Many adults discover their spirituality when they are in a desperate need of help – this was certainly the case for me. Though I’ve struggled with mental illness since I was a child, two years ago my condition became unbearable. I had been diagnosed with major depression and an anxiety disorder, and I’d been in therapy for a couple of years. It was a huge step for me to accept the fact that I had a medical condition, rather than that I wasn’t “trying hard enough”, especially since I come from a country (Russia) where mental diseases are still strongly stigmatized.
I had many recurrent episodes and the hope that one day my soul would eventually be healthy again and I would return to my ‘normal’ life, began to fade.
I was struggling at work, constantly terrified of getting sick, getting fired, being turned away by my loved ones. I had terrible insomnia, and even when I could sleep, I repeatedly woke up screaming in the middle of yet another night terror. Medication helped a little but I felt desperate.
At first, I practised yoga solely to help me relax enough to fall asleep. It was only when I began to practice on a daily basis that I really got hooked. Yoga finally brought me the Me Time that I had lacked since childhood. No one was allowed to disturb me. No kind of work or household-related task was important enough to interrupt my routine.
Some of my reasons for practising yoga daily were healthy (it was a way to start being friendly to myself), and some were not (I noticed yoga helped with the weight loss, so I felt guilty when I missed a session). Most importantly, I finally started to learn to listen to my body. The signals it was sending me were really subtle in the beginning – for example, I could sense my arms after a demanding practice. But then I began to notice other things…
In the meantime, I found a therapist who showed me that my suffering was connected to abusive childhood memories I had. I also started to unfurl the negative beliefs I had about myself and people in general. I realised these beliefs were not, in fact, mine but were instead internalised messages from those around me in my childhood; from the people who were superior to me when I was not yet able to take care of myself.
Fixing your soul
But still, I felt broken. I wondered how it would be possible for me to live a healthy life. I could spend all the time in the world trying to heal my wounds, only to find out there were more to work on. I felt like a failure: what if all the abilities I was blessed with died in vain because I couldn’t express them fully?
The main thing that yoga taught me is that even though it’s a good start to realize that your mental illness is an illness indeed, you should not treat your soul like it’s some kind of internal organ, which you only become aware of because it starts hurting. Your soul is not something you can just miraculously ‘fix’ and then go back to normal. Your “normal” was exactly the reason it started to hurt in the first place!
Your soul is not something you can just miraculously fix and then go back to normal. Your “normal” was exactly the reason it started to hurt in the first place!
The role of prana
The way I look at depression now is from the point of view of prana, or life energy – surprisingly for me, as my field is mathematics, so I was a Western medicine advocate for a long time. I am not broken, I say to myself, as you cannot break a living being. My way of living,however, was broken.I lived with an inner conflict for as long as I could remember and that conflict was depleting a good share of my prana.
At first, as a child and a young adult, I got so much joy and energy from exploring the world’s possibilities, that I was easily able to replenish my energy pool even though it was literally leaking! But gradually my ‘energy income’ became insufficient, so I became weak, anaemic, lifeless – and that resulted in severe depression.
I believe this conflict to be individual for each of us ‘depression warriors’, but for me, the root of the illness was nothing else but a deep self-hatred which I learned from my parents. For me, it doesn’t stop at feeling guilty when I’m failing at something, it goes on to feeling like an impostor – a cheat, even – when I’m doing my best and actually achieving something.
For instance, I didn’t just resent my body parts which didn’t match my idea of ‘conventional beauty’, but the things I hated the most were actually the ones that made me myself. After this revelation, I realised it was impossible to fix all the individual negative beliefs about myself, because in my subconscious I was all bad. Instead, I needed to do something radical about it.
Peace in the here and now
The yogic practice of meditating on the present moment showed me the way. In the here and now, you couldn’t really be bad, since you have this core of pure energy inside you. This energy is life itself, it’s all good by definition, and you merely express it in your own individual way. And if you need something to respect yourself for, here’s one: you can be a person who is aware of that life inside and outside you. That’s really enough, don’t you think?
In the here and now, you couldn’t really be bad, since you have this core of pure energy inside you. This energy is life itself; you merely express it in your own individual way.
Though I am still a work in progress and I have a long way to go, I feel sure I’ll manage. Thanks to yoga, I now look at this ‘work’ with the curiosity of exploration more than with fear. I’m not saying that if you struggle with a mental illness, you shouldn’t discuss it with your physician – of course, you should. What I’m saying is, when it comes to depression, it may be your time to question your choices, to feel how are you actually doing deep inside. And for that, yoga can indeed be your best friend.
About the author
Alisa Artamonova is a Russian mathematician and photographer living in Berlin. She has a history of two decades of struggling with depression and anxiety but, through yoga, found herself on an exciting journey of self-exploration.
Alisa and her friends run a small blog (in Russian) sharing their personal stories, learning how to live happier and more aware lives and promoting destigmatization of mental disease.