Pic of me practicing Sirsasana with my mosquito cream in the foreground. I am doing well and it's been a good experience, minus the mosquitos.
Any type of meaningful growth is difficult. There will be periods of distress, unquenched doubt, and authentic struggle. There will be suffering. Because suffering is not accepting what is real. And when we try to sweep the challenges of growth under the proverbial rug, we deny the natural forces of creation working inside of us. We suffer because we don’t want to accept that these urges are real, because we are scared to let go of the known to make space for the unknown.
I wanted to pack it all up and get the hell out of here. I was sick for three days last week and wasn’t able to keep down any food or drink so I was dehydrated and had no energy. One day I couldn't get through half of a class. I sat there in pain. Hips aching, hamstrings sore as hell, ankles on fire from hellish mosquitoes, and ego a bit bruised from being the only one of eighty students in class who wasn’t still doing asanas.
The downward spiral began as I sat in the atrium of the shala a few mornings after. Why am I here? This same shit everyday is boring. I don’t even like most of the people here - just from looking at them. I’m not like them. I don’t want to be a weird yoga teacher anyway. I can’t even do half of the Primary Series yet, and don’t even know the names of all the asanas. This is not worth it. I’m just here because of the brand name. I don’t even like yoga that much. Why did I come here? This is pointless. I came all the way here and now I’m gonna go back home and do nothing with yoga. I’m going to have to face all the people that supported me on this trip and show them I’m a failure. I feel nauseous because I’m thinking too much. I’m just a lemming that is being indoctrinated into some old religious beliefs. It’s all bullshit. All these yoga nerds are just lemmings living dull lives. Why did I come here? There’s no meaning to be found. Life is pointless. I squandered a great education that my parents paid a lot of money for. I’ve left great jobs. I came to the most famous place in the world for yoga and I don’t even want to be here. Last week I was dead set on opening a yoga school when I get back to New York, now I could care less if I ever do another asana in my life. I do not want to be here. This place sucks - Earth in general, India specifically. These fucking mosquitoes - it’s like they they’re shooting petroleum into my veins.
Sleeping became more difficult. Anxiety increased. Productive energies decreased. Depression started to creep in. This is the cycle. The dark clouds of negativity and apathy began to overshadow the initial sun-kissed excitement of the trip. I’m wasting money and time here. I’m not learning anything. I don’t want to be here. I’m a failure in life. All my friends are ahead of me in life. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get back home. This trip was a bad idea. I don’t want to go to practice tomorrow. I don’t care about yoga. I don’t even like teaching. I don’t want to do this anymore. I always quit things. Everyone else here is better than me.
The jacket of depression is restrictive, buttoned and zipped tightly over the psyche. It blocks light from shining in, but more tragically it prevents any light from shining out. With time the depression manifests physically. A release is needed. I made a short video to show myself the face of depression. Tears flow without remorse. There is no rationale. The seeds of tears are beyond the rational mind. I know I'm a good person. I know I'm smart, and capable, and well-liked. I know I'm learning things here. The depression doesn't know these things, and sometimes depression wins for a short period of time.
Yoga is a practice of growth. There will be suffering.
The Rohingya are a brutally oppressed minority group in Myanmar who have reportedly been the target of ethnic cleansing by the government and its military. I recently heard informal estimates from a friend that about 2 million Rohingya people are living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. As is customary in such camps, medical supplies are scarce, the prevalence of rape is high, and the challenges only grow as more refugees arrive. But the human spirit remains alive. Markets are developed, goods and services are exchanged, schools and health clinics are built, and children smile and play throughout the camp. As four walls and a roof make a house, but not a home, so too do external circumstances frame a person, but not a soul.
Living as an oppressed group under tyranny and the threat of constant violence is suffering. Living without enough food and clean water in a refugee camp is suffering. Smiling, laughing and playing soccer with your friends in a refugee camp is not suffering. Would I change places with a 7-year old Rohingya boy doing just that in a camp in Bangladesh? No. Have there been times in my life when I would change psyches with him? Yes. Because life is lived within our minds, our own fields of perception. Happiness, struggle, fulfillment, and suffering are as unique to me as they are to the Rohingya refugee.
Yes, suffering is relative. Yes, the suffering of Rohingya refugees is more intense than mine. But disregarding our own suffering because there is greater suffering in the world is not always noble, it’s often a defense mechanism. So is judging others for their expression of their suffering. A core teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is that we have the right to our actions, but never to the fruit of our actions. This is powerful. It’s a mindset. Each and every one of us has the right to self-expression and to live our lives the way we see fit, but we don’t have the right to the agreement, acknowledgement, praise, or anything else of others.
This is why expression of suffering is not victimhood, but demanding that people cater to your suffering is. Victimhood is tragic. It’s helpless, hopeless, and detrimental to all around. It demands others provide for you, sacrifice for you, and acquiesce to you. It’s a mindset that is powerful enough to corrode not only individuals but large-scale societies. But expression of suffering without expectations for the actions of others is the opposite of victimhood, it’s empowerment. Expression of suffering is self-preservation, a form of self-reliance. It releases the darkness so that one may move forward with light. It is the action, with no attachment to the fruits of the action.
I’m lucky. I’ve always had support from family and friends to help me through life. My biggest obstacle has always been myself, which for many of us, if we’re being very honest with ourselves, is probably the case. It’s easy to blame our anxieties, frustrations, sadness and suffering on external circumstances, when in reality, if we took some time for honest reflection, we might see where we ourselves are coming up short in our efforts to overcome our suffering and reach our fullest potential.
I took my first yoga class on this day four years ago, February 14, 2014. It’s been quite the journey so far, and perhaps my biggest lesson from the practice came just a few days ago. As I sat within the vortex of depression, the teachings of the yoga embedded in my sub-conscious began to bubble up.
- Speak the truth - just expressing your emotions and releasing them is therapeutic. This is the reason for the video.
- Meditate - this calms the mind.
- We are more than our minds - It is the nature of the mind to ramble and spiral. Becoming aware of our thoughts helps us realize we can control them, and not have them control us.
- Suffering is denying reality - all suffering is legitimate, even in a world where there is suffering at greater degrees than yours.
The depression lasted a few hours or so, whereas in years past I may have found ways to distract myself from the thoughts and emotions only to bury them deeper in the psyche. Yoga is not a cure for life, it is a toolbox for living. It provides physical, mental, and spiritual teachings that we can call upon to help navigate our existence. It’s goal is to promote a more aware and joyful experience of life, one in which practitioners can overcome suffering and reach their highest potential.
We live in a social media culture obsessed with pleasure and happiness, where the second most important virtue is to “live your best life” and the most important virtue is to post images of ourselves doing just that. We should all strive to live our best lives, no doubt. But we must not forget that what that truly entails: effort, struggle and some amount of suffering. This is a truth that can’t be denied. Because only when we struggle through suffering and emerge stronger because of it do we begin to understand fulfillment.
End Note: Just providing assurance to anyone that reads this that I’m feeling good and all is well. No need to respond, but of course you are welcome to.