Having a mental health diagnosis and not talking about it is a lot like being gay and not coming out of the closet. It’s lonely and frightening. You also hear all the conversations and slurs that, otherwise, people would have the good sense to utter behind your back.
Admitting to a disease of the mind is still completely different territory than admitting to a disease of the body. There is a fear, often self-inflicted, that what is occurring is not an illness, but a weakness, a consistent failure of will.
Practicing yoga adds an unfortunate layer to this cycle of self-judgement. If yoga is a practice of mental and physical discipline, then surely our mental health suffering is a failure of our practice. We just haven’t found the right pose, the right sequence, the right meditation instruction.
I speak very rarely of my mental health, and with a carefully chosen select few. It is a sort of second coming out, and for me it has been more fraught than the first one.
I dipped a toe in the pool of becoming more public while attending a series of classes in Chi Gong for Healing. I was there to support a dear friend diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. A half hour of exercises was followed by two hours of sitting. Practitioners of this particular school of Chi Gong would sit like an orchestra facing its audience, each holding an acupuncture model about the size of a Barbie doll and a hammer. Standing in front of them was their conductor, the main healer, an unassuming middle-aged man in sneakers.
This class was intended for those struggling with illness or pain, so my friend suggested I might want to have something ready. So, when the leader asked new people to raise their hands, and asked me why I was there, I took a shaky breath and answered “depression.” (This is only the partial truth. The reality is a touch more complex, but I was trying to be nice. I figured one word would help move things along more quickly – there were about 80 people with their own maladies to get through, after all.)
The healing for each condition would take about two to three minutes. The disorders were approached from the top of the body to the bottom. It would sound like this:
“Okay, Parkinson’s…anyone have Parkinson’s? Okay, you, how you been, better? Good. Okay, ready?” Here he would turn around to his crew and give a few acupuncture points which they would then commence to hammer on their doll for two or three minutes while we all meditated on receiving the energy, guided especially to those with Parkinson’s. The lead healer called my friend MS Lady, as in: “Where’s MS Lady? How you been, better?”
The whole evening was this mix of high and low, of serious and comical. There was clearly some serious mojo happening in that room, and some terrible suffering, but there was also an offhand, fluorescent-light casualness to the atmosphere. The list of diseases lost the ability to shock, and took on a banal sort of normalcy. Old women dozed in the folding chairs lining the wall. I spent a whole evening once watching one of them almost fall off her chair a dozen times, catching herself with a snort just in time.
My self-perceived status as an interloper had two aspects – one of very few white people in a room of folks of Japanese descent who all seemed to know each other, and the only person seeking help for a mental, rather than a physical condition. I had a fear that when the leader heard my request he would laugh me out of the room. But he promptly turned to his orchestra, and they commenced to hammering with the exact same casual concentration they did for stage 4 cancer. And he turned to me afterwards with the same question: “How about now? Better?”
After class one night, a gentleman approached me. “I want you to know I came initially for depression too,” he said. “After my brother died, I sunk into it and couldn’t get out. This really helped me, I hope it helps you.”
The risk of exposure has its reward: knowing you are not alone.
In my second opportunity to expose myself, I was less successful. In one of my teacher training programs, the subject of Bipolar Disorder arose. It was in a discussion of a candidate for a meditation program, not present in the room, who was rejected from the program, sight unseen, for having this diagnosis. No other information was provided regarding this person, yet across the room, heads nodded in agreement, all experienced yogis and teachers. ““Meditation wouldn’t be the best practice for them. Could be too destabilizing, they would disrupt the group,” they said. And: “people with serious mental health issues like that are best off practicing not Hatha Yoga but an alternate path, like Karma Yoga instead.”
I deeply regret that I did not have the courage speak up in that moment. I was paralyzed with mortification. My worst fears about how my colleagues would react to my coming out of the mental health closet seemed to be coming true.
I did not have the courage to speak then, but I do now.
I have Bipolar 2 Disorder and PMDD*. This represents neither a failure of my personal will nor a failure of my yoga practice. It does not define me, but I can no longer distance myself from it as I have in the past. It has not impeded my ability to benefit from yoga. In fact, I believe the process of facing, and, bit by bit, accepting the darker aspects of my mental health has made me a better, more compassionate yoga teacher.
I’m saying this now because I know it will matter to someone, the way it mattered to me when a stranger and I recognized each other in that Chi Gong class. How many more people, that night, were surreptitiously soaking up the minutes of Chi sent out for mental suffering? All of us, tragically, thinking we were the only one?
(* Bipolar 2 Disorder is characterized by periods of depression, but lacking the full-blown manic episodes typical of Bipolar 1. PMDD – Pre Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder – is, in my case, what happens when hormonal fluctuations meet an underlying mood disorder, which is nothing good.)