by DeAnna Shires | August 11, 2017 8:33 pm
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 57% of adults without mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness, but in fact, only 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believed that people are caring and sympathetic to persons with mental illness. I’m not sure what the statistics on support for mental illness might be in the yoga industry, but based on my personal experience, as well as recent losses of great teachers in the yoga field struggling with transparency regarding their mental illness, I’d say the stigma runs greater, especially if you are a health, wellness, or spiritual teacher. While we offer support readily for those with physical disease, we are not doing the same for mental illness, which keeps those with mental illness feeling isolated and afraid the stigma around their condition will cause rejection by others and/or disaccreditation in their work.
While this article is the most difficult for me to write, I feel moved to be transparent regarding my struggle with anxiety, later diagnosed as PTSD. It’s no wonder my niche in the yoga world has been addiction and trauma. To paint the picture for you, I will take you on a mini-journey through some experiences in my life to show the effect mental illness can have on one’s life. It can be a vicious cycle if left untreated.
I’ve felt anxious and unsafe most of my life. When I was a child, I was extremely emotional, but also a thrill seeker, doing things I won’t mention because mom might be reading. The thrill calmed my nerves, giving me a reason to be afraid. Having a reason made me feel normal, though I didn’t realize it at the time. As soon as I could drive, I would park my butt in the self-help section at the bookstore trying to figure out why I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin and as if I was on some kind of constant deadline. The panic in my chest was constant.
By the time I was a freshman in college, there had been multiple cases of sexual abuse as a child and assault as an adult, and some severe peer bullying in elementary and middle school. It was after a boyfriend held a gun to my head and then turned it to his own, I realized I wasn’t making great choices and this thrill seeking stuff was dangerous. It was then I began trying natural remedies, including herbs and yoga to help calm my overactive nervous system.
While these tools eased the anxiety enough for me to function, a few years later I would meet and eventually marry a man struggling with addiction. This relationship became verbally, sexually, and physically abusive, the result was me needing more than herbs and yoga, as well as my first divorce. It was at this point I began searching for medication to ease my pain so I could get off the never-ending roller coaster.
For the next several years I was on medication, coming off of them when I realized I was pregnant with my first child. I maintained a high-thrill seeking life-style, but this time in the form of an overly full schedule, working as a Special Education teacher full time, an assistant to adults with developmental delays part time, as well as going to school two nights a week for a masters degree. Again, I had created a legitimate reason to feel anxious. During all of this, I practiced prenatal yoga. However, after having my second child, I felt as if I might go insane. I quickly lost a significant amount of weight and once again, felt as if I was on an impossible deadline. Medication was my go to answer. I felt great and decided to go to yoga school, even though my husband traveled five days a week and I had zero people to help me juggle the kiddos. Thrill seeking again.
A few years later, I opened a yoga studio and felt I would be stigmatized if I took medication. As many in this industry do, I went off the medication. I also went off meat for the same reason, but that’s another article altogether. In any case, seven years later I found myself going through another divorce, while at the same time, experiencing multiple betrayals in my yoga community. To make matters more unbearable, I would lose my main source of income because I made poor choices regarding my yoga studio and professional assets since I was literally “out of my mind”, unaware those around me with ill intentions, disguised as friends. This was the first time I had ever felt like exiting the planet. The abyss-like depression I knew was situational, however, the anxiety was so severe I could not breathe. Still, I kept up my personal yoga practice, but began self-medicating with alcohol and another thrill seeking and volatile relationship. Y’all, sometimes pranayama just doesn’t cut it.
Fast forward another year and I find a sexual predator at my door, disguised as an individual interested in private yoga lessons. Red flag city. I finally received therapy for PTSD with the Somatic Emotional Release method, with incredible results. In addition, I entered a Neuroscience based coaching program, teaching me additional tools to “change my brain”. I began falling in-love with yoga again, diving into my personal practice and teaching with more dedication than ever. Surrounded by a loving husband, supportive friends, and a beautiful yoga community, I felt more in control than I had in all of my years. However, soon I experienced a family emergency, surrounding the topic of mental health. Once again, yoga was not enough. I made the choice to go back on medication and I felt better. It has been five months ago I began taking medication and it was shortly after I began the medication I decided to put myself “out there” in support of those feeling stigmatized in the yoga community for needing the extra support in order to have a better quality of life.
All too often, well meaning yoga teachers and practitioners of yoga make statements shaming those of us who, for whatever reason, need the medication to be the best versions of ourselves. We have no problem with those with physical illnesses taking medication, however, when it comes to mental health, it’s as if we treat it as something we can “just snap out of” or worse, something nonexistent. While yoga is an incredible tool, with evidence supporting the benefits concerning mental health, we still need to provide a safe place for those who practice with us. Because I specialize in working with those with Trauma and Addiction, the language I use is well thought out and as inclusive as possible.
I would like to offer a few tips based on things I have heard people say that might come off as insensitive to those struggling with mental illness, as well as how to provide a safe environment.
1) Refrain from saying yoga and/or meditation cures everything, rather, present it as a valuable tool.
2) Resist the temptation to mention your opinions on how overmedicated we are in general. This may be true, however, many people in earshot may find medication beneficial at this point in time.
3) If you are a teacher, I encourage you to be transparent regarding your need for medication, prescribed or otherwise, especially if you work with a population who depend on medication. You can help end the stigma.
4) Well meaning Platitudes such as ,”Let It Go”, and “There is a reason for everything,” need to GO. This is invalidating.
5) If you have mental illness and wish to use yoga as a form of therapy, I encourage you to find someone trained to work with this population.
6) I encourage ALL yoga teachers to take some training on mental illness. Certain asana, pranayama, and meditations are contraindicated for certain conditions.
7) Please ask before you touch people, for those with PTSD, touch can feel like a violation.
While I am left feeling there is more to say, my anxiety is flaring up because I’m way past my word count limit. Thanks for reading.
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