Hot Yoga vs Depression

November 9, 2023
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In 1997 I didn’t want to get out of bed and I couldn’t stop crying or articulate why. I had recently graduated from drama school and was working in a record store while writing and recording my first cd. I had everything going for me and much to look forward to but in the depths of a Christchurch winter where the damp rises up from the deep, everything was enveloped in a grim grey fog including me. My doctor diagnosed me, at 19 with moderate-to-severe clinical depression and prescribed me prozac which I took despite stigmatic disapproval from my family.

Quickly I began to feel numb instead of better, which was worse, so I weaned myself off the medication after a few months, joined a gym and started talk-therapy. I began to examine my life so far and instead of finding a reason I was like this and how to fix me I recalled in my earliest memories those exact same feelings of isolation and melancholy, alluding to the probability I was born this way.

Over the next 9 years I would swing wildly between feeling on top of the world, or the entire weight of it on me. In 2006 after my mother passed away from cancer - I plummeted. My second major depressive episode bred some of my worst life decisions, and this time I required two different kinds of medication to keep me from imagining how easy it would be to steer off the road and into the nothing.

It’s hard to describe depression to someone who has been lucky enough to never have experienced it for themselves. It is a spiral of hopelessness that can permeate every area of your existence like a toxic mould. It’s anger turned inwards, a wound, a scab, then a wound again. It’s a simultaneous desire for connection and isolation. It’s every meme about introverts; the horror of the phone ringing even when you’re lonely, cancelled plans at the last minute, and a constant tug of war between beliefs you are both “too much” and “not enough”.

I became depressed when one guarded it like a dirty secret, a weakness to be hidden. All the best intentions of those around me with their “stay positive” and “cheer up” bumper stickers cut me to the core. I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t understand that I did not choose this - if I could just “snap out of it” I would have done so 1000 times already and having to constantly justify my reality only made things worse! I developed a happy and extroverted personality that hid my truth and I showed up to work every day while silently screaming inside. This is called “high functioning anxiety” and is depression’s co dependent co worker.

Fast forward to 2023 and mental health issues are much more “normalised” than they used to be. We are encouraged to authentically honour our feelings and share them to help forge a path for others. Wellness is an industry, depression and anxiety as common as a cold and sometimes equally untreatable, only manageable, the root cause often hunted seldom slayed. An epidemic of our time, it often just is.

One Wednesday night in June 2012 I decided to attend a bikram class at Hot Yoga Dunedin. Everyone remembers their first and needless to say it was agony and I thought I might die.However when I left the studio after class I immediately felt something resembling better.

“Interesting” I thought, desperate for more. For my first year I practised twice a week and loathed it. Everything about the practice triggered me, especially the mirrors. All I saw at the beginning was “not good enough” and constantly I’d question why I was putting myself through this torture when I already felt terrible, but quickly followed the realisation that for 2 days after I practised I felt stronger, calmer, more in control of my emotions, and just generally better overall. Within a few months I started to meet my own eyes in the mirror for long enough to see a light flickering back on. With small but steady improvements I began to appreciate what my body could do rather than criticise how it looked.

I loved the ritualism of the practice, doing the same thing in the same order until it was done, and I imagined myself in every class like a snake shedding its old skin and revealing a shiny new one. Having spent most of my life in Dunedin where we barely see the sun for several months a year and many of us suffer from seasonal affective disorder, 90 minutes of tropical heat was a bonus too. I guess the rest is history - I started practising more, then I went to Teacher Training, my main motivator being that I passionately wanted to share this magical healing practice with others who felt broken, sick or sad.

Sometimes life, kids, work and my own teaching schedule can get in the way of practising as often as I would like, and sometimes I still arrive on my mat like a petulant child who feels punished. But I always leave each class feeling better than when I arrived. For me, practising a minimum of twice a week is imperative to my depression staying in remission. And it makes mea nicer person to myself and others - just ask my kids, who will sometimes tell me to “please go to yoga”.

26 years since my diagnosis I now have a whole kit of tools and strategies to help get me through the tough times, but hand on heart my hot yoga practice is at the top of that list and the thing I credit as being the most life-changing for my mental health.


Further reading

Hot yoga can help beat depression, trial finds

Hot yoga potent antidepressant in study