Neal Pollack on Depression
I’ve been depressed for the last couple of weeks. This hasn’t been some mild gloom frosted with a little self-doubt. Rather, it’s been depression of the “I have no friends, I’m a worthless failure, and my whole life is going to shit” variety. Yet the actual evidence of my life indicates otherwise. A check arrived. A career break happened. I got invited to a couple of parties. My kid started doing well in school. I had reason to be excited. Still, the “noonday demon,” as author Andrew Solomon puts it, descended.
Depression is like that. In the opening scene of his memoir Darkness Visible, William Styron describes an overwhelming bout of depression that paralyzed him just as he was about to receive a major literary prize in Paris, hardly a depressing situation. My own visible darkness didn’t contain an irony that large, but despite my relative good fortune, nothing could persuade me that my life had any worth at all.
Not even yoga.
This frustrated me. Before I started my dedicated yoga practice, I felt depressed all the time, at regular intervals. Wellbutrin shaved the edge, as did proper dosing of medical marijuana. But yoga put me over the top of happiness. My turbulent mind calmed. The fog of self-doubt and self-hate lifted. I could see my situation clearly, consistently, for the first time in years. Life didn’t feel perfect. I still experienced sadness and uncertainty. But the crushing and inevitable recurrence of depression, which had tormented me forever, appeared to be gone for good.
Then, recently, yoga appeared to fail. I went to my morning Ashtanga practice feeling emotionally as though I’d been dragged 20 miles by a tractor. My brain was sad and heavy, and my heart ached. But a little practice, I figured, would cure my ills. I’d slog through my series, and emerge from savasana feeling worse than before. My bones ached, and my brain was sluggish and exhausted. The water just kept getting muddier.
This went on for a few days, until finally I went to my teacher for advice.
“I can’t do this any more,” I said.
“Well, you can always go to Yoga Works,” she said. “They have all kinds of classes there.”
Don’t get defensive, I thought. I’m not looking to pony up my bucks to a fancy yoga studio chain. I explained to her that this wasn’t personal, that I was feeling tired and heavy and that the Ashtanga series suddenly seemed like a tremendous burden on my body and my soul.
“So don’t do it,” she said.
“Really?” I said.
“Of course. This is Mysore practice. You can do whatever you want.”
To the un-brainwashed, “Mysore practice” means a self-guided yoga done under the auspices of a trusted instructor in the Ashtanga style developed in Mysore, India, by the late Sri K Patthabi Jois. It’s been the bulwark of my yoga existence for the better part of two years. Now my teacher had given me a fresh peek into its true purpose. Come in on Monday, she said. We’ll run you through a series of relaxing poses and we’ll see if we can’t get you feeling better.
Monday arrived, and I went to yoga feeling crappy and tired as usual. My teacher gave me some meditation exercises. I did a supported bridge pose for a while, and a headstand prep with my back propped against the wall with a block. Various other relaxing poses followed. Then, in the parking lot next to the rundown Silver Lake dance studio where we’ve been practicing lately, some guys started unloading a bunch of stuff out of a truck, or into a truck. I couldn’t tell. All I knew is that the noise was loud, obnoxious, clangy, and intrusive. It got louder as I headed into savasana.
I hate noise, particularly noise related to construction. The arrival of gardeners to a house anywhere on my block is an occasion for me to stuff earplugs, crank up the fan, and bemoan my fate. Noise drives me crazy when I’m in a good mood. When I’m depressed, it sends me over the edge.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
“Just focus on your breath,” my teacher said as she wriggled my legs around. “Let me help you.”
“Noise makes me fucking barkers.”
“Don’t let yourself be distracted.”
I spent about two minutes in savasana before I shot up, rolled my mat, and left the room, barely acknowledging anyone. Clearly, my chemically saddened brain wasn’t yet ready to relax.
The Yoga Sutras describes depression as a “lack of mental clarity,” which can be caused by nine different types of “interruptions.” These include: Illness, mental stagnation, doubts, lack of foresight, fatigue, overindulgence, illusions about one’s true state of mind, lack of perseverance, and regression. All these things are “obstacles”, says Desikachar in The Heart Of Yoga, which “create mental disturbances and encourage distractions.”
Now, I’m not entirely sure which of those things caused my depression. Some of them may be the chicken, and some of them may be the egg. But I do know that I was wrong to believe that yoga could be the cure to all my troubles. Yoga practice isn’t magic. It requires dedication. You’ll encounter things you can’t do and people you don’t like in the process. When things go wrong in your life, either for real or via your misperception, it’s important to remember that the yoga is unconcerned about your troubles or your joys, and isn’t there specifically to solve your problems. But it will still be there for you, patiently waiting and always available.
As I write this, I’m feeling a little better. The noonday demon has receded. By the time you read this, it’ll probably be gone entirely. Meanwhile, I’m still doing yoga, and the practice hasn’t changed at all.
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