“The Strongest Medicine”
For Sarah, who taught me to make my practice my best friend, and for David, who helps me believe at least six impossible things before breakfast.
From my earliest memories my life was ruled by mood swings. As a little girl I would experience intense and overwhelming waves of anger, anxiety and frustration that would flood through me, often at the most inconvenient or embarrassing times. These weren’t just run of the mill temper tantrums. It felt like I was strapped to the front of a freight train, barreling full-speed down the tracks to some unknown destination. As a result, I ruined many Christmas celebrations, family parties, birthdays and vacations. For me the happiest of times would inevitably cause some sort of powerful mood swing followed by an explosion. I can remember having screaming, crying tantrums well past the age where that sort of behavior was age appropriate. I would lie on the floor, pulling at my hair, even hitting myself and biting my hand. I would lash out at anyone who tried to comfort me. Eventually my “mood weather” would improve, my emotions would settle and then the guilt would set in. The remorse I felt once I regained control of myself only served to reinforce my growing belief that I was simply no good. My parents were at a loss. Concerned that I was acting out because of my little brother’s Autism, they sent me to see a therapist. She gave me a clean bill of mental health and sent me on my way, citing “normal sibling rivalry in the case where a sibling has a disability.” I knew something was wrong. I knew I shouldn’t be verbally assaulting my loved ones, crying myself to sleep. I was sad beyond measure for no apparent reason at times, hyper and unable to stop talking at others. Many, many nights I prayed before I went to sleep, asking God to, ‘Please, please let me wake up as someone better’.
It went on like that for years, my roller coaster moods, racing thoughts and self-loathing barely contained and seemingly inexplicable. Eventually things started to manifest themselves. It started as a nasty bout with Bulimia. Later I began to numb myself by self-mutilation in the forms of cutting my arms and legs and burning my skin with cigarettes. I made two sincere suicide attempts, countless suicidal gestures and spent a portion of late teens/early twenties numbing with alcohol and a variety of drugs. Looking back I can see I was attempting to medicate myself. I cut when my thoughts raced, trying to make it stop. I binged on food to feel something and threw up because what I eventually felt was guilty. Even my choice of controlled substances was always determined by my moods. I was hospitalized and finally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type II, when I was nineteen. Sitting in the hospital’s day room, watching the other patients, many of whom were psychotic, I was terrified. But I was also oddly grateful. The doctors clearly thought I was crazy. Maybe I was. Either way, I thought, “Finally, someone is taking me seriously.”
It took some time to get my medication straightened out. Two years after being hospitalized for the first time I was finally stabilized and I had my last serious mood disorder episode seven years ago, but I continued to fall prey to my own patterns of self-punishment and self-sabotage. I was no longer strapped to the steam engine, but I continued to run down those dark and lonely tracks as fast as I could. I was convinced that I was broken, defective. I was “in control,” but completely disconnected from myself. I was still stuck; still sick, if less apparently so.
It wasn’t until I finally let go, giving myself permission to become invested fully in a six day a week Ashtanga practice, that I could really begin to feel myself heal. It’s no coincidence that the first or Primary Series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is called “Yoga Chikitsa” or “Yoga Therapy.” Although the therapy is typically taken to mean healing the body, in particular the digestive system, I have found it to be incredibly healing and strengthening mentally and emotionally. And now, as I learn the Second or Intermediate Series, called “Nadi Shodhana” or “Nerve Cleansing” from my teacher I am starting to experience the profound effects of deep self-study and energetic cleansing as well.
“How in the world can yoga heal you?” I have heard this question from many yoga-curious (and yoga-skeptical) friends and acquaintances. In the grossest and simplest sense, my devotion to my practice regulates my life. One of the first things my psychiatrist told me when I was diagnosed was that regular sleep in keeping with natural circadian rhythms of the body was essential to controlling a mood disorder. I disregarded her advice, to my detriment, for years. Since deciding to invest in this practice I’ve been getting up by 5am and onto my mat by 6am at the latest six days a week. I am in bed between 8 and 9pm and I sleep a full eight hours every day. My practice demands that I give my body adequate rest, a gift I was somehow afraid to give myself in the past, and the rest of my life has benefited greatly as a result. I have become far more patient and present with those I come into contact with each day. Then there’s the physical activity aspect. Regular exercise is one of the best ways to elevate and stabilize your moods. It’s something any therapist or psychiatrist worth their salt will recommend to their patients. Again, on the grossest level, my practice is a vigorous and demanding and lasts anywhere from 90 minutes to two and a half hours every day. I benefit tremendously from it.
Because I am asking so much of my body I am increasingly more aware of what it needs in order to function optimally, and I can feel it when I’m not taking good enough care of myself. This means avoiding alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Just a year or two ago I would gulp two or three cups of coffee in the morning, something that can exacerbate mania and irritability. These days I am more conscious of the effects caffeine has on my body. I can feel my heart working faster; feel my central nervous system speed up. I will still enjoy a cup at brunch on Sunday after practice, but now I am really enjoying the taste and the smell of it. I am more present with it and I drink much less, as opposed to mindlessly chugging like I did before. The same can be said about the food I eat. Food has finally become my ally rather than my enemy. I eat to give myself energy. I eat when I am hungry and stop as I become full. My blood sugar is steadier and I am better fueled for my day. Over the past year I have lost twenty pounds. Not because I’ve been dieting, but because I’ve honestly managed to stop bingeing and form a functional relationship with food. Finally we come to the biggie: stress. Stress can trigger all sorts of problems, including anxiety, depression and mania. My practice has not helped me to remove the external stresses from my life. In fact, my job is extremely stressful at times. Money is still really tight, since my husband is in school full-time, and that causes me a huge amount of stress. I still live in Philadelphia, a crowded and noisy city. My practice has instead helped me to increase my tolerance for stress. It’s helped me use stress as a tool to investigate the situations in life and make necessary changes. It’s helped me to learn the very difficult lesson that it’s both okay and very necessary to say “No” sometimes, and how to be my own best advocate.
There is real power and potency of the practice, but the road is a difficult one. The intensity of the practice and the repetition of the sequences is bound to make your mat into a mirror, a tool for self-study. You will begin to really see yourself, to understand how you treat yourself and those around you. Sometimes what you see is unpleasant. Sometimes what you see can be downright painful and scary. Your body, as you work into the deepest places within, will give up its secret one by one. You may have made a conscious effort to forget traumas, pain, loss and loneliness past, but your body remembers. There is nothing like challenging your endurance, concentration, dedication and your physical abilities to help you see what you’ve been running from. If you embrace it, your practice will gift you with razor-sharp insight over time, and the ability to put your insights to use in all areas of your life. It is truly the strongest medicine I’ve ever known.
Each day, after my finishing postures, before I take my Savasana and surrender myself to the floor beneath me, I quietly chant the Ashtanga closing invocation to myself, which ends with the words “Lokah Samasta Suhkino Bhavantu, Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” This roughly translates to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free. May my thoughts, words and actions contribute in some small way to that happiness. Om, peace, peace, peace.” And I remember that I am one of those creatures. I must work to know myself, because the power I hold as a thread in the fabric of existence is mighty. For that same reason I must also be gentle and patient with myself.
One day, several months ago, after a really rough practice my teacher came and propped my up with a bolster, covered me with a blanket and place a small towel over my eyes, which he doesn’t do very often. As I lay there I could hear the breath of my fellow students, who are very much like an extended family to me, and the sounds of their feet on the worn hardwood floor as they moved in and out of postures. I felt safe and accepted, despite my many imperfections. As I lay there I began to cry, because, for the first time in many years, I realized that I deserve to be loved. Not because of something I did, but just because I am.