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Yoga of Now: On Ego, Depression, and Compassion

Yoga of Now: On Ego, Depression, and Compassion

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

~Leonard Cohen

In America, you can experience your yoga postures in whichever style and flavor you choose: Hot Yoga, Yin Yoga, Stand-Up Paddleboard Yoga, and Doga: Yoga with Your Dog, to name a few—not to mention the ubiquitous Vinyasa Flow. You can practice Sun Salutations with live tabla drumming or with a live DJ; you can attend classes in church basements, public parks, and parking garage rooftops. You can go to classes that infuse the other limbs of Yoga, such as pranayama (breathing techniques) and dharana (meditation). You can find plenty of classes that blast pop music and never mention the breath. There are yoga apps and Instagram challenges and dry-wicking designer yoga pants. This cultural phenomenon has become profoundly embedded into America’s sociological and spiritual landscapes, and its assimilation has taken on a myriad of shapes, contexts, and incarnations.

As a yoga teacher and a writer, I was fascinated by yoga’s rapid proliferation. For many a devotee, yoga is a salve for the stresses of modern living. This got me wondering: what is it about our lives that compel 20 million Americans to unroll a mat? Collectively, what are we seeking, and what do we discover through this practice?

And so I asked seventeen writers to share their stories of how yoga has moved them, amused them, and transformed them. I asked writers, not particularly bendy Instagram yoginis or sage masters, because I knew writers would be able to capture the tender, often hilarious, multi-dimensional experience of contemporary yoga. I knew writers would be able to tap into the beating heart of yoga in all its vibrations. These witty, candid, deeply heartfelt essays are compiled in Going OM: Real-Life Stories on and off the Yoga Mat. The writers have shared their keen insights, their incredible narratives, and their lives on the pages of the book.

As I received the essays, what most struck me most were the threads that kept appearing again and again: struggle, self-doubt, the petulant ego, the busy monkey mind. These recurring themes reminded me of one beautiful, necessary fact—we are not alone.

We are not alone in our perceived strangeness, our darkness, or our resiliency. And this links back to the term yoga itself, which is to yoke, to bring together. This is paradoxical for the Western consciousness: we’ve bought into the belief that, as the philosopher Alan Watts puts it, we are indeed individual egos trapped inside bags of skin. Yoga, therefore, may be a useful antidote to bring us back together, harmonizing the fractured states within us, and with each other.

Growing up I was drawn to Eastern philosophy, and foolishly thought this made me unique. Turns out I’m not the only westerner attracted to Buddha’s image for its aesthetic and philosophical qualities. I’m not the only one with a Ganesha necklace, a Lakshmi T-shirt, and a lotus bumper sticker. We’ve distilled, amalgamated, and commodified Eastern religions and turned them into fads—but maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing. It can be argued that this is yet another tendril in the dialogue between cultures. Just as art movements inform one another across time and space, spawning reactionary movements influenced by their predecessors, yoga is a growing dialogue between its ancient Indian roots and its current Western livelihood.

My Path to Teaching Yoga

I knew from my very first yoga class that I wanted to become a yoga teacher. I couldn’t touch my toes, but that was beside the point. In 2006 I was 22, and like most fresh college graduates, felt confused and vaguely terrified of my uncertain future. I had also been suffering from depression and anxiety for thirteen years.

For most of my life I was desperately searching for what I think everyone wants: to be happy. I wanted to feel at ease and at peace with myself and with the world around me. Who doesn’t want this?

The Lotus Room’s website promised relaxation and inner peace. Inside, tea lights were strung along the hardwood floor, and soft instrumental music played from a stereo. I recalled my high school years practicing at a karate dojo, how the sweating and mystical philosophy always left me thrumming with something other than sadness.

The Lotus Room instructor, Carla, was a tall woman with long hair. “Drink in a breath,” she said in a soothing voice. “I invite you to let go of your ideas about your body, what you should look like, how you should move. However you look, however you are, is perfect in this moment.”

All of a sudden, sitting on my borrowed mat in the back row, tears singed my eyes. I usually cried when something felt right. My body slowly uncoiled. Carla told us to stretch our legs and breathe deeply, and I did, and it felt so good. I moved slowly and unpeeled the tightness lodged in me—a physical tightness, sure, but an emotional clenching as well. The body, mind, and energy systems are inextricable connected, and luckily for the yoga student, that means when you mindfully stretch one, you stretch the others as well.

In class, Carla spoke while we stood and extended our arms over our heads.

“What is happiness?” she asked. “We buy the new car, get that promotion we’ve been striving for, get into a relationship, and yet still we aren’t happy. Why?”

We released our breath and folded over at our hips, and my low back ached in a sweet way, as if it had been craving that movement. “These outside objects, they don’t last,” Carla said. “The thrill wears off. The car gets dented. Your mate disappoints. Your job gives you stress. So how do we attain lasting happiness?”

She paused as if waiting for one of us beginner yoginis, still feeling strange in our spandex pants, to answer.

“We go within. We don’t expect our happiness to come from material wealth or success or other people. We are content with our conditions exactly as they are.”

It was as if she cracked open my skull and poured in a secret, whispering “Here you go, here you are. Move within to the deepest, darkest places of the mind and clean house. Get rid of the last piece of mental furniture. Fill the space with spotless breath.”

Claire Dederer says it this way in her beautiful essay in Going OM: “We all have a deep need to be in our bodies, experiencing them with immediacy. Unhindered by the patterning of consciousness.”

Yoga and Depression

Depression locks you inside of your own dark thoughts, until you can’t possibly believe anyone else could feel the same way. The truth is, millions of other depressed people are sharing that pain, that knot in the gut, those worried thoughts like a million gnats whirring around in the brain. The study of yoga, and the awareness that comes from a practice, can wake us up to the concept of interconnection, and then compassion can arise. Compassion is the bridge to bring one out of the ego self and into the higher Self.

The courageous essays in Going OM reminded me of this. Many of these authors reveal their own brands of darkness, which link our darknesses together, shining the light of empathy upon them.

In Ira Sukrungruang’s essay “Body Replies,”he depicts his relationship with his body, whom he separates into its own character to illuminate his anguish in his struggle for self-worth:

I spend most of my day trying to disappear. Trying to squash Body. I have, in many ways, created a perpetual darkness in my life. Many fat people do this. To hide ourselves, we exaggerate another part of our personalities. I put on a wide smile. I nod voraciously. I ask questions. I make people laugh. In this way, I place persona in front of Body. I make people see someone else entirely. This, perhaps, is why fat people have been stereotyped as jolly or good-natured, why fat people are expected to smile and tell a joke. What people forget, however, is this is a mask. We deny ourselves true feeling; we belittle our suffering. What people forget is that it takes a lot of energy to wear this mask day in and day out. Yet, at the same time, we live in the darkness because we fear what would happen when we let the light in. We fear what we might discover. Worse yet, what others might discover.

I first grew depressed when I was nine. For more than a decade I searched for happiness—I pursued happiness—in the acceptance of my peers, my family, in achievements. I sought out happiness in the external, which is what most Westerners are trained to do. The very American axiom of the pursuit of happiness inherently infers that happiness is something that must be grasped for; we’ve got to stumble and strive and catch that elusive happiness, as if it were a slippery eel. Therefore, happiness must live outside of the self.

We’re ingrained to believe this, and it becomes a deeply embedded construct. We arrange our lives in such a particular way to prevent chaos and establish really what is an illusion of control over external things and other people.

Amy Monticello touches on this idea so astutely in her essay in Going OM:

I’ve always been conflicted about the pursuit of happiness line in the Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful and ballsy move on the part of the taxed-without-representation colonists. On the other hand, I detect arrogance at the core of Jefferson’s ideal. I’m not well versed on the philosophies of the Enlightenment, so I can only talk about this from a personal and contemporary perspective, and how I believe Western (okay, American) sensibilities about happiness are corrupting, or at least changing, Eastern practices of yoga and meditation now championed in every remotely progressive pocket of the nation.

Here perhaps lies the greatest gift of yoga for Westerners. Millions of Americans who’ve been taught that happiness must be strived for are feeling the incalculable dissatisfaction that comes from this pursuit. Yoga asks you to be content exactly where you are, in the present moment.

To define yoga simply is a challenging, and arguably futile, task. Ask a sample of the 20 million American practitioners and you’ll receive a range of replies: yoga is everything from a spiritual discipline to a good workout, from a path to enlightenment to a path to strong abs.

Like poetry or nature, yoga can be defined in narrow terms but it encompasses a much vaster and more metaphoric understanding. Poetry is versified language. Yoga is union. But that of course doesn’t nearly capture the essence of either art form. Both are so much more; both are beyond definition, beyond semantics, in this way. As Kierkegaard famously said, “If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all of the other things I could possibly be.” And so, to say yoga is one particular thing is to negate its potentiality for being anything else; namely, everything. This is to say that yoga is the ego-driven striving into a posture just as much as it is the devotee in seated meditation; it lacks separation, and we’re always practicing.

Illusion of Separateness

Beneath our busy thoughts and opinions about the world, beneath the poses themselves, we are bone and breath and, ultimately, an ability to love. No matter how different we seem externally, at our essential core everyone is seeking happiness, regardless of how that abstraction is defined or manifested to the individual.

Yoga is often described as union with the divine. Traditionally, in its ultimate experience yoga is an absorption of the ego-identified self with the collective Self. In much the same way, etymologically the word communication stems from the Latin communicare, which is to share, to bring together. I can’t help but notice the heart of the word communication is union. We are an inextricable thread woven into a great fabric that extends from the tiniest particle to the farthest edge of the universe. This is true even in our suffering and even in our delight.

The illusion of separateness is a tough construct to dismantle. Yet the more aware we become, the more holes we poke in the veil, and the deeper we recognize our interconnection. We get glimpses into this woven fabric from time to time, perhaps in meditation, while in nature, through studying yogic philosophy and other religious texts, or while looking into someone else’s eyes. The trappings of isolation, such as our attachment to our ego, begin to slip away, little by little. Maybe this is the greatest lesson we modern yogis can learn from this ancient discipline. Breath by breath, we can realize the truly beautiful idea at the heart of so many traditions: we are not alone.

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Melissa Carroll
Melissa Carroll

Melissa Carroll is a writer, yoga instructor, and professor of creative writing at the University of Tampa. She is the editor of the anthology Going Om: Real-Life Stories on and off the Yoga Mat (foreword by Cheryl Strayed), which has been featured in Publishers Weekly, Yoga Journal, and on Daytime TV and Bay Sunday WKPIX. Every week Melissa guides more than 250 yoga students through various classes, including the largest weekly yoga class in Florida, which is sponsored by the City of Tampa and Yoga Downtown Tampa. She is grateful to be able to do what she loves every single day: to share her joy through words and through the path of yoga. Melissa is the author of the poetry chapbook The Karma Machine, which received the Peter Meinke Award, and her work has appeared in Mantra + Yoga magazine, Creative Loafing, Poetry Quarterly, The Literary Bohemian, New South Review, and many other journals. In 2011 Melissa was the writer-in-residence through The National Parks Service in Arizona; a personal essay about her experience is published in Adventum: Journal of the Outdoors. Melissa is the recipient of the Hirschberg Award for Creative Writing Excellence, The Kite Trick Poetry Award, and the Estelle J. Zbar Grant; she was nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Award in creative nonfiction in 2011 and 2012. As an editor, Melissa currently serves on the board of YellowJacket Press, and has served as an editor for Saw Palm: A Journal of Florida Art & Literature and Sweet: A Literary Confection. Melissa received her Master's in Fine Arts from the University of South Florida and has been teaching the craft of creative writing at the university level for the past six years. For more information, please visit www.MelissaCarrollYoga.com.