Success Story

imageIt’s been a full year since I wrote my last blog post. It was a biggun’ I outed myself, made my vulnerabilities known and gave more insight into my world then I normally would under any other circumstance.

It wasn’t something I did easily, in fact most days I wish I hadn’t. Because while some things changed for the better, I noticed some shifts that I wish weren’t a regular occurrence when people in my life find out I live with a mental illness. In some ways these shifts are subtle but I’ve gotten so accustomed to it happening that it might as well be blatant. The shifts were so loud to me in fact that, despite the many pieces I’ve attempted to write since that piece I’ve been unable to hit the “publish” button for fear of judgement, loss of employment and friendships.

There’s an unspoken expectation in Yoga land that in order to be successful you must be a success story, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of admiration for a yoga teacher who openly struggles with severe mental illness, in fact the overwhelming sense I get is that it would be preferable if I just went away.
I know I wanted to believe at one point that my yoga practice would improve my condition if not dissolve it all together, perhaps that was my own naivety. But with so many positive, grateful, glowing celebrity yoga endorsements I didn’t have access to the dissenting discourse that I’ve had to purposely seek out now. Yoga is at its best as a marketable enterprise when people believe whole heartedly that it will solve their problems, give them superhuman qualities and make them rise above their trifling day to day. No one wants to hear that yoga might give you the ability to see yourself with a little more clarity, especially your “dark parts”. No one wants to hear that if you have a mental illness there may be some elements of yoga practice that could make things worse, not better.
But that’s precisely what happened to me.

I’ve been on and off the mat for nearly 17 years now. I dove into a daily dedicated sadhana which looking back seems more like extremism about 5 years ago. I was meditating, pranayamaing and sometimes asanaing upwards of 4 times a day. But it all felt like I was training to burn through my own psychic knots as I was instructed to do by my teachers, practice and all is coming they would tell me. I believed that no matter what came up if I just kept going it would all be ok.

Until I hit a wall, I’d wanted to run so far from my suicide attempt 5 years ago, I wanted to make up for all the hopelessness and despair I’d given in to. But after 5 years of fervent, dedicated practice what I felt more than anything else was despair, I wanted to end my life now more then ever. The bright side of this story is that I was able to find a few experts who were able to validate what I was experiencing, helping me discover that meditation and some of the other practices that had been prescribed to me were actually not helpful and generally are contraindicated for someone like me.

I’m a “sensitive” soul, in PTSD terms it’s called hyper vigilance. I notice subtle things I can’t help it, it comes from my chaotic and tormented home life in the first 20+ years where abuse, neglect and manipulation were daily occurrences. I’ve been trained to look for anything that could be a threat or an unfavourable response as a self preservation tool. One of the positive aspects of this particular skill is that I have been able to use this skill as a yoga teacher to read my students body language. One of the annoying somewhat heart breaking side effects of this skill is that I can tell when I’m being treated with kid gloves, condescended to, lied to in order to spare my feelings.

When I came out, started revealing my mental health openly as a yoga teacher some of the responses I received were non-verbal and therefore not something I could openly call out as discriminatory. The subtle ways people distanced themselves, the small gradual ways I could feel my employer telling me I no longer fit in, when literally the only thing that had changed was that I had revealed that I live with a severe mental illness.

What I wanted most was to be embraced by my community, supported in my efforts to use the skills I still manage to hang on to in light of such a debilitating condition. But what appeared to happen was that people replaced their very real experiences of me as an individual in their lives with their perceptions of mental illness and allowed the popular narrative to replace the truth of who they knew me to be. It was also apparent that there was an underlying opinion in some that until I was “better” I shouldn’t be putting myself out there as an expert in anything or even a teacher.

What tugged at my heart through all this were these questions: What if this is what better looks like for me? What if this is all I get? What if the success in my story is that I haven’t killed myself? Am I too mentally ill to contribute? Is that really what my peers are telling me? Why does someone have to be completely cured to be a success story, to be worthy of the mantle of teacher?

When I was writing my blog post last year I was expecting to be embraced by the yoga community, especially the community I taught in. I thought my honesty would open doors for a deeper conversation, one that I was literally dying to have. I received a few private messages laced with well meaning platitudes like, God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, everything happens for a reason, and you must have a very special purpose.
What this made me realize is that as a whole we aren’t ready to admit that there are some of us for whom this practice doesn’t work as we’ve understood it. There seems to be a fear of admitting that our personal truth isn’t universal truth. Rejection was what I felt, and it hurt.

It’s been a a tough year, my health has gotten worse. In addition to PTSD I’ve been diagnosed with a chronic pain condition, a condition that notoriously goes hand in hand with complex trauma and DID (multiple personality disorder). The DID diagnosis brought me to my knees because I realized that most of my life, experiences, relationships were all experienced through this lens, I wasn’t really sure which part of me was in control for certain parts of my life and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to ensure that “I” was in control, infact i wasn’t so sure who “I” was anymore.

But what hurt even more, brought me even more sadness was that I felt like there was no room for me in yoga land. I didn’t see how anyone would want to hear my perspectives. I get written off as negative, no one wants me to harsh on their yoga buzz by contradicting the universal truths spouted by so many of Yoga lands glowing luminaries.

I hang on by a thread, daily debating in my mind if it’s too much for me to keep trying to talk about it, teach about it and live with it? Should I just walk away? Or should I stand and fight for my voice to be heard, as a valid and needed contribution?

I hope things get a little easier for me and others who have had similar experiences, I hope we collectively recognize that the able bodied privilege we fight against in yoga culture includes mental privilege and that those of us who choose to stick around in a culture that overwhelmingly rejects us deserve to have a space here too.

24 thoughts on “Success Story

  1. Courage. You’ve got it. 😘
    So saddened to hear the stigma of mental illness remains strong, even within a community that touts acceptance & understanding of ones limitations. You are beautifully broken and I commend you for your honesty.
    I wish you had recieved the warm embrace you so deserved, after putting your most vulnerable parts on display for others to learn from, & perhaps gain a smidgen of understanding or empathy for the struggle you, and so many others face on a daily basis.
    I hope you find comfort in the positive parts of your yoga practice, and let the rest go… Glad you’ve found some support leaving behind that which does not serve you.
    Namaste 😌

  2. Beautiful piece Tiffany. I’ve struggled with rejection from the so called “yoga community” only to realize that there was no such thing, only my own perception of it. After all, the community which rejects us obviously is not our community. I’m blessed with wonderful, sincere students who often become close friends and slowly slowly I can see a community forming around me in Alberta.

    In the Bihar school’s complete book of yoga and tantra I remember reading a line that suggested that if we are not happy 100% of the time, then we have mental problems. I’m pretty sure this means pretty much everyone has mental problems. Hiding this and pretending this in not the case is perhaps a deeper mental problem. The courage to share your difficulties is certainly a success. Your sincerity is success itself.

  3. Hi Tiffany Rose,
    Thank you for sharing your story. As a teacher, I often (not a lot), get students in my class who are trying to self-treat themselves when obviously something deeper going on.
    If a student opens up and is clearly asking for help, what services do you recommend for mental health? What do you tell or suggest to your students?

    Thank you,
    Connie

  4. Wow, that is a gripping story. A bit terrifying. I have suffered with mental health issues and despite all the awareness raising lately, the stigma sticks. You are correct, employers use it against you — still. It is quite sad. Thanks for your courage.

  5. Thanks for this, and for your bravery.
    I wish you great strength, all the peace possible, and that you will find people ready to gather around and support you (like physically, beyond the internet).
    Namaste.

  6. Please fight for your voice to be heard, as a valid and needed contribution! Yoga is not a cure all & but it is helpful. Although not all aspects of the practice were helpful to you, it sounds like some aspects were absolutely helpful. There are others like you. Find your tribe!

  7. Tiffany,,this is such an important blog, thank you for posting it.
    The misconception that “yoga cures all” is rife in the yoga and now general community.
    As teachers and practioners we need to understand that yoga can harm as well as heal. The practices are so powerful, that an inappropriate practice for an individual can do great harm.
    And surely your experiences and self understanding make you even more qualified to teach, to understand what others might be experiencing.
    A brave blog. Let’s hope people listen !

  8. Thank you, thank you for this heart wrenching post. I too suffer from a mental illness and am currently starting my yoga teacher training. It occurred to me the other day that I was giving lip service to modes of “being” I felt I could never reach. It made me feel inadequate and kind of a fraud. Imperfect yogis unite!!

  9. Thank you for your post. I have been struggling with depression for a long time, I don’t really see myself as any kind of success story. I’ve tried different therapists, treatments but nothing has worked for longer than a couple of months. My sister and mother had depression and for them yoga has helped a lot. I also tried it, but I didn’t feel comfortable. Something about it just feels unnatural to me. And my sister and mother keep telling me that I should try harder… What I find difficult is actually seeing people who had depression and got better and thinking what is wrong with me? Why don’t I feel peace doing this? Why don’t I see myself clearly doing this? Am I not trying hard enough? I also feel bad when all I want to do is share but the response is always an attempt to fix it.

  10. Please, please keep speaking your truth! Yogaland needs a wake up call that there are many ways to practice, and NOTHING is one size fits all. Be sure to keep yourself safe, and love don’t push yourself too hard, but please let your voice be heard. There are more people than you know who need your message, including (especially!) those who reject it <3

  11. Oh dear, thanks for writing this! I have the same diagnose Complex PTSD. I found out that too much/daily practice makes me even more vulnerable, even if I think that’s almost not possible. And it would mean that just ‘being’ in this world is becoming a big challenge. I get too sensitive to talk to people, noise is making me feel sick, I just wish I could vanish somehow. It’s not at all the State of bliss you wish for. I think there is a spiritual meaning to it. The difficult experiences made you develop certain skills for your own protection. You could use these Skills to heal others, that’s the purpose of if. But Different to others I have to find my comfort zone with these skills. Because normally I wouldnt realize that I am constantly out of my Comfort zone because of my sensitivity, I feel more the others than myself. I am stepping in the Comfort zone of others to please them and forget about myself. I dont know my Comfort Zone it depends on others! And the symptoms of the illness would mostly show up as soon as you dont respect yourself enough and let others hang on you, use you, Guide you, judge you.. Which happens quickly and unconscious as soon as the energyflow is shared or you touch other’s Aura you become a mirror. So it is a complex condition And I think the best you can do is live with It without searching or waiting for understanding of others. Respect your condition with all consequences, then they will respect it too. Work more on protection shields and your strength will increase.

  12. Hi Tiffany,

    I am working really hard in this as well. Bipolar and a yoga teacher I have tried to make this my main area of interest and even work within the frame of the growing consumer movement and network where you only have your skills and wisdom because of your lived experience. I run a little yoga studio (it’s still young and needs lots of work) called The Mind and Movement Centre, where Mental Health and all the things that are part and parcel of living this life are welcome. I feel every word you write. I honestly appreciate your brave examination of this dark aspect of life and yoga. I know it is a silly to say as we are far away but there is a little community here in Sydney of Mental Health yogi allies where you are always welcome and your words hold deep meaning. I am so much in agreement that the stigma is here in yogaland too and that stigma has no place so we have to shine light on and allow people can see its terrible power.

    Thank you.

    Sarah

  13. Hi Tiffany,
    After reading this post I would like to say please keep teaching and contributing to the yoga community. Your experience with mental illness affords a unique perspective and experiential knowledge of struggle and pain but also coping and healing. I think it’s amazing that in spite of what you go through you can preserve and be present for your students in a class. I wish I could attend one of your classes.
    On a personal note, I struggle with anxiety and am starting a ytt this fall. Many of the questions you asked I have also asked. I have thought many times that yoga culture here is too romanticized for what I want to bring to it. I’ll find out soon.
    Best,
    Pat

  14. Of course we need people like you around, out and proud in the Yoga world, and of course the yoga world will be uneasy! There’s so much bullshit and pretension around, and you are certainly neither of those things! So if ‘yogis’ are supposed to be seekers of truth, then let you tell the Goddamned truth, and they better listen, because things are so much more complex, subtle and varied than any oversimplified platitude could ever encompass. Life is complicated and answers often need to be painstakingly detailed…but instead we continually demand spiritual simplifications. I call these ‘Guru Farts’! X

  15. The parallels I drew with your experience and mine were really strong. I felt such a strong affinity with what you’ve been through. My professional community, psychotherapists, psychologists etc share similar values to those I’ve learned of in yoga practice… non-judgment, acceptance, compassion, a strong belief in growth and healing… and yet when I came out as a multiple, a person with dissociative identity disorder, the responses were encouraging and reassuring at first. Soon afterwards people began to change how they were and those values slipped away with surprising ease. Ironic really as I had been until my disclosure, a practitioner regarded as a valued authority in working with complex trauma and D.I.D. After taking time away from the profession I’m slowly going back in but much the wiser and much stronger, knowing that trust is earned rather than assumed and that should someone judge me, it says more about them than it does about me. Thank you for your courage, openness and generosity in sharing what you’ve written here. I wanted to express solidarity and to thank you for inspiring me.

  16. That was so powerful! Your courage is inspiring. As a student and teacher of yoga I too have faced some of the same. So often I sat in yoga-land feeling shame and unworthy to be in that sacred space because of all my “dark” corners. The more talk of love and light the more unworthy I felt. I pray that by sharing vulnerabilities I can more authentically hold space for others to share theirs. I’m convinced that for every one of us who are brave enough to share there are many who walk away without ever experiencing the benefits of the practice because they didn’t feel worthy. Thank you for sharing your story.

  17. Thank you so much, Tiffany, for continuing to courageously share your experience! I read your post on Robin Williams a month or so ago. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve read – and it helped me to keep going. I don’t have to be perfect to practice yoga. I can do that even when I am down in that hole again out of which I’ve gotten so used to digging myself out (and sometimes wonder if it would be easier to just set up camp down there).

    And now this. Yes, it is a success that you are still writing this! You did not lose the tenacious courage that is keeping you alive and speaking out. Thank you for speaking out and making space for all of us because, yes, we deserve to have a space on the yoga mat, too. Not only that, we deserve to be welcomed and find the space safe, which, it sounds like, is exactly the opposite of what you found. Yes, your voice needs to be heard! Please don’t walk away!

  18. dear Tiffany

    Thank you for your story and perspective. I admire your honesty.

    I’m curious as well and wonder whom your teacher was and what kind of practice you were adviced to follow. In my world you do not give meditation to people with the kind of Challenges you describe! Yoga is a two edged sword: Done right in can in fact make you feel a lot better and done wrong it can make you feel a whole lot worse. And I would never advice meditation and also be very carefull with my choice of Pranayama.

    I hope you can find a good experienced teacher and get more out of your practice

    Kindly Claus

  19. Thanks Tiffany for your writing. While I don’t have a mental illness I have family members who do. My father-in-law was bipolar. My sister-in-law had what was probably undiagnosed (and untreated) borderline disorder. She hanged herself a few months ago. I’m trying to support my brother in the aftermath of that. I’m working on being a listener and accepter and not a fixer or minimizer. It’s hard. Yoga and meditation don’t blunt the harshness of life. But they seem to open up a possibility sometimes of a little more acceptance. Peace – Will

  20. You are a true gift, beacon of light and huge blessing to the world, most especially the world of “yoga land”….from another yoga teacher and student with PTSD, I applaud you and thank you from the bottom of my big heart for sharing the beautiful truth of who you are – a manifestation of the Divine, teaching us about the very real, every day experience, for soooo many of us, living with PTSD or DID and/or all the other mental “illnesses” that arise from living as we do in this world today. Bless you and thank you!! Please keep doing the critical work you do!! LOVE!

  21. Dear Tiffany,

    I googled “yoga suicidal thoughts” and your page came up, the post prior to this one. I read it and read this one, too.

    Thank you for writing these and being open about your struggle.

    I think one possible gift of depression is that we can develop a very critical eye and in that sense can see things others might miss, things that might be labeled “negative” but nevertheless are a step towards the truth. Political things, for example, or psychological things. Things that may not be obvious to most, which is related to what you were saying about high sensitivity.

    Especially in North America, there is a lot of social pressure to seem happy. I’m sorry this means your employer thought you no longer fit in. That sounds like discrimination to me.

    Hasn’t your now-former employer ever heard of the Wounded Healer? A person doesn’t have to be (someone else’s definition of) “well” to help and serve, which is what teaching yoga is about, I think.

    Blessings to you.

  22. Thank you for sharing.
    I’m not part of yoga-land, but, for what it’s worth, I would much rather work with someone who understood that it may not be the ultimate solution, than with someone who doesn’t understand the depths of severe depression.
    If it were at all possible, your yoga class would be the one I would attend.
    Your voice needs to be heard. I am listening.

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