Two weeks ago, the yoga community was shocked and saddened by the news that the well-loved and very talented teacher of yoga and Buddhism, Michael Stone, died of an overdose related to his bipolar disorder. I never met Michael, though I had begun to dabble in his work. I recently completed one of his online courses, and listened with curiosity as some of my favorite colleagues praised his teachings, shared his recordings and invited me to his gatherings.
His death struck a chord in me, as it did for many in my direct community of yoga teachers and spiritual wayfinders. He was just a few years older than I am, with young kids at home and a baby on the way. He seemed to be at the prime of his life, achieving an impressive level of success in a field where few can make a living. While it is always a tragedy to lose somebody so young, made more tragic by the sheer number of people affected by this loss, there is something particularly haunting about Michael’s passing that must be named:
Yoga did not save him.
Buddhism did not save him.
Knowing how to breathe in a way that would regulate his nervous system did not save him.
This is hard to accept because, you see, yoga did save me once, and it has saved me again and again since. I thought I could count on this. I thought I was looking forward to a lifetime of improved wellness each year as my practice advanced and my wisdom grew.
During my high school and college years I was plagued by depression, and I self-medicated with daily pot use for many years. Every member of my direct family also struggled with mental illness to varying degrees, some were diagnosed “treatment resistant”. My grandparents on my father’s side died at their own hands. Depression was like a dark cloud that I was born into, and it was my impression that it would only get worse as I got older, that it was an inescapable part of my destiny. When I felt the warm glow of my natural optimism and joy, it was always coupled with a nagging fear that the feeling would not last, could not last, and I had no control over it.
When I started going to yoga as a 20-year-old college student, I found incredible relief in the reliable sense of peace that came after every savasana. The consistency of this feeling allowed me to develop trust for the goodness, wholeness and joy that was already in me, and it created a framework for me to understand that I had choices, and my choices impacted my mental health. Yoga put me back in the driver’s seat in my own life, and the last 17 years have been profoundly better than the years that preceded this discovery. Not just that, but it has been more or less an upward trajectory of growth, wellness, wisdom and self-development. Every year truly has been better than the one before it.
Having had this experience, I confess I am one of those annoying yoga evangelists that secretly believes yoga can save everyone, even though I know better. I know that when I tell a severely depressed person yoga can save them, it is much like somebody telling me that a spoonful of local honey each day completely got rid of their seasonal allergies, and maybe that will work for me too! When somebody says this to me, my eyes roll to the very top of my lids and I say (in between sneeze attacks) “Yeah, you don’t have seasonal allergies.”
I met with a client yesterday who has been in pain for the last year. She is getting older, and her pain is impacting her ability to enjoy retirement. As an optimistic yoga evangelist, I was thinking “Yes! I can help her!”. She told me that her chiropractor had warned her that she might never heal, might never get better. I paused for a moment, considering that there might be some wisdom in this, and concluded “That is true. But I feel very confidant that we can make it better for you than it would be without yoga.”
At the end of the day, this is really where I place my faith. I don’t know if yoga will heal or cure anybody’s mental illness, chronic pain, or general malaise that comes from living in a technology saturated culture of isolation and sedentarism. What I do know is that it is very likely to make it better than it would be without some form of mindfulness, wisdom teaching and health-oriented movement. I invest in learning as much as I can about how to deliver yoga in a way that will always leave people better than I found them. I change the way I teach and practice when I learn about yoga injuries, when I hear about trauma triggers, I adapt and I try to always do more good, do less harm.
In the end, I am reminded that my great life is due mostly to my great luck. I am lucky that the mental illness which plagued me was not so far gone that I couldn’t start yoga to begin with. I am lucky that it worked for me. I am lucky that I have had the resources to continue pursuing yoga. I am lucky that I am naturally joyful, optimistic and resilient. I did not earn these things, though I have made choices that reinforced them over time. I am lucky that during the years when I was smoking pot every day I was a white, middle-class young woman living in a liberal college town and thus I did not suffer long-term legal consequences for those choices. I am so, so lucky.
With this, I feel a responsibility to help anyone who has not had my luck to the best of my ability, but I am also aware that I can only be truly present when I let go of my judgements and expectations, when I remember that I can’t possibly know what it’s like to be somebody else, but I can hear them and trust them when they tell me what it’s like. This helping must come from knowing that I can’t save anybody, but I can show them how I saved myself.
Kate Holly is a yoga therapist, artist, founder of Yoga Refuge, and the creator of our teacher training program, Yoga Conservatory. She currently writes for the Yoga Refuge blog and her obscure online memoir, Facebook.