19 Oct Made In Chelsea, with Depression – How Yoga Ultimately Cured Me
An estimated 350 million people world wide suffer from depression, and some of them are the richest or most famous people in the world. Brad Pitt, Miley Cyrus, Ellen DeGeneres, Kanye West, Princess Diana, and many more people considered privileged or with millions of fans, have suffered depression. If you’ve had it then you know how bad it can be, and if you haven’t then just take my word for it!
Whether you suffer from mild bouts, or chronic depression, it can completely hinder your ability to function for a day or for years, give you complete apathy for even your most loved ones, and create a fog of darkness where even the most intelligent and rational minded, can’t see a light through it.
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” – Ernest Hemingway
I’d like to consider myself one of the latter. Intelligent and rational. But, for years I suffered badly from depression, and ultimately yoga is what has ‘cured’ me. I’d like to mention here that I actually can’t stand it when people claim that yoga has ‘cured’ something. Yoga is not a miracle, it does not ‘heal’ and it is not the answer to all your prayers. It is simply a balanced, healthy way to live, for your body and your mind.
But in my case yoga did ultimately cure me. Not the best doctors in London, not all the different therapies I tried or medications I had taken. Today at nearly 37 years old, and for over 15 years, yoga is what keeps me (most of the time) happy, calm and balanced.
Regardless of whether you’re into its history, philosophy and traditions, or whether you just do a physical based yoga practice, it can bring immense benefits to those suffering from depression. In regards to my experience, I had started having anxiety and sleeping problems at the age of nine. There were problems at home, even though ‘home’ was either a six floored house in Chelsea, a castle in the English countryside or a seaside villa abroad. By my late teens and early twenties I actually lost friends who ‘didn’t understand what I had to be depressed about when I had so much in my life’. I will keep family stuff private for now, but suffice to say, I was a sensitive, observant child in an unstable, unhappy environment.
During the same time, I got through two of the best schools in England with good grades, never got into any trouble and was half way through my Psychology and Sociology degree at University, when I could no longer get out of bed. Up to that point, it was the Dalai Lama books I’d started buying at 13 years old, and the breathing and meditations techniques I’d learned in yoga, that gave me the little hope and strength I had. As I’d been too young for sleep medication at 9 years old I was eventually ‘prescribed’ yoga by a Harley Street doctor, after all other holistic avenues had been explored.
I remember Doctor Gordon saying to me “Well there’s this thing that’s come from India that people are doing where there’s breathing and meditation techniques. I think it’s called yoga and you should try it”.
At 13 years old I was rollerblading to the yoga classes, in what used to be the Chelsea and Victoria sport center. I had found a teacher I liked but when she left, the yoga turned too ‘boring’ and ‘slow’. I then moved onto Karate, joined an out of school team and became the quickest person to have gotten to brown belt. Two years later I won a bronze medal in the National Competitions and had loved the meditation in movement that I was practicing every day. It was very like yoga, but had the added elements of self defense and fast pace that I needed at that time.
For the next two years at boarding school I practiced yoga in my room and started reading the Bhagaavad Gita and the Vedas. I remained fascinated by Zen Buddhist meditation and the Dalai Lama was always on my bookshelf. But eventually I couldn’t keep up appearances and I gave up completely after a bad relationship. I won’t deny that the psychiatrist I saw during my last year at university, and the medication he put me on, didn’t help get me through it. But ultimately it was coming back to yoga that cured me completely of the waves of depression I had gone through for over 10 years.
On a basic psychological level, a daily yoga practice gave me a sense of stability and control. It gave me a feeling of pride and achievement that I needed, and an introduction to taking care of myself again. As I became aware of my body becoming stronger and more flexible, it helped me feel stronger and more flexible in my mind, by enhancing the mind-body connection. My back and neck pains disappeared as did the indigestion problems I’d developed from abusing my body. I was in general much healthier and getting stronger mentally and physically. I spent time working on poses that induced a sense of confidence and less time on back bending when I was feeling low or vulnerable (they can enhance sensitive emotions). Yoga and meditation taught me patience and to take it easy on myself. I spent a lot of time working on forward bends and twist poses as they make you feel safer and more secure. Over time you find yourself able to stretch or twist that millimeter further making you feel more confident and self assured in what you are doing in general. And balancing poses give you mental and physical balance and confidence, because there REALLY is a connection between what your body is doing, and how your mind is feeling. The breathing exercises, especially Ujjayi during practice, and Nadi Sodhana afterwards, gave me focus, control and relaxation. Most importantly it reminded me that breathing is the most important coping method in any circumstance.
A yoga session will also be a balanced workout in regards to the joints and muscles on both sides of the body. Even if you feel vulnerable or sensitive you can do a more gentle back bend if you feel like counter stretching from a lot of forward bending. There are endless variations and adjustments in poses to suit ANY type of body and capability. Starting your day with a focused, physical workout with a strong emphasis on full breathing, is an empowering way of life for anyone, especially those prone to depression. And whether regularly practicing a moving or still meditation, the neurological, hormonal, and overall health benefits of meditation have been highly documented.
Yoga, when practiced properly, is meditation in movement and in stillness.
That isn’t to say that I couldn’t have achieved some of these benefits with other activities or sports. I was always an active child, on the tennis, swimming, hockey and netball teams. After school I realised I much preferred the solitude and focus I could get at the gym or on my yoga mat. But at the gym my muscles would tone into a bulkier, less lean fiber and I wasn’t getting the meditative training I eventually required in stillness and silence. Eventually I ditched the gym membership and the anti-depressants and dedicated myself entirely to yoga and walking. At times I practiced every single day, until I realised that it wasn’t healthy for me mentally, to be so reliant or structured. I read as much as I could about yoga and any time I felt out of balance mentally or physically, I would research different poses and yogic or ayurvedic techniques to see what worked to help me feel better. From physiological and anatomical imbalances and fatigue, to feelings of insecurity or mental weakness, yoga has given me overall strength and balance. It increases the connection, awareness and understanding of yourself, your body and your mind, and builds self resilience. By this, for instance, I’m referring to noticing when you’re beginning to feed the unhappiness monster, and know what to do physically and mentally to feel stability, and regain emotional strength. Yoga is a daily lesson in your ability to focus and fulfill responsibilities with productive intention, and in your strengths and limitations. You begin to sense the physical or mental manifestations that occur when you’re beginning to feel sad or anxious, and learn how to nip them in the bud.
I’m not saying that I don’t have bad days or that yoga will cure you from ever feeling down. What it can do however, is empower you mentally and physically, giving you the clarity, stability and confidence in dealing with it, especially before it spirals downwards.
Yogic breathing, poses and meditation are what ultimately gave me the strength, the will and the confidence physically and mentally to fully overcome depression. It humbled me into understanding how small and irrelevant we are in the big picture, but how something small can also make a big, positive impact. It has taught me not to take my body, life and health for granted, or too seriously, and given me a sense of pride in doing something that I know is good for me. Yoga gave me gentle goals to work towards, while respecting my daily limitations and not being competitive with myself or others. I learned that jealousy is a pointless, destructive emotion and to not take the most basic necessities for granted. Seeing the poverty and simple needs in India and other under developed countries, gave me appreciation for the few things that are actually important in life. Most of all yoga has made me feel calmer, balanced and happier. Every day I appreciate being alive and being so incredibly lucky for everything I’ve gone through and where I am today. There are so many worse off people in the world and it’s worth taking a moment each morning to remember this, to make you feel grateful for all the little things in your life. Yoga helped me prioritise myself and what’s really important to me. I can tell you that it is not the fancy cars, houses or designer clothes that I grew up with. It’s having a roof over my head to keep me warm and dry, being able to afford organic food, and my work, family and friends, that give me the responsibility and love to keep smiling every day.
Yoga was such a positive influence on me that I eventually gave up the corporate climb to dedicate myself full time, 6 days a week, to teaching. For over 10 years I’ve had the pleasure of bringing the benefits of yoga and meditation to hundred of adults and children. I’ve been a yoga therapist of special needs kids for 10 years and worked with many adults with depression, often post cancer patients and highly regarded executives. The success and changes I’ve seen in people mentally and physically from yoga, gives me confidence in my choice to dedicate myself to this forever. My
mission is to keep training more Indiv Yoga teachers until I can no longer stand, and keep bringing the benefits of yoga and meditation to as many people around the world as I can.
If you, or anyone you know are suffering from depression, I hope yoga helps as much as it has me, and feel free to share your story in the comments below, or come and take one of my Teacher Training Courses.
Wishing you peace, happiness and good health.