when the yoga doesn’t work: depression, failure & the purpose of practice

Dec 7, 2012 by

Hello, kittens. You’ve probably noticed that things have been a little quiet on IAYB lately.

To be honest, I’ve been a little quiet in general lately. I’ve been going through a spell of depression which makes writing, blogging and social media-ing very hard. I’ve also been broke and under-employed, and so I’ve had to shift what little energy I have from the blog to job searching. Which doesn’t help my depressive state. It’s hard to blog or “sell myself” to prospective employers when all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and cry.

I’m not sure which came first: the powerlessness of unemployment/no money or the constant feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter and it’s not worth analyzing. I prefer to blame capitalism.

But the feelings are here and they’re real, and so is the heaviness in my heart, the anxiety that wakes me up in the middle of the night (so strong that I feel it in the layers of my skin).

I’m trying to work with them, acknowledge them, “become friends” with them. I’m trying to not let this get me. I get out of bed in the morning (although a little later than I should and with great difficulty). I’m pulling out all the tools I have: journaling, light visualizations, walking, asana, connecting with my community. I’m trying out new tools, like karaoke (I am an extrovert, after all, and singing heals) and my healer’s mysterious sacred basil tincture.

Some of it works, only temporarily. I do a lovely yoga nidra practice, come out of it feeling rested and whole, but then still wake up in the middle of the night. I start my day with asana and feel more energetic than usual in the morning, but break down crying in the mid-afternoon. There are some bright spots, too: a lovely interview with Illa Fabulis that reminds me I’ve accomplished a few things in my life. A spontaneous “pop-up book shop” tour of Montreal yoga studios, to hustle 21st Century Yoga and make a little cash before the holidays.

Underneath it all, however, is a vague sense that I’m failing at my practice, that I’m as broken and fucked up as I was before I committed to yoga (chronic and clinical depression was what drove me to practice in the first place), that the practice isn’t working. There’s also the vague sense that I’m not allowed to be feeling this way – there are many stories of miraculous healing from depression (and everything else) through yoga, but nobody talks about the relapses. I feel like I’m doing something wrong.

And so. What does this mean for IAYB? Things will continue to be a little quiet in the coming weeks, as I’ll go into a mini-hibernation between the solstice and New Year’s. But don’t worry, I also have some end-of-the-year shenanigans and rabblerousing in the works, and I will muster up the energy to post them. I’m rethinking IYAB’s position, voice and purpose. I will also be exploring this new theme, and trying to open a conversation about the shortcomings of practice. If you practice yoga regularly, how do you cope with depression, anxiety, capitalism, the world?

In the meantime, I’ll just keep watching this video on repeat with the rest of the Internet. Pop-up children and grown men playing kiddie instruments make me smile.

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33 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing, Roseanne. Have been feeling very similar recently.

  2. Have you tried Amy Weintraub’s DVDs for depression and anxiety? Gary Kraftsow recently came out with some DVDs for mood as well. Keep practicing compassion for yourself, and know you are not alone. Hoping for more love and light soon, during this difficult time for you.

  3. ad

    I have always struggled with accepting the fact that there will be relapses. That a strong, consistent yoga practice won’t keep the monsters at bay. That if the Dalai Lama still fights with demons, I can’t expect to be relapse-free. My demon has always been anxiety. And although I’ve come a long way, it still surges in my throat, hot and overwhelming, when least expected. I too have my arsenal of tools – yoga, walking, writing, meditation, being with friends – but sometimes I have to remind myself to just “ride it out”. No magic escape, just time and being kind to myself.

    That probably wasn’t very useful, but I just wanted to say that you’re not alone in dealing with this. I hope that your road back is a short one as your voice and presence are missed.

    Rock on, Roseanne. Rock. On.

  4. Dear Roseanne, thanks so much for sharing this. You are honest and brave. I’m not so sure that feeling depressed or anxious means that the yoga isn’t working. Over the course of years of practice, I’ve come to understand that when the yoga is working it necessarily takes us to the deepest, scariest places, and we don’t always feel as if we have the wherewithal to meet those places with grace. But we also don’t have a choice as to whether to go there. IMO, this *is* the practice.

    In 1993 I had a huge insight on a 30-day vipassana retreat. What followed was a yearlong dark night that had me wondering every day if I could go on. Yoga and meditation practice made it impossible for me to go through this time with my eyes closed. It was like having surgery with no anesthesia–or what I imagine that would feel like. Asana could make me feel better temporarily, but it didn’t change the new truths that I needed to acknowledge and begin to live by.

    So, it could be that your years of dedicated practice ARE working, and you are going through a period of transition and redefining. Sometimes that means that living in this body in this time doesn’t feel that great. Any time I hear someone talk about yoga practice being all about bliss and grace I want to run the other way. Yoga’s about life, in all its messy, synchronistic, discouraging, hopeful, happy, unhappy, loving, frustrating and infinite beauty.

    I’m truly sorry you are feeling the way you are. It is so hard to feel stuck in that low-energy, uninspired place. But remember that things change, all the time. And know that you are loved.

  5. Hey there Roseanne – I think you’ll find that a lot of people will connect to this post. I know I do.

    When I started practicing yoga about a year and a half ago, I was in a complicated place. I had gone off my anti-depression/anti-anxiety medication about a year and a half before then, in an attempt to clear out my system while my husband and I tried to get pregnant. Obviously, this was a difficult change. And when there was still no baby after a year of trying, things got worse. My relationship with my husband was weakened, and we almost separated. (Luckily, some couples counseling got us back on track.)

    The, I started practicing yoga. My mental/emotional state immediately improved. I was a thousand times more even-tempered, and I began to live my life with gratitude for the things I already had.

    Still, life is not perfect. Things have been stressful lately (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into), we still haven’t gotten pregnant, and I just found out yesterday that our health insurance won’t cover IVF… at all. If we decide to move forward with it, we may have to pay up to $16,000, out-of-pocket.

    No matter how much yoga has improved my mindset and my ability to cope with stress and disappointment, I still crumble. I still fall into deep funks. I still end up crying in my car or screaming at the top of my lungs or feeling like a failure. Like: What am I working for? Why even keep trying?

    But then I think about how I would be handling things if yoga wasn’t in my life. And I know things would be worse.

    Yoga isn’t about eradicating the non-unicorn-and-rainbow feelings. It’s about noticing when they pop up, and handling them in a different way.

    Hugs to you, and lots of luck with this journey. :)

  6. A very worthwhile topic, the challenges of any long term practice. Not sure I would call them ‘shortcomings’ only because practice is not a cure-all despite what is being peddled hither and yon. Yoga helps, that’s it. And sometimes it doesn’t even do that :) Thanks for this fantastically honest post, frank talk is almost completely missing on the yogablogsphere, I yearn for much more than “yoga is so great”. Practice radical self-care right now and keep writing please! xoxo

  7. Hi Roseanne,

    I’m sorry to read you’re going through a rough time. This time in year, especially in a cold city like Montreal, especially when you’re going through financial challenges can be horribly taxing. And job searches are almost always horrific…

    I truly admire the work that you do on this blog, and in 21st Century Yoga. It really doesn’t go unnoticed.

    Everyone has lovely insights and suggestions. Mine is simply that maybe if you like Jimmy Fallon and the Roots, you will like this video. I love the rainbow xylophone!

    All my best,
    Erica.
    xo

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEsPhTbJhuo

  8. Anne-Lisa

    Roseanne,

    With all the love in my heart, this is part of your practice, part of your transition, your growth and renewal and it sucks major ass! I have and continue to experience these periods of darkness that I fight against valiantly with, but as others have said, it is what needs to be at the moment. Know that you are so very loved and held in many hands and hearts who are always here for you. Love you.

  9. Hi Roseanne,
    I know exactly where you’re coming from, I’ve been there myself.

    I recently came across this video from British philosopher Roman Krzaric. His website has some really interesting videos as well. I don’t know if it will inspire you but it certainly gave me some ideas and helped me put some things in perspective.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1y6417fnIKU

  10. One of the things that have always kept me away from yoga is how patronising the community around it in the western world can be. I deeply feel that the core teachings are real, are truths to cherish. Studying them without any intermediate intervention from this side of the world made me get closer to them. However, I feel that applying them to the western world as it is now (you say, capitalism) ends up being really abusing. It feels like marketing the practice here pushes too much on positivity and well being because it’s what we need and want to hear, when yoga is a path of imperfect beings reaching a higher level of awareness/the Divine in western terms. And those who have a different path are left feeling wrong and like it’s their fault.
    And most of its defenders in this side of the world brag about living life as if in a yoga retreat in India as if it was an immediate process happening because you practice regularly and want it enough. Life is not like that, and if we listen to what Eastern philosophies teach us, before the end is reached you go through many reincarnations. The status of freedom you need to reach is a struggle for the imperfect humans. If it takes you many lives to be worthy of paradise, how could you expect to reach earthy happiness in a few months or years? I am not sure the miraculous stories are as up to yoga as they tell, but then I am a cynical.
    You are coping with many bad things and have been diagnosed with a medical issue so it’s not like a bit of sadness and negativity you can resolve with mantras and positive thinking (unless placebo really works). You are doing nothing wrong, don’t fall into the trap that wants you to feel diminished for being yourself. If yoga gives you even just a small amount of happy times in these bad ones it’s worth practicing. For the rest, there are many other ways to attack your demons on more fronts. I’ve been through similar issues in the past months so I empathise with you.
    I hug you affectionately, keep strong!

  11. Lovingkindness to you Roseanne. Thanks for sharing with us. You’re right to slow down and do what you need to do to take good care of yourself, it’s OK to let IAYB be quiet. We’ll be here.

  12. suzanne

    hi roseanne,
    i totally agree with all the responses before me! i have had my ups and downs in life as well, and they will keep on coming until the day i die. the only difference is that since i started asking questions (1994) and since i found yoga (1996 – or should i say since yoga found me!), i am more aware of what is happening as opposed to before when i was ‘asleep’, in automatic pilot. there are times when i regret a lot of decisions i made but, in the big scheme of things, i know i will be all right no matter what happens. i don’t make as much money as before, i don’t have that nice house that i used to have, etc., but i feel much better about myself in general, about who i am, about my decisions, about my purpose on this planet.
    remember that you are a human being, that you are perfect and that your life is perfect. i too am a bit of a cynic with all those ‘happy and perfect’ people in the so-called yoga community. you will notice that you will (eventually if not already) start attracting like-minded people in your life that will make your life on this planet a much better place.
    if you want, you can give me a call (514-295-3937) and we can meet up for coffee (remember, i live not too far from you!) and we can share our stories. it always helps to know that you are not alone and not crazy!!!
    suzanne
    p.s. remember ‘It’s a wonderful life’???? always a great movie to watch to give you hope, especially at this time of year!!!

  13. suzanne

    p.s. thanks for letting us know that we suffer from Capitalism!!! i knew it, but i just couldn’t put my finger on it. i feel much better now!

  14. Tina

    A suggestion that is not touched upon here: perhaps you could benefit from a grounded yoga practice, or from dance that is grounded. Tango dancing (as you’ve mentioned) and a fancy yoga practice (as you may have alluded to) are one thing; but what keeps you connected to the earth is the use of your feet and your legs in a rhythmic pattern. This may sound counterintuitive, but even with yoga you could find this rhythm in a power yoga practice with emphasis on grounding asanas.

    I had been feeling quite depressed myself until I rediscovered the power of the dance … in fact, I would have left yoga by now if I did not rediscover 5 Rhythms …

  15. frank

    according to yoga any /you/ is fucked, because /youing/ is not the unfetterable pure consciousness. you’re still just as fucked because there is an identification with the same /you/ as before, in addition to looking to (identifying with) the stuff of tools, potions and predicaments to shape you into happy (and work only temporarily).
    i also came out of an intense meditative experience to sink slowly into a long lasting depression, and while of late i’m seeing better where to head (like wiping off the glasses i’ve been dirtying), i’m still very much a temporary fixer, grasping at this and that. your situation is your own but these help me to stave off the pressures of suicidal thoughts: entertaining animals, silence, silly dances, silly noises, masturbating (including ego stroking fantasies), iodine vitamin D and caffeine, and best of all (and the most troublsome) is actively being free, remembering all these things i think i am and must do are temporary, not possibly me, even if a me does exist. eating my feels works too, but it really gums up everything, much more than those other things.
    i’d like to be inspiring, but only because reading well meaning and wise commentaries aloud sarcastically in accents has put me in a good mood. The unceranty and incompleteness underscoring physics and math also underscore the impossibility of the quest for certainty and completeness: if we, and existence weren’t incomplete or uncertain, we and existence wouldn’t be at all: we are fucked by design.
    http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com is wonderful, but she’s no posterchild for ‘recovery’.
    ps. the best christmas special: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xh4kIiH3Sm8

  16. As a fellow “yoga blogger,” I wanted to take a moment to tell you how much I appreciate this post. It’s honest and “its all yoga, baby.” For whatever its worth, I find the stuff you put out engaging and interesting. I want you to know that I read and appreciate it.

    I never suppose to know what anyone might need to do but in my own tribulations with depression and anxiety and yoga, the most important idea for me was that being healthy, or a yogi or whatever, does not mean that I feel well or that everything is great. My health and experience of life encompasses the full range of emotions and experiences, even the ones I wish to avoid. Given your circumstances, there is good reason for you to feel pressed or overwhelmed.

    Hopefully, from the midst of the ruble, the new flower will bloom. This has certainly proven true to many over time and, if you keep up what you have displayed here, chances are it will be so for you as well.

    Sending nurturing friendship and love to you, my digital colleague.
    Hang in there.

  17. Wow! I completely understand. Thank you for sharing. I have been in a ton of pain recently, so much so that even thinking about asana hurts. And I feel like a total yoga failure. How can a yoga teacher be in so much pain? But the truth is that we are human. Yoga has a ton of healing qualities, but it is not a panacea. Sometimes other things are needed as well. And sometimes that means curling up in the fetal position and crying (I do that frequently as well). Thanks for creating a voice for that experience. It’s one we do not discuss enough. I hope you continue to breathe through and heal your hurt and depression.

  18. When I was going through the worst of my own depression, PTSD, panic/anxiety attacks etc, I felt betrayed by my asana and meditation practices. As if all of those years of practice and study were useless in the face of such things and it really stumped me for a while.

    But I kept it up. I clung to the teachings and practices. I was a little inconsistent, sure. But it was the only thing that made any sort of sense to me, so I couldn’t give it up. Even when it “wasn’t working”.

    In my own experience, I had to acknowledge that for me, yoga wasn’t enough. I needed additional support. Ending my own depression involved a combination of taking care of my physical health – getting my iron, Vitamin D, B12 levels sorted out and eating well – and courageously facing up to life-long issues that’d been festering away for years.

    Once I’d broken the back of those issues, I was able to truly generate self-love and self-acceptance. I do believe my recovery was aided by my yoga practice, even if the yoga itself was not the cure.

    Like others have said, hang in there. Keep breathing, keep moving and keep letting out all of your feelings. You’ll make it through if you just keep moving.

    I wish I could give you the keys to the exit door from Depression-land, but I think for each of us its different.

  19. Peg

    Good morning Roseanne,

    I soooo appreciate your writing about this. As you have been through this before, you know it will change, and you will change. I have been there too, and may again, and will use every tool I have gathered to keep the light on – it may be a small light, but in the dark it is enough.

    Thank you for writing honestly – a part of your yoga – and for posting it.

    Best of the solstice, and warm wishes for your hibernation

    p

  20. I don’t know if I count as one of those who’s had a “miraculous” recovery but I, like you, came to yoga while suffering from depression and in the time I’ve been practicing I’ve learned to live with, manage and (mostly) recover. Asana practice helped me to find something enjoyable to live for but it was really the practice of mindfulness meditation (learnt from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living) that’s given me the opportunity to believe that recovery is possible.
    However it’s not a magic cure, it’s a constant learning and re-learning process. Plus life still happens and sometimes things happen that are hard for me to cope with. It’s at times like this that I ramp up my meditation practice and really feel my own experience, sadness and anxiety and all. It’s not all positivity (although I think that in North America this attitude is more common, where I live moaning and miserableness is the norm!), it’s more about building a quiet resilience in the knowledge that I persisted through other times of suffering and I can do it again.
    It’s not failure, it’s life and it’s why we practice. Be kind to yourself.

  21. Teresa

    I can really relate to this, and I am very grateful to you for putting your feelings to words.

    In your tools, you did not mention seeing a professional. I find that the yoga community where I live tends to dismiss this and other kinds of professional medical help. But let’s face it, doctors, psychologist, LCSWs all have significantly more training and expertise than most yoga teachers who have only read self help books. Yoga and meditation can help with a lot, but there are some things that a professional can help people process.

    Thank you again for your honesty.

  22. Roseanne,

    I have some age on you and have been practicing, trying to practice all I know of yoga, of meditation, of joy,of movement and what I know is that the pain you speak of is as much us as the joy. I see an accomplished exceptional woman here who has offered a service to the yoga community that is inspirational. I see someone who rises from the things that weigh on her to shine light on others and to bring other’s light to the public. You use all of yourself to bring that forth and pain has been a part of that.

    I am loathe to complain to someone in despair but I want to share this in case it helps.I need to admit then that I spend many nights thrashing in frustration and sorrow and regrets.
    So I write and I speak my truth even if it displeases folks, I trust people who are not trustworthy because it’s a vacation from negativity, I take to the woods and the dance floor, I wallow in the beauty of intense feelings, I rejoice at every small kindness. I lose myself in yoga even as I come to some tender awareness in yoga and I lick the wounds of a hurt body even as I insist it carry me forward. When I cannot take a breath I walk outside for the air that is a drink of water instead of a forced feeding.

    Yoga is not a cure, it is a lifestyle and a mindset and a guide for managing energy in my opinion. You use it well. Use it as you need in any way that serves you. When your whole being aches with sorrow remember you’ve been there before and that which pulled you down preceded the rush of the next wave beneath your feet.

    It may be obnoxious to offer advice to one who has not asked for that but to be heard so forgive this. I hear you. This is just one small opinion. I am sorry for your hard time and looking forward to seeing you back when you are ready.

  23. Jade

    Thank you for being brave enough to share. It helps knowing others are going through this too. I got some great insight from my therapist on separating yoga and self care. Like you I felt like because I was practicing yoga I was not allowed to feel depression or helplessness. I felt like I should be able to take my calmness and resilience off my my mat “into the world” as we so often hear.

    She let me know that self-care and yoga are 2 separate things. Although each support one another, I need self care first. Sometimes that is yoga, other times its not.

    I support your journey and appreciate your honesty. Big hugs.

  24. Sweets,

    Thank you for sharing this!! If it’s any consolation, I love your blog and the balls you have to speak up and call bullshit on all the things that are wrong with yoga culture. I hope that you will find reason to continue writing it.

    The whole idea that yoga is a panacea for EVERYTHING is simply untrue and, as you clearly understand, perpetuated by the big, bad yoga machine. You are allowed to have the feelings you are having right now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them and they will pass, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise or make you feel bad or feel like a victim for what you are going through. You are not one. You are clearly a fearless woman. You have followed your passions and put yourself and your thoughts out for public view and criticism.

    You are fighting an uphill battle, and just because you haven’t won yet, does not mean you’ve failed. Every change in the world started with a few brave individuals raising their voices and not being silenced. There is absolutely value in what you are doing, the opinions you are sharing and the thoughts you are provoking.

    Allow yourself permission to feel the crappiness you’re feeling right now and then give those feelings permission to leave as fast as they showed up.

    I don’t know you beyond the few emails we’ve exchanged. But that’s my pep talk.

    xxV

  25. I am sorry to learn that you are feeling down. I just found your site after reading your book “Yoga in the 21st Century”. It, and your blog, are treasures. I wrote a review of your book on my little baby blog. Get some help. Keep the faith!

    DFD
    Downwardfacingdoc.net

  26. Hi Roseanne :)

    First up, as others here have said – thank you for sharing this stuff honestly and openly. I know that can be tough!!

    Second, as a fellow yogi with anxiety & depression I want to say loudly – I hear ya!! Far out my brain goes into overdrive sometimes just being down on myself for being a yoga teacher who can’t always get her shit together.

    For many many years I decided I couldn’t try any sort of medication because that’s just so totally unyogic. I figured a yogi should be able to chant, breathe and drink green smoothies out of any funk. Yeah, that was all well and good until the panic attacks began to disrupt my life entirely – the final straw was when I sat down in the middle of the cereal isle because everything became too much and I cried. In public. I knew I needed help.

    Slowly, with therapy and yep – good ol’ drugs – I came out of the dark and took to my practice again. My asana preference shifted from vigorous to restorative, and meditation became regular. I don’t intend to stay on medication forever, but at the moment they have helped give me a lift while I lay the new calmer foundations for the future, creating new pathways etc etc.

    I’m not saying you need meds, but I wanted to say that whatever you need to get you through this patch is OK and your choice. Just because you’re a yogi doesn’t mean you aren’t human and don’t have rough patches. Hopefully it means you can be even kinder to yourself and make bubble baths and nourish your soul while you let this darkness pass (because it will).

    Much love from Aus, I always enjoy reading IAYB so thanks :)

    Em xo

  27. Roseanne: Thank you so much for sharing this. Being depressed sucks (was there for three months this summer).
    You know I adore you and your rocking blog! Let me know if you ever want to visit the h-fax for a pick me up- you are always welcome here!

  28. I’m sorry you have to go through this. But thank you for such an honest post. In fact, you brought up so many important issues, you inspired me to write a response on my own blog. See: http://yogaforhealthyaging.blogspot.com/2012/12/yoga-is-great-thing-but_5311.html

  29. Dear Roseanne,

    Kudos and appreciation to you for sharing your vulnerability with such candor and openness…Lord knows we need more yogis willing to openly embrace that life is multifaceted, that it can be dreary, and not just a bowl of unicorns & rainbows. My heart goes out to you during what I trust is only a temporary blip on the screen of your life.

    I am a huge fan of your book (I’ve pinned it, blogged about it and passed it on, because it is just what the world needs, for yogis and yet-to-be yogis alike).

    I would love to order some copies to give as gifts this year to all of my yoga friends and colleagues. How can we all order in bulk?

    This is a book and project worth supporting, people!

    With love and extra hugs,
    Amy

  30. nancy

    What a wonderful (but sad) honest blog; very few would have the courage to share this, you should feel good that you did- although probably not much is making you feel good now.
    An old roommate of mine used to say when life threw miseries at us (ranging from parent’s dying to boyfriends’ deserting us) – “get into it”, meaning embrace it, don’t stress over it, don’t look for the way out (it will come), just get through it, one day at a time. You probably have no choice, anyway. I tell this to myself (I also suffer from depression) and my children (ditto) – time works wonders if you’re patient. Don’t worry about the yoga, don’t worry about other people, treat yourself gently, walk softly and you’ll be fine again, and wiser. Thank you again for your courage, everyone’s good thoughts are with you.

  31. andrea

    I know this is a very old post, and Im not sure if you will even see this comment, regardless I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing this. From the honesty that you shared, and the responses from all the people who are affected by your work, I have felt some sense of relief tonight. The guilt that I feel and have felt for the sadness I hold, even as a practicing yogi, is immense… I would like very much to see a different experience as my life but being as that is not the case, the feelings of failure weigh heavily on me. To see the community of love draw up around you at the time you felt the same is so encouraging and renders such a sense of peace just to know that this isn’t something we suffer with alone, but in fact its part of the process. The weight feels just a little lighter… I can’t thank you enough… For your honesty, for your bravery, for the truth, for your struggle, thank you.

    • thank you for your beautiful comment, andrea! happy to be of service in some small way. take care of yourself.

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