is the worst of maladies. It rips your heart out and leaves you breathless, exhausted, wasted, denuded. Your skin comes off and all your nerves get exposed, and you weep for no reason that you can explain to anyone, and no one cares, anyway. Depression makes you irritable and cranky and bad-tempered with everyone you know. The smallest things get under your skin, which isn’t there, so the smallest thing gets under your nerves and rubs them with salt so that you feel like screaming. There that, the endless and incomprehensible desire to scream your head off and, failing that, which you do, of course, because you fail at everything, you collapse into crying and self-loathing. Depression chains you to your bed or your chair or your corner, and if you manage to get up and walk around depressed, the chains drag and mossy anchors drag you back. You think about drowning. You long for death, to sink into the muck, the brown brownness of it, to bury your face into its dirty mess, your own dirty mess of self. You argue and blame and shout at people and feel furious with them for not understanding and stopping to throw their arms around you, kiss you, and hold you until the tears stop. The tears you fear will never end. But depression makes you monstrous and no one wants to kiss or hold a monster, so you carry on behaving monstrously, miserably alone, misunderstood, mistaken, misplaced, missed. Me miserable, which way I fly infinite wrath and infinite despair. You think you are going insane. You don’t trust yourself. You have no one but yourself to trust and so you fall into the lower deep that devours you. Depression confuses the mind and wrings the hands, it stammers the mouth and removes choices. It unfurls the mind, turning it against itself, dissolves the skeleton, hunches the back against the stairs uncomfortably. No comfort in the mind shut down and the body broken. They call depression a disorder. It is disorganized, chaotic, stormy, an attack, a tornado, a tidal wave of sadness, and it hurts. It burns the eyes, scorches the throat, stops up the nose and ears and painfully overstimulates every nerve in the body while simultaneously deadening everything, so that you move, if you can move, through the world muffled, muted, deafened, dulled, retarded, defeated, deflated. It washes you up on unfamiliar shores, it abandons you, wrecks you, dashes you, destroys you. Do not underestimate this affliction.
It’s raining and dreary, so I decided to stay home instead of stumble through the Ashtanga class I thought I would go to. I rolled out my mat in my own studio/office and put on a new playlist and moved through as many of the postures as seemed sensible. For the past 12 months or so, I have been going to various physical therapists who have instructed me to avoid yoga. Well, actually, the first guy told me to avoid forward bends, and the second woman said to avoid backbends, so I stopped feeling confident in my body altogether.
Last week I went to an Ashtanga class (the one I avoided tonight). I felt I had aged ten years. My arms buckled in chatturanga and I could no longer squeeze myself into any kind of bind. Humbling.
I teach a Trauma-focused yoga class to women in therapy at a community health center every week, and there I tell them to pay attention to what they feel in their bodies, and to make choices based on what they are feeling. I’ve decided to practice what I’m preaching and spend a few minutes each day writing about it.
Things I noticed today: my stomach feels bulky and heavy and in the way. My neck feels tight when I bring my ear to my shoulders. I clench my teeth. I felt angry today, not irritable, but appropriately angry, I thought. A co-worker was rude and unkind to me. Another challenged my judgment. My back went up. I’ve been carrying anger around in my belly and my neck.
It was surprisingly lovely to arrive in my body during sivasana, to dwell in my awareness of the sweat cooling my forehead and chest, my lumbar spine and hips settling down towards the floor, my abdomen resting as my heart slowed down, the sound of my breath and a quiet, soothing swishing sound filling my ears. It was surprisingly difficult to stay there, to remain simply in being.
All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.
All experience is preceded by mind,
Led my mind,
Made by mind
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.
Buddha, Dhamapada 1:1-2
The first verses of the Dhammapada remind us to guide our thinking, because our thoughts inform our experience. Everything that we go through, every event, we interpret with our minds. But experience also has a way of shaping the way we interpret our experiences. The families into which we were born, the people and cultures that shaped us, inform our minds, the ways we see the world. So, for example, a child who is mistreated from the moment she is born,who is told that she is worthless and stupid and incompetent, nothing more than a thing to be used by others, is likely to grow up with a false understanding of herself. She will not know her true nature as a being of light and beauty, deserving of all love. She will have a corrupted mind, and suffering will follow her.
The wonderful knowledge that the Buddha offers to us here is this: no matter what has happened to us, no matter how corrupted our ways of understanding the world have been, each one of us has the freedom and the power to learn, through practice, to step aside, as it were, from the false, corrupt thoughts that have been imbued in us, and to have a “peaceful mind.” This is the only path to lasting happiness.
What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards. Today I mentioned that sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice. The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women. What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles. A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.
It’s not like I haven’t heard this before. My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk. I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor. As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.
So where does this leave me? How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine? I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.
What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical. I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas. My arms still look flabby, damn it. I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night. But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals. Yesterday, for example, I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff. But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological. I feel calmer, more centered. I feel more self-confident and less anxious.
For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement. I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it. Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way. After years of anxious hiding, I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.” Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.” And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”
What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years? The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world. This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax. But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.
Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her. When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike. Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before. I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go. Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering. I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery. She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car. Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend. None of her family is here in Pittsburgh. She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.
Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help? Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain? Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain. I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself. The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.