I do think medication has an important place in treating mental—or many other kinds of—illness. But, as a culture, that tends to be our go-to. You’ve got an ill, take a pill. Western medicine is focused on disease care, not health care. That may slowly change—in certain circles, it already is changing—but only when we accept that alternative modalities like yoga can and should play a role in care and treatment. To suggest that they are only fun and frivolous sets us back on that trajectory.
<span “font-size:=”” 13.5pt;line-height:115%;color:black”=””>I am currently in the process of weaning off the medication I have been on for over six years. This comes at the strong suggestion of my doctor. In fact, I argued that I should stay on it—why rock the boat? But she persisted. She believes that I am more than ready and came to that conclusion precisely because of my yoga and meditation practice. She’s never indicated to me that she’s concerned about my safety once I am off the medication and relying on breath, asana and meditation to address my anxiety and depression. Quite the opposite; her view is that yoga will provide the support I need as I reduce and, ultimately, eliminate the pharmaceutical component of my treatment. We have also talked about the fact that my practice may have changed the pathways of my brain such that the symptoms I once suffered from no longer exist.
<span “font-size:=”” 13.5pt;line-height:115%;color:black”=””>There are people, and I hope to be one of them, who can flourish without medication by employing one or all of the eight limbs of yoga. Perhaps some people might even do better with these types of approaches rather than medication; we won’t know until there’s enough evidence. I have to say, if I could have avoided the weight gain and myriad other not-so-pleasant side effects of antidepressants, I certainly would have. Had I come to yoga first, perhaps I never would have gone on antidepressants. But maybe I would have, and that’s OK, too.
<span “font-size:=”” 13.5pt;line-height:115%;color:black”=””>My frustration with this article stems, of course, from my love of, and belief in, the practice. But also, it concerns me that such views can muddy already confusing waters. Just as the author feels—justifiably so—that mental illness is stigmatized, I see stigma pertaining to alternative treatment modalities. Without proper awareness, education and research funding, many people who could greatly benefit from yoga may not have access to it. And that would be more than unfortunate; it would be a tragedy.