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How I'm Rebuilding My Yoga and Meditation Practices While Struggling With Depression

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Meditation and yoga are used as treatments for depression. Thousands of people swear by their healing powers. But when you’re dealing with depression or other mental illness, they can seem impossible and terrifying.

Personally, I love yoga and meditation. I’m a certified yoga instructor and I’ve intensively meditated an hour a day for several years. But lately, I haven’t meditated at all. I’ve been struggling with depression, which I’ve struggled with before, but it’s affecting me differently this time. This time, meditation isn’t a refuge or a place to learn. This time, meditation is terrifying, a world I can’t force myself into.

When I was meditating an hour every day, I truly believed that the only reason people couldn’t meditate is because they weren’t trying hard enough. Friends would tell me how they’re doing two minute headspace meditations, and I would explain that of course it wasn’t working like you hoped, it was only two minutes. Which makes sense. But especially when you’re struggling with depression, meditating and becoming more aware of your body and thoughts can be terrifying. However, the way you approach meditation and yoga can make a big difference in your ability to do it.

Here are some of the ways I’m rebuilding my meditation and yoga practices:

1. Removing expectations for myself.

My yoga or meditation won’t look like it did before. And that’s OK. The way I feel, the way I think, the way I move might not be the same, and that’s OK too.

2. Removing expectations for the practice.

Many people use yoga and meditation to manage their depression, which is awesome. But that doesn’t work for everyone. And I don’t think it’s helpful to put the pressure on your meditation or yoga practice that it will heal your depression.

Sometimes yoga and meditation aren’t helpful. Or maybe they don’t help your depression, but they’re a way you connect with others or a way you move your body. They can be worth doing even if they don’t “cure” you. I try to leave behind expectations of any effects of the practice, and instead experience doing it.

3. Letting myself take a break.

For a few years, I was adamant about my daily practice. Occasionally I would miss a day, but most days I would practice. But yoga and meditation aren’t always helpful. Sometimes it’s useful to force yourself to continue a habit, and sometimes it isn’t. I’m choosing to let myself take a break so when I return to these practices it isn’t something I forced myself to do.

4. Slowing down in other parts of my life.

When I’m overwhelmed in my life, I often try to ignore my thoughts and just deal with what’s in front of me. I listen to music or podcasts whenever I’m doing something mindless so I don’t think or feel things. I read books or watch TV while I eat, careful to not be alone with my thoughts. Both of those practices are the opposite of mindfulness. So before I try to meditate sitting still for an hour, I’m trying to be more mindful in my daily life. I’m not listening to music as I do the dishes, I’m focusing on doing the dishes or I let my mind wander.

When I run, I don’t listen to podcasts or music, I focus on how my body feels. In many forms of Buddhism, daily life is a meditation in itself. In Zen Buddhism, you do two things: “you sit, and you tend the garden.” The act of being fully present in anything you’re doing is its own practice, and it can be easier than trying to set aside specific time for meditation.

5. Taking it slow.

Now that I’ve been practicing mindfulness in other parts of my daily life, I’m returning to yoga and meditation. Instead of just sitting in meditation for an hour, I’m doing it gradually. I’ll start with 15 minutes at a time, and I’ll listen to a meditation recording. Recordings can be especially helpful to keep your mind focused on meditation, and can help you from getting lost in your thoughts.

6. Practicing in community.

Like most habits, meditation and yoga are easiest to keep doing when they’re done with others. Finding a local (or online) yoga class or meditation group can make it much easier to stay with the practice. Many meditation groups also have discussions about common challenges with meditation, which can help you address some of these obstacles.

I hope some of these practices help you with returning to yoga or meditation, or other things in your life. Removing expectations, slowing down and building community are central themes in many yoga and Buddhist teachings, and they can also help you build your own practice.  Do you have suggestions you would add to this list?

Getty image by Olha Khorimarko

Originally published: September 9, 2021
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