musings

Small Changes: What I Learned from a Month of Yoga Practice

It happens every year between the end of October and the end of March: the lack of sunlight and natural Vitamin D production leaves me vulnerable to depression. It’s not a matter of being dissatisfied with my life; right now, I’m happier and more comfortable in my life than I ever have been, and yet depression strikes the same way. Some call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Winter Blues, or, as my dad referred to it yesterday, The Dark Season.

Nine years ago, I came home after school every day and holed up in my room, listening to sad music and crying over my homework. Finally, I gathered the courage to talk to my parents, and I began taking anti-depressants prescribed by the family physician and seeing a therapist. I’ve been in and out of therapy ever since, although I stopped taking anti-depressants two and a half years ago. Each fall, when depression would creep back into my life, I would seek therapy again, first in my hometown, then in Philadelphia, then in New York. Each therapist had a different approach, but each one left me with a lot of wisdom, coping skills I’ve carried forward over the years. But this year, I’m unemployed (and uninsured), so seeking out a therapist isn’t an option. This year, I had to do it myself, so I turned to everything I’ve learned so far.

Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t enough.

Around the middle of December, I decided to try making the one life change I’ve never successfully accomplished: a workout routine. I’m a naturally lazy person (read: Taurus) and I’m also highly self-conscious, so joining a gym wasn’t a great option for me. My only option in the depth of winter: watching yoga videos on YouTube.

At first, I’ll admit, I couldn’t take myself seriously. I felt very self-conscious alone in my bedroom in my pajamas sitting on the floor trying to get in touch with myself. I resisted yoga for a long time, afraid I would turn into that clichéd white girl, contorting herself into odd positions and chanting and what-not. And then, call it serendipity, I discovered Yoga With Adriene.

Finding Adriene’s channel was a lot like finding a good therapist: someone you just vibe with, someone who says the things you need to hear and encourages you to push yourself just enough to feel the changes happening. Adriene is honest and laidback, and she doesn’t take herself too seriously, sometimes inviting her dog onset and often making cheesy pop culture jokes that always make me crack a smile. By the end of December, I’d decided to do something I’d never done before: a 31-day workout plan, Yoga Revolution.

I didn’t think I would make it to Day 31 as a total yoga noob, but guess what? Here I am. I’ve kept a journal for the month, partially as my own brand of depression therapy, but also because I wanted to see how this month would change me. Below, a few things I learned from this practice. Some come directly from Adriene herself, from her videos and from the beautiful daily e-mails this month. Others were conclusions the day’s practice allowed me to find for myself.

Even when I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, there is a “good space” inside of me, if I can only let go of everything else and seek it.

This is a big one. Right before I started yoga, I was struggling with the realization that no matter how content and even happy I am, I will always be vulnerable to depression; it’s in my body and in my head, like a monster that feeds on my worst thoughts and multiplies them. On Day 1, I realized that I have a good space inside me too, even when it doesn’t seem like it. I can cultivate that space, tap into it and let it take over. Just as I may always experience depression at times in my life, I can’t ever lose that good space within me either. It’s always there, no matter how hidden.

It’s okay to have a bad day. It’s okay to run out of “spoons” early in the day and want to curl into yourself. Honor that.

This seems really basic, but to someone at the mercy of their worst thoughts, this is nothing short of revolutionary. One of the best parts of Yoga Revolution was Adriene’s constant reminder to “honor where you’re at today.” We can’t all have great days where we feel at peace and on fire in our bodies, but it’s okay to have days where the most you can do is show up and try to listen to yourself. Depression can be exhausting, and it also feeds you with this idea that you are weak for succumbing to it—which isn’t helped by the societal stigma that says Depression is a choice. The act of accepting your bad days along with your good days—that’s revolutionary.

I don’t have to be anyone but myself.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to please other people, and I’m still struggling with this. I spent half of my life ignoring my body, allowing it to be invisible. My body is used to being told that it’s not enough: not sexy enough and not strong enough to fight for itself. I resisted yoga for a long time because I’m not naturally flexible, and my body doesn’t “look right” in the poses. Adriene constantly reminded me that yoga is about the practice, the journey, and not making picture-perfect poses. Accepting my body on the mat has helped me accept the ways the rest of my life’s journey doesn’t look like everyone else’s. Now I’m working to abandon the imaginary need to live up to anyone’s expectations but my own.

Self-Love is not an achievement—it’s something I have to fight for every single day.

This was around Day 8, Serenity Practice. I started crying in Child’s Pose (actually, I frequently cry in Child’s Pose). I pressed my forehead to the mat and I thought about self-love. I thought I had achieved it, but somehow I lost it—I felt like I’d failed at self-love. Then I thought about all the points in my life when I have loved myself, when I’ve been proud of my achievements and felt good in my own skin. Maybe, I realized, self-love is not a location, an achievement, but a goal. Maybe when you love yourself that love changes as you changed. Maybe you have to keep falling back in love with yourself every day. Maybe you have to fight for your self-love even when it seems the whole world is against you. Maybe I’m not failing at self-love—because the act of even trying to love yourself is pretty revolutionary in a world that calls that “selfish” (particularly if you’re in a female body).

Maybe I’m just a small sapling in a huge forest, but I will keep growing. My leaves will fall each year, but they will grow back in the spring.

Bear with me: I know this sounds cheesy. It’s something that I repeat to myself. As a writer, there will always be a part of me that wants recognition for my words, if not full-on fame. I have to let go of that desire, though. I have to accept that I am a small being in a huge world, and accept that it’s okay. As cheesy as it is, I like to picture myself as this small sapling, growing by tiny increments year after year, shedding its leaves and growing them back again. Does a tree begrudge itself for not being the most famous tree? Nope. Does a tree stop standing tall when it sheds its leaves each year? Nope again. Again, I don’t have to be anyone but myself.

I have a right to be here. I am deserving of love.

This is particularly hard to recognize when you’re raised female in a male-dominated society. Girls are raised to take up as little space as possible. Those of us who do take up space, who do speak loudly and firmly, who are open and honest in themselves, are vilified, told to shut up. Women in this society don’t receive love, we earn it according to society’s beauty scale. If you’re an individual struggling with depression, it’s even harder to believe that you’re deserving of the life you’re given. And, I hate to say it, if you’re a person who’s grown up “privileged” (white, upper-middle class, educated, cis-het, etc.) and you spend any time on the liberal side of the internet, you may start to wonder if your privilege renders you silent. It takes guts to say “I am who I am, and I have a right to exist, to speak.”

I am stronger than I can even imagine.

I cried for the last 10 minutes of Day 31. I cried because 31 days ago I never would’ve imagined I could accomplish this. I cried because I didn’t give up, even when I wanted to. Spending time for myself every day has allowed me to look at myself clearly and see just how far I’ve come. Where a month ago, I looked at a difficult pose and said, “No way, I can’t do that,” today I look at a challenging pose and say “I’m going to try and if I fall that’s okay too.” I haven’t lost 10lbs or gotten ripped, but the small changes on the outside reflect the big changes on the inside. Those are the changes that get carried forward, because my heart’s journey is far from over.

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12 thoughts on “Small Changes: What I Learned from a Month of Yoga Practice”

  1. Came across this on Twitter, and it was great to read your essay! I’ve also been doing yoga with Adriene (just finished 30 days!) and a lot of what you wrote resonated with me. The most amazing, unexpected thing is that the physical changes have come with mental changes, too. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad to know that others felt the same way. One of the best parts of the Yoga Revolution with Adriene is the feeling that you’re not alone, that across the world there are others going through it with you. Wishing you all the best!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I’m on day 10, trying to do them as often as my “dark season” (love that!) can get me there. I’ve just moved to a new country, and feel so dark and alone. I love your idea of good space. Gonna find me some good space today. Namaste.

    1. You’re not alone! If there’s anything January showed me, it’s that there are so many of us dealing with seasonal depression out there. It sucks, but we’re not alone in that feeling. Feel free to reach out to me if you ever need someone to talk to – and good luck!

  3. I must say, as someone who also suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, I loved you tree analogy. Although I’m doing not so bad this winter and have avoided depression, it really resonates with me and touched me in a deep way. And I don’t think it sounds cheesy at all.

    I wish you joy through your writing and yoga practice, you seem on the right path.

    I myself have just completed day 8 of Yoga Revolution, can’t wait to see where this journey will bring me!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. You don’t know how nice it is to hear that I’m not alone, and that my words have resonated with other people. That’s really all I could ask for. I wish you all the joy in your journey!

  4. Thank you! I also just completed the 31 day revolution after experiencing everything you’ve been through. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Such an amazing journey. Sending much love!

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