What Yoga Taught Me about Depression
by Laura Onstot
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Each Wednesday night, I log onto Zoom for a yoga class. I’m not a hard-core yoga person, but I like the relaxing classes—the ones where you spend the majority of your time either sitting on your butt or lying on your back.
Our teacher wears socks at the beginning of class until it is time to do downward dog. Then she slowly takes them off as she guides our bodies from a resting to an active pose.
She is graceful, and I am slug-like; meandering my way around the mat, belly-flopping when I’m supposed to ease into the chaturanga.
This past Wednesday, the class was a little more intense than usual. And by that I mean, I couldn’t sit or lie down the whole time. We were in a runner’s lunge pose when she said, “Now if this feels easy, try closing your eyes.” And because I feel the need to do all of the modifications she suggests, even though she always prefaces them with, “Only if your body is ready,” I shut my eyes.
And all of a sudden, what once was manageable shifted as I lost the world that surrounded me. In the darkness, it is hard to balance. I wobble my arms as I fight vertigo. The feeling is familiar, and my mind shifts to a year ago when my world went dark, and I suddenly didn’t know how to exist in a world that had previously been familiar.
“What are you thinking about now?” the yoga teacher asks.
I’m thinking about how my groin is going to rip apart. I’m thinking about how I can’t hold on for much longer.
And that feeling too is familiar.
Today, I don’t know if I can make it through the lizard pose. I might end up splayed on the mat, dead. The coroner will shake his head and mutter to himself, “She shouldn’t have attempted those splits.” And my spirit will whisper back, “The yoga teacher said it was an option!”
But last year, I didn’t know if I could make it through life.
The weight of my depressive symptoms was crushing, and I didn’t know if I could make it through the next week, the next day; the next hour. For me, depression presented as a persistent sense of hopelessness and tears—lots of them. I made it through the first year of COVID on adrenaline and staying busy to distract myself. But now that things were calming down, I was exhausted. It all seemed overwhelming—getting from one minute to another was a burden. While I was able to present myself as a normal, high-functioning person to the outside world, I was caught up in the dark narrative occurring in my brain.
I thought a lot about death: how I didn’t want to die, but how I also didn’t know how I was going to get through another year of life. I was grumpy, on a short fuse with everyone I loved. This in turn made me feel like a failure as a mom and wife. I later learned that irritability is one of the most common symptoms of depression.
Thankfully, my husband recognized that I wasn’t doing well and encouraged me to get help. We had been through this hurdle together when I experienced postpartum depression. I wanted to try to get through this bout of depression without a medication change, so I opted to see a therapist.
The first couple of sessions, I tried to map out my entire life story and create a list of all the problems I needed to solve and of everything that was wrong with me. And I cried, a lot.
She recommended that I start journaling. So I did.
One day, I wrote,
“It would be nice if I could stop believing the following: This is hopeless, I am fat, I am a bad mom, I am a failure because the house isn’t clean; there is nothing to look forward to. Maybe, it is in this web of lies that my depression lives—thrives. This is the medium where it is most successful.”
I was initially resistant to journaling. “I write all the time!” I told my therapist. “But you write for the outside world,” she said.
As a writer, I am able to control the narrative and stay within my comfort-zone. When I journaled, I was able to drop the false pretenses and view the real story: the actual, unvarnished truth occurring in the synapses between my neurons.
When I better understood my story, the real one, I saw myself as less of a failure, and more as a human deserving of compassion.
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In addition to journaling, I changed my diet, took a class on mindfulness, started meditating, journaled, exercised, and spoke to my therapist weekly, but I remained depressed.
Finally, my therapist said, “I know you don’t want to change your medications, but it might be worth seeing a psychiatrist to see if they have any ideas.”
So I did.
He added a medication, and it helped. A lot.
I am back on the yoga mat. Back to the present moment. “Notice the wobbles,” our yoga instructor says, now barefoot in down dog. “That’s our muscles building and getting stronger.”
And I think, “For the amount of wobbling I’m experiencing, I should be the HULK soon.”
In my journey through depression, I wobbled a lot.
I wrote, “I want the pain to be gone, but maybe I need to sit with it. To recognize that it may be here for a while.”
And recovery did take a while. I expected that therapy would unlock some magical knowledge, and that if I just knew that one secret, my life would be fixed and I would be forever at peace. But the thing is, nothing was broken to begin with. I just had to change some of my thought processes and make lots of teeny adjustments that eventually brought me to a place of peace and calm.
Part of my battle was learning to accept increasing my antidepressant. My therapist said, “You’re a nurse. You wouldn’t bat an eye if someone had to go on blood pressure medication. Depression is just as real as high blood pressure.”
“Yeah,” I scoffed in my head. “I am a nurse,” I said, “And I know how patients with mental health conditions can be brushed off. I know that patients who have anxiety as a diagnosis are less likely to be taken seriously when they present with chest pain.”
“I know that when reading through a medication list before seeing a patient, the provider will already have a bias, they will have already constructed their own picture of who the patient is.”
But when the addition of a medication took me from a tearful, hopeless human to being able to get through the day without crying, and without that pit of hopelessness in my stomach, it wasn’t hard to accept that this may be part of the solution.
When I added an antidepressant, I became a much better version of myself: happier, hopeful, and able to keep up with the demands of motherhood rather than drowning in them.
“Where are those tight places around the heart?” the yoga teacher asks.
I think about the right ventricle and the left ventricle. The atriums, and the aorta. The superior and inferior vena cava. I think about the pathway of electrical conduction, from the SA node to the AV node, to the bundle of His, down the bundle branches, and to the Purkinje fibers. Anatomically, everything feels correct. I nod to myself, pleased that I have passed another one of her questions.
“Feel the heartbeats,” she says.
And when I tune into the rhythm of my heart, I am comforted. My heart continues to beat, as it did throughout the entire journey. Whether or not my brain was well, my heart had carried my body forward.
We finish the class with a collective inhale and exhale. “Exhale, release.” She says, and I release my journey.
“Let it go.”
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.