Anxiety, Depression and Yoga

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When I was 22 years old I was working a dull but decently paying job at a bank, dealing with customers on the phone. A large part of my job was convincing people to purchase investment and credit products that they were otherwise uninterested in. The vast majority of these people did not need them and, to be perfectly frank, would have been better off without, but I was amazing at convincing them to buy. Within my first quarter on the job I had hit 1000% of my sales targets, and was ranked 4th in a department of hundreds of people. My life outside of work appeared to be going great as well. I was in a long term relationship with a successful and intelligent older woman. I had a band that was showing promise. Lots of trendy friends. A little collection of some nice wines.

This state of affairs would not last long.

In hindsight I probably should have seen it coming. When I was young I was constantly told that I was a “problem child,” explicitly by some, implicitly by others. I received the obligatory ADHD diagnosis and attendant psychopharmacology. As I became a teenager, my very real existential anxieties, and what was, to my mind, a valid distrust of institutional power were dismissed as the misguided rebellions of reckless youth, the consequence of truancy and marijuana and disrespect for authority. I became deeply bitter towards society, towards my teachers and towards my parents. I dropped out of high school and left home at 17. It took years to patch things up with my family.

At any rate, about 6 months into my fancy adult job things started to go wrong. I would vacillate wildly between unbearable states of tension and borderline narcolepsy. I had angina and heart palpitations. I would get dizzy and short of breath. My throat was constantly swollen and I often had trouble swallowing. I would spend hours in the shower just trying to cope with what was happening to me. On several occasions these spells would get so bad that I would vomit or pass out on the bathroom floor. I saw a number of doctors, got all the blood tests and a catscan. I saw a cardiologist, a thyroid specialist and an ear-nose-and-throat guy. Nothing.

Eventually it was decided that all of this misery was simply the result of severe anxiety and depression. I was slapped with a diagnosis, put on high doses of 4 different types of medication and initiated into the revolving door of public mental health treatment. I spent the next year on disability. I lost that job. My relationship unravelled. The band broke up. My physical health started to collapse. Within a couple years I was badly overweight, with dangerously high blood pressure, sleep apnea and terrible psoriasis. I would eventually develop a problematic relationship with alcohol and cocaine.

I had many mental health professionals over the years tell me, in a disinterested, superior, finger wagging sort of way that I had to get my shit together. But it was all so abstract. Nobody had any real techniques, any tangible methods for getting ones shit together. The one technique, besides medication, that was offered with any consistency was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the goal of which seemed to be that whenever I feel like choking someone to death, I should rather instead opt to not choke said person to death. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the issue was not that my behaviour was inconvenient for other people, but that I was miserable, sick, constantly uncomfortable and hating my life. To date I have had precious few encounters with western allopathic mental health care that have not been disillusioning. Beta blockers and blood pressure meds helped with my physical symptoms, but that only sort of counts.

Then one day I went to this sleep specialist for a fairly routine appointment to check my sleep apnea. The normal doctor at the clinic was away for some reason and I was brought into see someone new who was taking the doctors patients while he was away. I walked into her office for a consultation. She looked me up and down, glanced at my paperwork and immediately clocked me for what I was. “If you don’t lose alot of weight, start exercising and change your lifestyle immediately you’ll need a CPAP machine within 2 years and you’ll be on all this medication for the rest of your life. You need to start doing yoga and you need to learn to meditate. It works but you have to actually do it.” She provided me with a full page of recommendations and resources on where to go and which books to read. Something about her calm self-assuredness, her blunt compassion, and her distaste for the medical status quo stuck with me and I actually did it.

And it worked. It took about 7 years but yoga did what no other therapy was capable of. It fixed all of the physical problems associated with my mental health and provided me with enough stability that I was eventually able to stop pharmacological treatment altogether. I lost 65 pounds, my blood pressure normalized, my sleep apnea went away and my psoriasis cleared up. I quit the alcohol and drugs. I’m not saying yoga is a panacea. There are many mental illnesses that require medical intervention and I’m not saying my mental health is now perfect, but I feel I have at least successfully accomplished, through yoga, what Sigmund Freud, in an astonishing feat of pessimism, touted as the goal of psychological treatment: “To replace neurotic misery with ordinary human unhappiness.” The difference is that I can see very well that where, for Freud, the discipline of mental health care ends is only the beginning of the psychosomatic frontiers that yoga is capable of probing, and that they run deeper then I am even capable of properly understanding.

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When practitioners of yoga are first exposed to the Yoga Sutras, the philosophical underpinning of most of the yoga common to the west, it is normal for them to be directed to the 2nd of the texts 4 chapters; Sadhanapadaha. The 1st and 4th chapters are concerned with the state of Samadhi or Kaivalya, the purported goals of yoga, an important concept to know of but one that requires a journey into the metaphysical weeds many, quite understandably, can’t be bothered to undertake at first. The 3rd chapter delves into deeper realms of mind control inaccessible to most practitioners and makes a number of claims that would strike any fair-minded modern as supernatural. Sadhanapadaha is by far the most approachable chapter to an aspirant who’s practice is concerned mainly with the physical body, the breath and the grosser functioning of the human mind, in other words, pretty much everyone.

Often people are perplexed at how little actual technique is discussed in a book purported to be the foundation of a discipline so obsessed with techniques. There is no direction on how best to perform postures or breathing exercises, only a brief statement that one should do so. What Sadhanapadaha is actually about is the mind. How it creates and how it relinquishes suffering, and how internal processes of mind effect the way the body relates to other bodies in the physical world. To oversimplify, the Yoga Sutras are essentially a 1600 year old manual on mental well-being for which spiritual enlightenment is mental well-being at its most exquisitely refined.

II.17 The cause of pain is the association or identification of the perceiver with that which is perceived.

Throughout the Sadhanapadaha there is a word that shows up repeatedly: Avidya, which is said to be the root of all suffering. It is often translated as ignorance, or lack of knowledge, but neither of these really sum it up. To characterize it as a quality of the intellect seems to miss the point. Misapprehension is closer. Somehow suffering has to do with a type of understanding. It’s a bit of a leap of poetic license but I like the translation misidentification. The sort of knowledge that we’re after is a spiritual one, and it is concerned with what we are. In order for our bodies to thrive in the material world we are trained to assume roles. Our roles are myriad, they are our professions, our familial and social relationships, our socio-economic positions and our cultural or political affiliations. These roles proceed in subtlety down to our bodily composition, our age, sex, our physical traits, the contents and patterns of our thoughts and finally to our identity as a discrete consciousness among many. These are aspects of the physical world that are real. But they do not describe who you are. They are merely phenomena that coalesce around a point of nexus that connects consciousness; the perceiver, to the physical world; that which is perceived. The attributes of the physical world are constantly changing and so if one identifies as a network of physical attributes then every part of your identity is guaranteed to be uprooted and cause you suffering. The trouble is that merely understanding this concept is not enough. We are taught that the accumulation of knowledge is undertaken by acquisition of the conclusions of authorities and their corroborating data. But this type of knowledge is different then the memorization of data. You can’t transcend identification with the physical world by appealing to it’s authority. This is a thing you simply cannot know unless you experience it for yourself. The spiritual project is the pursuit of this experience.

It is unfortunate that the psychological discipline is so insistent on being yoked to a philosophy of scientific materialism that cannot even come to terms with the mere existence of consciousness, never mind its relationship to the physical world. An illness with its roots in a dysfunctional apprehension of the subjective experience can only be treated peripherally by a methodology which explicitly assumes that the subjective experience is not within its purview. And so we have modalities of treatment adopted by institutions all over the world which are concerned with the objective phenomenon of behaviour rather then the subjective experience of suffering. I have heard and believe the testimony of people who have found relief within these modalities. However, my own experience navigating them has convinced me that they are far more useful to institutions that require docile bodies then to actual human minds. Thankfully this is changing.

As everything does.

Om Tryambakam Yajamahe
Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam
Urvarukamiva Bandhanan
Mrityormukshiya Mamritat

dav

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