My mother, a neurotypical, swears by her weekly yin yoga classes to preserve her sanity. She drives to the yoga studio, a cute remodeled two-story home on a sweet little side-street downtown, and climbs a flight of stairs to an airy room with large wood-paneled floors and flow-y white curtains that Stevie Nicks would alter into a dress during the Belladonna era. She comes home weekly smiling, claiming she feels like she “just got a massage—so relaxed!”
After months of constant “Try Yoga” propaganda from my mother and my brother (another neurotypical who is a proponent of daily meditation), I acquiesced and joined my mother for an hour long yoga class.
I arrived, sat down in a circle with a bunch of white people who chanted words in a language I was willing to bet they could not identify, and realized–I am having a panic attack at yoga.
Attending yoga felt like going to the dentist. I stared up at the blank white ceiling, unsure of what to do with my eyes (I become anxious when I close them in public), and I imagined the ceiling cracking from the ceiling, falling on me, thus killing me. A man with a bun strolled around the circle, playing a cover of an Ed Sheeran song on an acoustic guitar. I fantasized about an unfortunate, untimely death throughout the class.
I couldn’t do some of the moves. Uncoordinated and in a panic, I squinted at the teacher in the middle of the circle, moving gracefully, and too quickly for me to imitate. I knew that the poses would be difficult for me—it was my first class after all—but once the teacher came up to me and touched me without permission (a total of three times), I realized once and for all that maybe yoga wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the state of my body, my fat legs, my unshaved armpits. I couldn’t close my eyes. The teacher put an aromatherapy sack of some bead-shaped foam on my eyes. Claustrophobic, I fantasized about my death again.
I struggle with a multitude of mental illnesses, including but not limited to bipolar disorder ii, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes I feel like I am the personification of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I have gone to therapy for over half a decade with three separate therapists, tried EMDR therapy for my phobias and anxiety, tried SSRIs and mood-stabilizers and beta-blockers and benzodiazepines, received treatment from a specialized hospital for eating disorders (where I experienced a gross level of misogyny and stigma in the professional medical field firsthand)–and I am still mentally ill.
I don’t expect to be cured. Like any chronic illness, it’s about management and coping.
Professional mental health treatment feels like a shot in the dark. The patient—basically a guinea pig—tries nearly any method suggested by their medical professional to feel better, frequently resulting in the patient feeling disappointed and exhausted from the lengthy trial-and-error process. The management of any chronic illness is a long journey. It is difficult to feel better. Sometimes I wake up and I’m not in the mood to interact with other people or even go outside—let alone go to a yoga class (where I’m touched without consent and forced to close my eyes and feel insecure about my body, its shape, and its movements).
The problem does not lie in the suggestion of yoga itself. It lies in the way that yoga, meditation, and other zen-like activities are suggested by neurotypicals who do not acknowledge other options for people who struggle with mental health, like therapy or psychiatry. These forms of mental illness management are rarely suggested by people who do not personally experience mental illnesses themselves.
Why don’t neurotypicals recommend therapy or psychiatry, but recommend yoga, mediation, exercise, fermented foods, taking allergy tests, cutting out gluten, cutting out diary, cutting out red meat, etc., etc.? Why don’t we talk about receiving professional help for mental illness?
When someone suggests yoga, meditation, changing diet, etc., it reduces the mental illness into a brief mood of sadness, a fleeting feeling of worry, a moment of insecurity. My mental illnesses are more than just feeling “unhappy” or “worried” or “insecure.” They’re overwhelming, chronic, systemic states of being—often with mental, emotional, and physical symptoms—that make me feel like I’m actually dying. Chest tightening, shortness of breath, heaviness of limbs, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, muscle tension and discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite—these symptoms have to be managed, and it takes much more than yoga classes to do so.
Maybe we’re talking about yoga because we’re uncomfortable talking about mental health. But our discomfort is destructive. Because we’re not talking about professional help and/or medical help, many people feel ashamed to receive it or even ask for it. Some people don’t even know their options, as so many healthcare programs in the United States do not cover therapy, psychiatry, etc.
This past winter, I looked for months to find a program to get into for my eating disorder. I looked throughout the entire Bay Area (an extremely populated and relatively wealthy area) for outpatient programs, medical specialists, nutritionists, specialized therapists, and specialized psychiatrists. Programs were either not covered by insurance, or there were waitlists, or I had to travel over an hour to get to the program. Eventually, I gave up, and a few weeks after giving up on the search, my heart rate hit a dangerously low level that required medical monitoring, which opened the door for me to receive help.
But does it have to get to a life-threatening level before help becomes accessible?
Neurotypicals—if you want to be an ally and a mental health advocate, stop talking about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. As positive as your intentions are, it’s more than yoga. Start talking about professional and medical help, accessibility, affordability, and better healthcare. Start having conversations that make some people uncomfortable. Vote for government officials that support more comprehensive, more affordable, and more accessible healthcare that encompasses mental health. It’s more than yoga. Start advocating.