Confronting Mental Health Stigma in Our Spiritual Communities
Last month, after a beautiful dinner with my husband following a challenging week, I received a text message from a dear friend who was away on a yoga retreat. I expected stories of rejuvenation, but instead she expressed sorrow over the sudden loss of her beloved teacher, Michael Stone.
Two years had elapsed since she first introduced his name to me: It was a warm spring day and we were having a conversation over lunch as a way to contain the joy and pain we felt about our ill fathers.
We were speaking of all the ways we sought to balance presence with the piercing fragility of our grief. She had found solace in Michael’s teachings and thought that I would also benefit from them.
I expected stories of rejuvenation, but instead she expressed sorrow over the sudden loss of her beloved teacher, Michael Stone.
I read Michael's essay on grief after my father passed away. His words were a soothing balm that accompanied me and normalized my process.
After reading her text, I opened a link that she sent to me, which contained the official statement detailing the circumstances around Michael’s death. I felt a familiar dull pain in my chest as I read about his victories and struggles in attempting to manage his bipolar disorder, while holding space for so many.
I thought about the people I know who have lost their lives to mental illness. I thought about the conversations about mental illness that rarely happen, and about the feelings of entrapment this can create in people who need treatment. I thought about Michael's wife and the unanswered questions his unborn child will have.
As a yoga instructor/psychotherapist who is married to a senior zen practitioner/meditation teacher/professor, I am quite familiar with the cages spiritual communities can paradoxically create for those of us who seek refuge from suffering in them. The more we penetrate them, the more difficult it can become to show our fragility.
Advanced practitioners and teachers become responsible for others in their community. We carry others’ projections. If we are teachers, we want to hold space for our students, to have appropriate boundaries. We do not want to be a burden. If we are respected in our community and have mental illnesses or addictions, the fear of being discredited or the shame of feeling like frauds can add a suffocating blanket of secrecy.
We practice more. We suffer more.
In our yoga and meditation communities, I have witnessed people’s well-intentioned efforts to help manifest as pressure for people to manage their suffering through spiritual bypass rather than through professional mental health treatment.
I have heard people say things like: "Just practice more and get off your meds, you will feel so much better," or "Depression is completely in your hands—if you meditate properly your mind will quiet down and your afflictions will go away."
Only a few well-known teachers have come out of the stigma cage and openly shared their suffering, such as Ana Forrest, who details her story of trauma and addiction in her book Fierce Medicine with a raw and fierce honesty. Noah Levine has openly discussed his struggles with addiction and created Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist path to recovery which now has meetings throughout the country. Tommy Rosen, the founder of Recovery 2.0, and Nikki Myers, the founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, also come to mind.
In my own effort to make a contribution to this conversation, I created THRIVE, a trauma-informed yoga program. This system weaves together neuroscience, trauma research, attachment theory, and Buddhist teachings. A facet of THRIVE involves training yoga teachers about mental health. Some of the participants have sought treatment afterward, realizing that issues from their past continue to haunt them despite their efforts to control them through their yoga practice.
It is no coincidence that trauma work is a speciality and area of interest of mine and that I found my way to yoga as a life path. I have a history of complex trauma which has allowed me to experience the kind of suffering that my patients and students talk to me about.
I know what it’s like to feel trapped in your fear. I know what it feels like to feel betrayed by your body. I know what it’s like to feel like the emotions will swallow you whole.
My husband says that we are “hurt into practice.” I agree with him.
I believe that our suffering is a catalyst that brings us to practices like yoga and meditation. I believe it is the tenderizing force necessary for the heart to open to the teachings, a gift that can transform our bodies and minds.
I would also say that suffering is a self-destructive force that often manifests as mental illness and addiction.
Stories of suffering and methods to reduce it are of course present in spiritual texts, but suffering cannot necessarily be intellectualized or practiced away. It is alive in our yoga studios. It endangers and takes the lives of our students and our beloved teachers.
Yogas chitta vritti nirodha from Patanjali's Yoga Sutra refers to stilling the mind in order to experience Ultimate Reality. But what if you have bipolar disorder? How do you quiet your mind then? What if you have borderline personality disorder and your friend just walked away from you, leaving you to feel like you are drowning in feelings of abandonment?
What about the hours upon hours that Michael spent on his cushion cultivating steadiness of mind? It may be that his mental illness permitted him no access to them during his last hours on this earth. Or perhaps he could access them, breathing in peace during his last moments. We will never know.
Can we practitioners afford to meditate away the pain that Michael’s loss will leave behind? Or can we create genuine space for conversations about mental illness and addiction within our spiritual communities?
One way we can create this space is by sending the message that seeking professional mental health treatment is not a sign of a deficient spiritual practice. We could prominently display mental health professionals’ business cards in the announcements areas of our studios and meditation centers. We could hold addiction support meetings or commit to having one trauma-informed or hands-on assist free yoga class on the weekly schedule.
One way we can create this space is by sending the message that seeking professional mental health treatment is not a sign of a deficient spiritual practice.
We can create a culture that does not promote yoga as a cure-all panacea, but as a container that teaches us to meet ourselves and our suffering fully.
We can be mindful to not visibly cringe or manipulate a student’s or fellow teacher’s response when they honestly respond “Not good” to our chirpy “How’s it going today?” We can be curious and compassionate rather than prescriptive.
We could integrate a mental health component into teacher training programs. I am encouraged to see that some studios are already moving in this direction. For example, Big Power Yoga in Houston recently asked me to teach an eight-hour “Emotional Anatomy” module in which I introduced yoga teachers to concepts such as trauma, attachment, boundaries, power dynamics, and transference/countertransference (therapy-speak for ways in which students and teachers unconsciously awaken deep-seated issues in one another).
We could awaken to one another and to our own limitations by stating, “I don’t know how to help you, but here is a therapist’s card to help you work through this difficult time.”
I feel profound admiration for Michael’s wife for openly sharing his story with the world, for allowing the pain and truth to be broken open. I believe this is the first step for answering the call, for broadening the scope of the conversation, for truly embodying the interconnectedness that our teachings can gift us.
During a recent meditation retreat with Tenshin Reb Andersen, he suggested that everything “calls” to us, and it only becomes problematic when we do not hear or answer the call. The call of mental illness and addiction is loud in our spiritual communities.
Can we answer?
Can we hold the beauty of Michael’s life and the urgency of this call at the same time?
I believe that we can.
Elizabeth is the originator of THRIVE, a trauma-informed yoga system which weaves together trauma research, yoga philosophy, and Buddhist practices. Elizabeth is a yoga instructor and licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Houston, Texas. She has worked in various inpatient and outpatient mental health settings and created THRIVE as a way to incorporate the therapeutic benefits of yoga into people's healing paths. Elizabeth views yoga as medicine that teaches her embodied presence in a... Read more>>