This post is going to be super awkward, lengthy, and personal, but I don't see enough of this discussion in the yoga world, so I'm going to push past my fear and throw it out there. It concerns declarations like "happiness is a choice" and "create the life you want" which are thrown around the health and wellness community all the time. Happiness being available even when things aren't perfect is a wonderful message our yoga/spiritual practice sends, and when it clicks you can't help but want to shout it out. Ultimately we do need to understand that a life of positivity is something that's fostered and consciously curated, and not just granted when things are going our way. However, we have to remember that there is a population of people who are in a place where their brain and body don't allow happiness to be a choice.
It's not a matter of a bad attitude, but an illness that creates a feeling of such heaviness and pain that being told to be happy in their condition is like telling a person to take a deep breath while being chained underwater. When we simplify the message of being happy to "just chose to see it that way" we are at risk of unintentionally pushing that population away from an effective method of therapy. I think the language that currently is used by yoga teachers that advocates for wellness concerning happiness and contentment works for 99% of people, but I want to advocate for the 1% that it doesn't and let them know they too can benefit from the practice and have a place in this community. In fact, this practice might be their best bet for recovery.
I've dealt with depression and anxiety since a really young age. (The girl in Inside Out has nothing on the bleakness I brought to childhood). As a person who is generally more sad than happy, living in a world where sadness is met by people asking, "What's wrong?" has made me feel broken most of my life. I've worked through years of both prescribed medication which numbed my pain but left me feeling like a robot and self medication which made me superficially happy but dependent and ultimately worse off in hopes of "fixing" myself. Believing my only options were to feel nothing or feel so bad I couldn't function, finding yoga and experiencing the milli-seconds where I was so focused the pain stopped felt huge. I'm happy to say I learned to stretch those milli-seconds into longer periods of time and for that reason the practice has been a saving grace allowing me to be myself and live a productive life.
Not only has my yoga been a way to overcome something that debilitated me, but it's given me a healthy relationship with my pain. My practice is one of the only places where I feel I have the space to let my emotions take life without needing to conform to how I think everyone wants me to feel. Over time, my feelings of angst felt acknowledged so they've been much easier to contain and ultimately have lost some power. The most profound healing I've found has come from walking straight through my depression until I came out the other side with nothing that arose unexplored. It's been a maze I've had to wander through to find my way out. I don't think this for everyone, but it's worked for me.
As yoga teachers, we give cues for the physical body with impeccable finesse, but often the emotional body does not get the same recognition. The tension we are releasing through the gross body is a physical manifestation of something more subtle, whether an emotion or configuration of energy that we didn't want to process at the time. (Seane Corn words it perfectly by saying "energy is vibration with information.") Letting these vibrations, which are often fierce and chaotic, loose in our students' bodies without the tools to navigate, transform, or release this energy is a missed opportunity. As someone with a complex relationship with her emotions, finding peace and joy through this shit-storm of feelings seems like an over simplification. In fact, Patanjali never says happiness is what we are seeking. In chapter 1, sutra 5, he says the 5 ways our minds whirl are either painful or painless. Happiness is isn't the absence of pain, it's the other side of the same coin.
I think we need to arm yoga teachers with the education to help guide the emotional body in practice just as much as they would the physical body. Bringing psychosomatic counselors or therapists into a yoga training could lead to so much good and much more interesting ways to help students whether they suffer from mental/emotional problems or not navigate their body/mind experience. Additionally I feel we must stop treating sadness, depression, anxiety, and the perspective they provide as something wrong that needs to be made right, but just another filter to see the world through. Even as I wrote this I was tempted to write "bad feelings" instead of depression. This attitude is so engrained in our language and culture that those who feel consumed by these feeling can’t help but feel faulty.
I know some of the most beautiful parts of my life have also been the saddest, which must be true for many looking at the plethora of art we get from people who have been notoriously melancholy. If those who are supposed to be examples of health and wellness just focus on what we can do when we have already achieved some base-line of contentment, then those who are being dragged down by consuming feelings of hopelessness may not feel like they have a place in a community that could lift them up and allow them to take control of their own healing.