Medicated Yoga

by Jen Whinnen

As a yoga teaching community it is important that we know that depression and anxiety are two very popular reasons people come to the practice. Yoga is an effective tool in managing many illnesses, depression and anxiety included, so this is not unusual. It is imperative however, that we understand that when someone comes to the practice looking for tools to manage their illness, they are not served by our opinions about how they “should” manage it off the mat. 

In each training I ask my student-teachers about how they feel about “western medicine” because I’ve found that people’s feelings about this subject are similar to their political beliefs; they do not change easily. How they feel about about medications, namely antidepressants and anti anxiety medication, will often dictate how they intend to talk to their classes. If they fall into the “no meds” camp, they are running a great danger of creating conditions for suffering in their students. Therefore, it’s important that we as a learning community suss out our feelings before stepping into a classroom. 

The United States is a melting pot of split personalities when it comes to our relationship with mental health. We have the best medications on the planet, the best psychiatric care, we know more than we ever have about potential causes and triggers of mental illness, yet we persist in stigmatizing it. Psychotherapy is still the butt of cocktail party jokes and medications are largely condemned as the means by which Big Pharma gets richer. If you need help and accept help, there’s something intrinsically wrong with you. A kind of wrong that makes you “less than” those who don’t need help. Accepting help is often seen as a flaw, something to overcome. If you go through a rough patch and come out the other side, you are a hero, a warrior. If you need this help the rest of your life, you have somehow failed as a person. It separates you from the rest of humanity. It keeps you from being able to make friends, from getting a decent job, it isolates you. It can be a twisted, painful situation for someone suffering from a mental illness. A dirty little secret you can’t tell anyone. Just imagine what it is like to live in a world that says “here are things that can help you, but if you need them you are bad. Oh and don’t tell anyone you are taking advantage of these things because they won’t want to hire you or be your friend.” 

My family’s mental illness pedigree goes back many generations. It is a colorful patchwork quilt of alcoholism, anorexia, depression, suicide, bipolar disorder, mania and PTSD. Each of us contributes to the quilt in our own special way, but some of us add more squares than others.  One of the greatest contributors has been my dad. He suffered from type 1 bipolar disorder. Diagnosed when I was six and in and out of institutions, hospitals and prisons for most of my childhood, his life was a roller coaster of manic highs and debilitating lows. He would regularly take his medications and regularly throw them out, both with varying degrees of success. At the time of his death he was being weaned off one medication and onto something else. This caused him to slip into a hypomanic state. In his hypomania, he walked into the woods, got lost and died from exposure. 

His meds basically killed him. The first medication made things worse, the second didn’t fix it. If he’d never started on that one he wouldn’t have had to move him onto something else. If the second had been more effective, he never would have had the anxiety attack that caused his brain to switch over into hypomania, etc. He died because of the drugs. 

So, I am violently anti-meds right? No. I am 100% pro meds. GO meds! 

Why?

Because, although my father’s case is extreme, I still believe modern medicine saved his life. Because, I have other bipolar family members who have done amazingly well on meds. Because, without meds, these family members would be dead by now. 

Because, no matter what I think about the pharmaceutical industry or about healthcare in the United States, no matter how many close family members and friends I’ve seen suffer, I still do not know what it is like to live with a chronic mental illness.

And because of all this, I know that I can not judge someone else’s life.

My student-teachers will often say “yeah, but you are talking about extreme cases. Those people are really, really sick. What I am talking about is the person who just feels sad and can’t deal.” And no, I’m not. I’m also talking about the sad guy who “can’t deal” and goes to his doctor and asks for Zoloft. Him too. We don’t get to pass judgement on the degree of someone’s pain any more than we get to decide someone’s sexuality. Their choice is not a reflection of our hurts or our recovery, it is not related to our friend who was on meds and successfully got off them or about the family member who committed suicide because of them. No matter the belief; whether it’s that we are an overmedicated society that is too dependent on drugs, or everyone should be on something, we are not the judge and jury of someone else’s mental health. 

Yoga teaches us first and foremost that the practice is personal. The first sutra of The Yoga Sutras says Atha Yoganusanam (1.1), Now the exposition of Yoga is being made. Now, meaning this moment, we chose to take this audience. We chose to sit at the feet of the learning right now. Not “when you are ready, turn to page six” or “next week we will cover this topic” but we do it in the present. We make a conscious choice. The doing is done by us. We chose. The second sutra, Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah (1.2), The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga, means to practice yoga, we control our mind’s chatter. We learn to reign in our mind and focus it. 

Now I choose to control my thoughts.  

Not; “Now I choose to control the thoughts of others.” 

Even when I am sure I know what everyone else should do, I must come to grips with the fact that that conviction is a distraction. A distraction that keeps me from doing the work of knowing my true Self. 

If you have a visceral reaction to medications, if you feel strongly that everyone can and should get off their meds, that the world is overmedicated, that is totally, totally fine. You are free to believe whatever you want. Go for it. But, know that how you feel about medication is just a feeling. Feelings, even strong ones, don’t make us right. They just makes us opinionated. Opinions are not facts. Opinions are not truth. They are distractions. 

Whether Prozac and its brethren are a deplorable representation of the state of life in the modern age, a reflection of our inability to cope, or a need being filled, doesn’t matter. Because yoga teachers are not preachers. We teach yoga. That’s it.

Teach yoga and practice Ahimsa by holding your tongue. As Satchidananda says “If by being honest we will cause trouble, difficulty or harm to anyone, we should keep quiet.”  

And if you can’t hold your tongue, then don’t teach yoga. Your visceral feelings about meds will not help someone decide what’s the best course of action for him/herself. 

Each time you think about commenting on psyche meds or making a statement like “you don’t need that crap” try and remember that there is a human being on the receiving end of that statement. A person who showed up to the mat. They showed up. That’s enough. 

That’s all we can ask of anyone who comes to our class.