How Yoga Is Changing My Life

MichaelSmith
I started Yoga in early 2004, and have maintained a daily practice since then. It has expanded to include breathwork, meditation and Hatha Yoga, as well as a continuing exploration of how these practices affect my spiritual, emotional and intellectual Since January, I have been taking an year-long on-line course entitled “Can Yoga Really Change My Life?” I consider Kelly McGonigal my Yoga mentor because I can ask her all the dumb questions that I never dare ask in class.

The longer articles that I link to here started as longer reflections that started in the class forum as I explored what Yoga has meant to me. But these are continuing essays in understanding the bigger challenges of the practice and my life.

Transforming myself

I started Yoga about one year ago and I am assessing what has happened to me over these past 12 months.

I was career-oriented since I was a child. My father was a preacher and we were encouraged to have a vocation, a calling, rather than a job or a profession. For years, I envisioned my work as part of a broader endeavor to save the world, bring justice to mankind and other lofty affairs. As a journalist and writer, I thought I was fulfilled. I also did a lot of work flying by the seat of my pants since I was never trained as a journalist. I was motivated, goal-oriented and deadline-fixated. File a news story, research an issue, write a report. Long hours, creative energies invested in expanding my knowledge and skills, all the other spheres of human life subordinated to my calling.

I lived in Peru for 18 years. I saw myself a voice, an intermediary for a needy, but silenced culture and people (paternalistic of me, but who’s perfect?). I came back to the States in 1996 and ended up in the Organization of American States (OAS), working in web development and eventually in information technology. I was putting technology to work for regional cooperation, development and peace (messianic of me, but who’s perfect?). I went back to school and got a Master of Science while working full-time and studying in my free time and weekends. I finished in 18 months. I was adapting my modus operandi to a new career track.

Last year, I noticed a restlessness and unconformity developing within me because my career and vocational orientation were running up against real-life institutions and human nature. Even though I might work in an organization with noble goals, the day-to-day affairs are just like any human endeavor. My calling seemed to be betrayed by the mental tricks I played on myself. When there’s a mishap in your calling, it can dent your psyche. I could see past patterns of my life repeating, and I did not want to fall back into them.

I came to Yoga, Art of Living, breathwork and meditation because they offered to resolve the quandary that seemed to overshadow my approach to life (See A Confession). Over the past 12 months, I have shifted my focus from my career or calling, to transforming myself — and I’m not talking about brainwashing or saving my soul. Sally Kempton recently wrote eloquently about the potential for change in the March/April 2005 issue of Yoga Journal, “Bust a Groove!”:

“Transformation is a long-term process. The big changes rarely happen overnight. At the same time, every effort you make on the transformational journey is exponential in its effects. Each time you consciously counter a negative samskara (scar), or remember the beauty of your inner self, or limit your reactive behavior to five minutes instead of five hours, you shift not only that pattern, but thousands of related patterns as well. One day, you look at yourself and discover that you’re living from an entirely different platform. That’s when you realize how much power a human being has, and how miraculously fruitful a transformative journey can be.”

Let me just mention two areas of change in my life:

* I have gone through a process of physical healing, getting back in contact with my body and breath. I finally beat back a 30-year addiction to tobacco, fueled by deadlines, caffeine and stress. Only when I started a daily pranayama practice did I stop feeling an urge to take a puff (and one puff would always end up being a full pack of cigarettes). I have not smoked in a year.

* I now see this process expanding to a new phase of creative healing and a redefinition of how I am going to use my powers. It’s not career-oriented in the traditional sense, but much more open-ended as I discovery where this process is taking me. I am writing for liberation.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by the scale of what I am undertaking. This process does not have a schedule or bullet list. There is only so much that I can bite off during my waking hours, but that’s what makes my life so exciting now. I also know I may be self-indulgent, over-intellectualizing and self-aggrandizing in this posting. But writing is just as much a part of my practice as the asanas and breathwork (See Insprire and Create). That’s also why Yoga and meditation are such great tools because they make me come back to the mat, to the bare essentials, to empty myself and focus on the present.

A Confession

I am “outing” myself: I have suffered from depression since childhood, even though I did not know what to call my persistent, cyclical blues until 1993. When I turned 40, the depression started worsening — in another era it would be called a mid-life crisis or nervous breakdown. In a series of meltdowns, I lost jobs and burned through life savings and a home. I layered on multiple coats of guilt and shame on top of what was happening to me. The condition made me incapable of writing and critical thinking. For someone who lived off writing and whose very self-definition was based on being a writer, it was a bitter realization. In 1996, my psychiatrist told me that he could not promise that I would ever write professionally again — time to look for another career.

If it weren’t for my family, I would have been destitute. I lived in my parent’s basement for 16 months. My kids stopped their university studies so that they could contribute to supporting the household. [Thanks, Stephanie]

A case of refractory depression is a very humbling experience — you can only focus on now. You look back on all the decisions and failures driven by your illness, the disappointments and the pain, the suffering to your loved ones. you have to release all that because there is nothing you can do now to change that. The future becomes something distant, and impossible to plan because you could not guarantee that you could perform. You are stripped down to now, the present. You just have to take one day at a time and try to build on it. It also makes you very selfish because you have your hands full resolving your own problems, and can’t take on other people’s problems.

Relief, not a cure

I cannot say that Yoga “cured” my depression — relief came from my medication and an extended convalescence that stretched over nearly a decade. I tried several drugs, trial and error, until my psychiatrist found the right combination, and the drugs required years to pull me out of a deep hole. I had also tried other treatments, like regular exercise, psychoanalysis, prayer. I came back slowly, started a new career, found a new employer, got a graduate degree, discovered that writing was still my calling — things that seven years ago I thought unattainable.

But there is always the lingering fear that depression will come back. It has scarred my mind and body, quite literally: I assume that things will turn out badly or that certain goals are beyond reach. Like a diabetic or a HIV carrier, I consider myself to be a chronic depressive and I can relapse.

Relapse?

Early last year, I felt depression raising its head again. I was close to panic. One night I got on a mat and things started to click. Although I had read Jon Kabat-Zinn and Rodney Yee, played around with yoga in the basement, it had seemed more like a workout than a response to my problem. Suddenly, it all started to make sense, and I was at ease. And then I felt the peace of savasana — overwhelming, purging, releasing.

I started a search for help. I read the book, Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga by Amy Weintraub. That lead me to Yoga classes, the Art of Living Foundation and a daily practice of pranayama and meditation. In my first, tentative classes, I almost felt as if I would break mentally.

What is so good about Yoga, pranayama and meditation? They are empowering and allowed me a change in attitude, from victim to warrior. They give me tools and techniques that I can use to help myself. When I had to rely solely on medication and therapists, I feel helpless, at the mercy of an unpredictable, faulty, chemical chain reaction underway in my nervous system. I also learn that it’s the daily practice that gets results; no matter how modest at first over time they pay big dividends.

Only my family and a few other people know that I have this problem. I never wanted word to spread at my work place because the knowledge of my illness might affect the perception of my performance. I hated writing about my depression. I did not want to dignify or reward this beast that had soiled my life by letting it be the focus of my writing.
A new way of seeing

Yoga has released me from my feeling of bitterness and guilt by giving me a fresh, expansive vision of my plight and human kind’s. I am not the target of dark forces in my psyche or my body chemistry. Depression is just my personal, unique manifestation of the broader condition of human suffering. Yoga is about relieving human suffering. The yogic sages knew how to transform suffering into a liberating process by bringing mind, body and spirit back into balance. Because I am scarred by decades of depressive thinking, I want to address those issues and rebuild my life on an affirmative platform — instead of a victim, I want to be proactive. In order to transform myself, I have to face it frontally and work through it, just as we would with resistance in an asana.

Why am I making this public declaration now? Depression has defined me as a person. In my previous posting on “How has yoga changed your life?,” I found myself trying to write around my depression in explaining why yoga has become so important for me. This past month, Kelly McGonigal has had us reflect on purification. I have come to realize that this confession is about purifying myself and my self-perception so that I can move on to healing these scars (samskaras in Sanskrit) that have been seared into my mind over decades.

Other Resources

When I felt depression coming back a few years ago, I started searching for information about how to manage my condition through yoga or meditation. I found a couple of books and lots of information on the Web. I am posting the most valuable links below.

* Emotional Alchemy is an interesting book that deals with using meditation to treat mood disorders. Tara Bennett-Goleman, M.A., is a psychotherapist who practice Buddhist meditation and has trained at the Cognitive Therapy Center of New York.

* Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga by Any Weintraub: Don’t be misled by the title, the book is really about yoga’s capacity to energize the spirit and restore balance. Yoga gives you tools to manage the imbalances better. Other opinions about this book from experienced Yoga teachers can be found at YogaLifeStyle.com.

* Yoga Journal– The Natural Prozac: The Yoga mat is a good place to turn when talk therapy and antidepressants aren’t enough. Amy Weintraub wrote this article, originally appearing in the November/December 1999 issue.

* Yoga Journal– Better than Prozac?: Yoga and meditation offer some of the same benefits as antidepressantswithout the side effects. Amy Weintraub wrote this article for the July/August 2001 isuue

* Yoga Journal — Sitting with Depression: Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression. Mark Epstein wrote this piece, appearing in the September/October 2000 issue.

* Emperor of Air: Behind The Art of Living is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose followers compare him with Krishna and Jesus. But Shankar doesn’t seem too concerned with fanfare or fortune, he just wants to keep spreading his simple message: all you need is love. Allen Salkin in the September/October 2002 issue of Yoga Journal.

* Western Science vs. Eastern Wisdom: Some of the most extensive medical research on Yoga therapy is being done in India, but will it ever be accepted by Western medicine? By Timothy B. McCall, M.D. in the January/February 2003 issue of Yoga Journal.

Article by Michael Smith
Source: Michael’s blog, Prana Journal

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