Is Yoga The New Prozac?

How Fifteen Months On The Mat Helped Me Overcome Sadness

As published in the Huffington Post on March 24, 2017

There’s this moment of bliss. And it really is only a few seconds. It’s that beautiful, fleeting semi-consciousness before fully awaking and remembering what happened, before it all sinks in.

To know this bliss, you must also know deep, breaking-point pain – not physical pain, but that “white-light” emotional pain that sears every nerve, strains every limit of your mental capacity to the point of immobility. Pain so sensational that you wish it would all just go dark.

Sleep ―erratic, obscure ― is the only reprieve from the glare of overthinking. But sleep doesn’t preclude inescapable dreams where disfigured metaphors for sadness swim around in the thick, colorless mud of your unconsciousness.

I hope that none of this makes sense to you ― that you’ve never had to deal with the sort of pain I speak of here.

It’s the discovery that someone you love has been hurt or damaged beyond repair; or could no longer take life and left without saying goodbye; of being left behind when you weren’t ready to see them go; of being blind-sided by the cruel finality of things; the end of a relationship or friendship that meant the world to you—one you thought would see you into your old age; the death of a loved one; the death of a child. That kind of pain.

For two years this hurting had become my security blanket. I wrapped it around myself and found consolation in its gloom. I scoffed at tired platitudes about pain and ensuing strength― preferring the comfort of my own darkness.

I believe that I had filled myself with so much bitterness that my body manifested that negativity into physical illness. And one winter morning, I became proof of Newton’s Third Law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. My husband found me writhing on the bathroom floor at 3am. Emergency room, scans, antibiotics, blah, yuck, etc.

So began my journey to “fix me”. It was enough that I’d already allowed myself to become emotionally compromised but seeing first-hand what negativity can do to one’s physical health had given me pause— perhaps it was time to let go of my self pity. Besides, I got tired of Spotify recommending playlists like “Sad Songs” or “Life Sucks” based on my recent listening.

I signed on as an unenthusiastic new member at the gym and figured I would start (again) with yoga—which I’d been doing off and on for years. To my mind yoga would be easy and NOT make me sweat or involve too much cardio. Hate the first but despise the latter.

The first class dispelled those presumptions jarringly. It wasn’t even hot yoga but there I was in downward dog dripping on the mat as if I were wearing mink-lined active wear in the thick, wet heat of a New York summer, gasping for air from what felt like grape-sized lungs. The only “flow” I managed was vacillation between intimidation and dejection. In short, I got my ass shredded. The instructor teased that I probably wouldn’t be back the next class.

And right there a match-sized light inside me took flame. Never tell me what I can’t do.

Since then I’ve slogged it out on the mat— learning balances, spinal twists, inversions, etc. I’ve fallen on my face, crashed onto my back, crashed into walls and gotten back up again only to fall on my face and ass many times more.

For all my former condescension about how yoga is just “stretches and breathing”, I publicly do a face plant in deep-dish humble pie. Yoga has been like a life-altering drug, my “Prozac”.

It should be said that unlike those inspiring Instagram “befores & afters” of women who have lost significant weight or changed their figures dramatically, my transformation is only visible to those who know me well – the ones who watched me withdraw from close friends and family; who sat by in compassionate silence when I stopped writing altogether.

What I hadn’t expected from my fifteen months on the mat was how I would grow mentally and dare I say, spiritually. It’s said that yoga is a way of life and indeed, it’s pervaded my consciousness and changed how I approach…everything.

Kindness

Our western culture, for example, has taught us that not only is it okay to self deprecate but that self criticism is almost necessary to connecting with people – “Show me your vulnerabilities so I can better relate to you.”

In yoga, self-kindness trumps self-criticism. It’s become habitual for so many of us to highlight what we dislike about ourselves or make fun of our perceived failings and so through humor we mask our suffering.

As Robin Williams said, “All it takes is a beautiful smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.”

Through yoga, I’ve learned to celebrate my strength. It can take months, even years of practice and self-discipline to learn certain poses so that when you’re finally able to get into a pose that once seemed impossible, a natural high and a deep sense of accomplishment are inevitable. I’m proud of myself for how I’ve progressed in my practice, even if writing the words “I’m proud of myself” feels odd, like I’m in someone else’s skin.

Acceptance

But yoga is about balance and keeping one’s humility solidly in check. And not only can a pose take ages to learn, but certain simple life truths as well. It’s taken me till now to accept fully that we can’t live our lives the way others want us too. And that idea is reciprocal – no matter what we say or how loud we say it, no matter what we do or don’t do – another person’s journey is their own.

So I’ve learned to step back and repeat as my mantra, “Not my life. Not my journey” – no matter how much it hurts or how frustrating it is to watch another person deal with a situation I might handle differently. Sometimes I’ve even wished that I could step in to a loved one’s body – just for a little while, just so I could “fix” things for them. Yoga has taught me that my ego has no place here.

In the physical practice, if a pose is painful or too challenging, I don’t force it. I’ve stopped forcing anything and trust that I will get there if and when it’s right for me. In that vein, I don’t take things as personally. I accept my limitations universally – both on the mat and in life. Nothing is worth the toxic or negative energy I might have once expended.

I now meditate regularly. And with meditation comes mindfulness. Over time, I’ve become better at disassociating thoughts from feelings– negative, overthinking, unnecessary thoughts. A sad thought no longer has to equate to sadness. As a lifelong insomniac, it means that I can finally sleep. Having known mental unrest for so long makes one appreciate a quieted mind that much more.

It’s often said that post-forty, we stop caring about what others think. Personally I’ve found this idea exaggerated— insecurities aren’t necessarily quelled with age. But I’m learning to care less and accept that this (or frankly any) version of me is not for everyone. I admit that I might even sound a bit kooky. My sister said to me recently, “I love your new outlook but honestly Kate, if you start seeing my aura or tell me my chakras are misaligned, I will reach through this phone and bitch slap you.”

Life continues to throw me wicked, sometimes inexplicably cruel curve balls so even if things aren’t necessarily easier, I’m more adept at handling them. In yoga you learn to breathe through discomfort– to detach mentally from strong poses. Now when faced with life’s challenges, rather than default to anxiety, I try to step back and see each situation for what is – neutral until an emotion is attributed to it.

Gratitude

I’ve really worked on changing my perspective not only on myself but on others —searching for the good, the light― which sometimes takes all my strength. I can’t be positive all the time because that would be disingenuous and let’s face it, some days life can be just plain shit. If I can’t be positive then I look for the positive because what you look for is what you see, even if it’s as basic as “today I got out of bed and washed my hair.” With practice, it’s become easier to see the silver lining, the stuff to be grateful for.

I go back to the pain I spoke of earlier. I’m thankful for the few brave souls who stayed put throughout my bleakness ―who supported and cheered me on as I brushed off my knees, stood up again and worked my way back to a place of “okay”.

I think back to the people who are no longer in my life and I’m deeply grateful to them ― maybe even loving them now more than ever for the unique, intimate way their presence graced my life – for the heart-wrenchingly beautiful memories that will stay with me always. When I catch myself getting sad at their absence, I grab onto this gratitude for having known them at all.

Yoga teaches you to bend so you no longer break.

A very dear friend used to tell me, “You’re far stronger than you think.” He’s gone now but ironically, I’ve had to become stronger because of his absence. His “gift” to me is my ability to see that he was right. My gift in turn is the ability to share this new strength with others.

In the meantime, I will continue to roll out my yoga mat as my daily dose of “Prozac”. I have absolutely no idea how much more I will achieve physically or what my ultimate spiritual destination is. But that’s my yoga journey― through kindness, acceptance and gratitude, I trust that I will eventually get there.