by Charlotte Bell
In the past few days, an article by a yoga teacher named Hemalayaa has been making the Facebook rounds. The author of the article expresses shock and disappointment at the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications by yoga teachers who, she opines, are just taking a “happy pill” rather than doing the hard work of dealing with their issues. She then offers suggestions as to how to get yourself over the hump of depression, such as practicing yoga, taking baths, dancing around your space, and going outside and breathing in the light.
As you might expect, Hemalayaa’s blog has been met with all kinds of vitriol. While I don’t believe mean-spirited comments are at all helpful, I do agree that the blogger oversteps her authority in dangerous ways. I don’t know Hemalayaa’s experience level as a yoga teacher, but I suspect she has not been trained in psychotherapy. Otherwise she would be aware that chemical depression is a life-threatening illness. Breathing in the light does little for someone who’s struggling just to get out of bed. While I tend to agree that antidepressants are overprescribed, there are many people—including people I respect and care about—whose lives have been saved or at the very least, made bearable by them. I respect their choices and am glad that these tools are available.
But the point of this blog is not to join the chorus of critics. It is, instead, to point to a larger issue in Western yoga culture. It is the idea that Western medicine has no place in the life of a true yogi or yogini. If your diet and your yoga practice are good enough, you won’t need to resort to pharmaceuticals, right?
My Judgmental Past
I’ll begin by admitting that I’ve been guilty of this misguided philosophy in the past. In addition to practicing yoga since 1982, I worked in the supplements department of New Frontiers Natural Market for five years when they operated stores in Salt Lake City. As a vegetarian since 1978, I’ve been interested in maintaining vitality through eating healthy foods and using natural means to deal with illnesses when they arise. I’ve read everything I could about natural nutrition—and still do. I’ve experimented with lots of foods and supplements in order to keep my system healthy and vital, and it has paid off. I’m comforted to know that I have the knowledge to take care of most imbalances that arise.
In the past I looked askance at people who resorted to pharmaceuticals to deal with physical imbalances. When someone told me they were starting some sort of Western treatment for a condition of imbalance, I offered what I felt to be helpful alternatives.
Then about five years ago, I found out, almost by accident, that my blood pressure was off the charts. My mother took blood pressure meds from her early 40s until she died. My dad passed from a heart attack at age 63 due to his unusually small arteries (which I may have inherited).
Despite my genetic predisposition, I proclaimed to my partner that I would not go on Western blood pressure meds to fix it. I doubled down on acupuncture, yoga, meditation, herbs and supplements. Nothing helped. I went to a naturopathic doctor who is also trained in Western methods. After a few visits he said, “You already do all the things I’d suggest first: You don’t smoke or drink alcohol; you practice yoga and meditation; you eat healthy, organic food; you exercise. You need medication.”
By then I was alarmed enough by my elevated blood pressure that I took his advice. With a minimum amount of daily medication, my blood pressure has been stable since then.
Think of the Pills as Magic
Still, there was the shame. My own belief, and that of the larger yoga culture, was that my practice must not be strong enough or committed enough. I wrote to my friend and teacher Judith Hanson Lasater because I always appreciate her perspective. Her words were perfect: “Think of the pills as magic, because they are.” She was right.
The average human life span in the past was much shorter than it is now, and part of the reason is we didn’t have access to these minimally invasive medications to help control common issues. My dad’s father died of a heart attack in his mid-50s, probably because he didn’t have access to medications and procedures that could have given him a longer life. I never got to meet him.
During the course of trying to balance my blood pressure, many well-meaning friends gave me helpful advice, hoping to help me stay off the dreaded pharmaceuticals. While I appreciate their caring and generosity, and know they intended only to be helpful, their advice fueled my shame and embarrassment at having “failed” to take care of the problem with natural means. I had tried everything else; I truly needed pharmaceutical assistance. I remembered all the times I had given similar advice to others. I no longer offer unsolicited suggestions, but when asked, I do refer people to the many capable therapists and providers I know. And I feel comfortable answering questions about yoga and meditation practice.
I now believe that yoga and Western medicine do not have to be at odds. The intention is the same for both: wellness. The methods are different, but both aim to balance what is out of balance in our bodies and minds. I still keep up on the latest information on natural remedies, and I always use natural means as my first defense against common conditions. But there are some things that need Western intervention, and we are fortunate to live in a time when these methods are available.
We all come into the world with different genetics. Every one of us will encounter illness in our lifetimes. It is up to each of us to decide the remedy that is best for us in each instance. Rather than using yoga as a bludgeon to shame those who need Western intervention, can we use yoga to be open and supportive of everyone’s path, even if it doesn’t look like ours?
Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.