A similar version of this was submitted to the Bikram Yoga College of India website earlier this evening. www.bikramyoga.com/
How It Began
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 23. I began the Bikram practice at the age of 29, 11 years ago. I was overweight, isolated and living months at a time with depression that kept me in bed for most hours of most days every winter.
I began practicing Bikram Yoga and knew immediately that this practice would be good for me, if not just socially and for weight management but also for my circulation (I have had lymphedema since the age of 12) and for the relief of anxiety, hypo-mania and depression, all symptoms of bipolar disorder. I was fat, swollen, depressed, miserably sad, misunderstood and lonely. I was also grieving the death of my beloved older sister, D’Arcy two years earlier. She, too, had bipolar disorder. She went untreated and died a drug addict.
I have used Bikram Yoga successfully to manipulate and to help manage my bipolar mood changes. I have minimized my hypo-manic, anxious and depressive symptoms since beginning the practice in 2002 and have been without any extraordinarily unusual moods since 2005 (with the exception of once, after a break-up. I admit that I was angry and heartbroken. I did some things that I should not have done. At least I didn’t set his bed on fire like my not-bipolar friend did when her boyfriend cheated on her! Yikes! ).
Yoga disrupted the cyclical and predictable mood changes that I had struggled with for years, leaving a smoother, more reliable energy level from which I could draw in order to live well, while still, more easily and more quietly, privately “entertaining” a mental illness.
How It Works
This practice regulates the rhythm of my days, my metabolism, my sleep/wake cycle, my appetite, my outlook, my confidence, my socializing, my feeling of connectedness to self and to others, and my weight fluctuations.
The practice of twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises in a room heated to 105′ ultimately relaxes me by lowering my heart rate, increasing my blood-oxygen level, synchronizing my respiratory, endocrine and nervous systems and realigning my musculo-skeletal system. It is detoxifying and purifying. The practice enforces self-confidence by practicing in the mirror for the entire ninety minutes. (“Look into the eyes of your own best teacher.”)
The practice provides an opportunity to cultivate the discipline and energy that it takes to manage a chronic and persistent mental illness.
The practice can help one cultivate a deeper awareness of oneself for the better management of both gross and subtle mood changes, with or without the diagnosis. It has done that for me.
It produces, in the end, over-all feelings of contentment, known as santosha in Sanskrit.
What Happened As A Result of My Daily Yoga Practice
Today, I am an Ananda Yoga and Meditation Instructor, in the same lineage as Bikram Yoga. I am also a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, Bishnu Ghosh’s brother (who was Bikram’s teacher). I continue to use the therapeutic, Yogic tools that I have learned for mood management on myself and I teach these to others now – with great success!
By the regular practice of Bikram Yoga, people living with bipolar disorder can practice self-discipline, self-study, and devotion (tapasya, swadhyaya and ishwara pranidana in Sanskrit, respectively), just by showing up, all of which are helpful and applicable conducts of behavior that apply to everyone… but that are especially therapeutic for a disorder of mood inconsistency. These tenets of Yogic philosophy have been especially important in my personal recovery.
Yoga is like a miracle. I can’t believe that there aren’t any other testimonials about Bikram Yoga as mood management for bipolar disorder. Hopefully there will be more, soon! (We are a shy and stigmatized, self-protective bunch, by necessity. Bipolar is commonly misunderstood and can be scary. It can be dangerous and it can be deadly.)
Conventional Therapies and Clarity
Medication was the only treatment plan for me at diagnosis. I was irresponsibly over-medicated at onset. I gained 50 pounds, my hair fell out, I was like a zombie. I had to drop out of school for 6 months, though I was expected to (and did) graduate from college. I went off of medication after one year. I was horrified by the results.
I resumed medication in 2005: Three years of a daily, 90-minute Yoga practice gave me the clarity to understand that my brain needed something to steady the shifting tides, something that my will alone could not provide, and I recognized that I was working as hard as I possibly could at this hot, sweaty, crazy Yoga thing – that definitely helped steady my moods, more than anything else that I had ever tried – but it didn’t help all the way. I was no longer willing to spend my energy controlling – or trying to control – all of my brain’s activities on my own. The illness was just too in-born for me to completely manage on my own. I gave in to the temptation for a higher quality of life.
After years of hot, sweaty contemplation and observation, wearing next-to-nothing and twisting my body in the mirror morning, noon and night, I could finally surrender to this understanding of a certain powerlessness and to the possibility of a finding a proper doctor to prescribe proper medication in proper dosages.
What a gift to have such clarity.
Adjunctive Therapies, Breakthrough Symptoms and Bad Genes
I finally had the energy and well-being to seek out and find a doctor whom I trusted. This took about a year, if I recall, going through a quacky doctor or two before finding dear Dr. Olson. I have also had a talk-therapist since 2004, Ruth. She practices Yoga and understands its therapeutic value. Talk-therapy, including Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is the only adjunctive treatment to medication therapy that is universally recognized as treatment for bipolar disorder (though still not completely reimbursed by insurance companies). Yoga research is needed to reveal Yoga’s therapeutic value and potential for this population. Yoga needs to be made widely available to those who suffer.
A common attitude of doctors is that those with bipolar disorder can live a high-quality life once medicated. Yet it must be understood that breakthrough symptoms occur no matter the medication, because stress triggers symptoms. I found my breakthrough symptoms greatly neutralized only with a combination of the regular practice of Yoga and proper medication. Bikram Yoga is highly stress-reductive. It is demanding, yes but, also, the posture series is complete.The spine is manipulated in a sequence that calms the nervous system. The practice has transformed my breakthrough symptoms to make them more infrequent and ever-so-gentle.
Bipolar disorder has high rates of co-occurring suicide, homicide and substance abuse associated with it. My older sister committed suicide. My father, who self-medicates with alcohol and prescription drugs, and my aunt both have this disorder of the brain. With this close genetic influence, it is understood that my health is “delicate” and that I need therapies and support for the rest of my life to stay active and to lead a normal life. Yoga helps me remain watchful and stable.
From Survival To Recovery
Without Yoga, I might not be alive today. This sounds dramatic, but it is the truth.
In 2002, when my friends and surviving sister suggested that I go to my first Bikram class, I had been in bed, for about four months straight, with my usual seasonal depression, for the third winter in a row. I was having suicidal thoughts at the time. Yoga literally saved my life – Bikram Yoga literally saved my life, actually – because of its popularity, its accessibility, its encouragement of a consistent, daily practice and because of its effects on the brain.
Within 24 hours of that first class, I noticed a shift in my mood that lasted from… that lasted from about twenty minutes into the class, from about the second set of half-moon pose (“I can do this!”) to hours later and into the next day, when I decided to go for another class.
Like most people, I do not hear voices as a general rule. That is not one of my illness’ symptoms, not for me, anyway. However, I find it notable that during my third class, while in savasana, I heard a voice that said, “This is the thing.” I knew then and there to keep showing up.
And so I did.
The stormy seas of my mind calmed and stayed calmer. The jabs of anxiety weren’t so sharp and they finally subsided altogether (they did return ten years later when I couldn’t practice for other health reasons. I had been out of the studio regularly for over nine months. Mood instability became detectable, first subtly and, over time, more loudly, illustrating the long-term buffering effect Yoga had on my moods, biochemically). The deep depressions disappeared immediately.
I lost weight, I gained strength and flexibility and I made friends and developed a community.
I practiced eight days of the ten of my original ten-day trial-package. After 2 1/2 years of practicing anywhere from five to ten times a week (a week of doubles!), in 2004 I recognized that not only did I want to attend a Yoga teacher training program to learn more about Yoga and why it was so fulfilling and therapeutic for me, but also that I was ready to try a new medication.
I went from working two days a week to currently teaching six classes a week, independently (I am not affiliated with any studio, unusual for this region) and teaching twice a week privately to a client with bipolar disorder.
I have not been hospitalized since taking medication and practicing Yoga. My focus has shifted from my illness to my wellness.
I plan to offer more Yoga/Bipolar Therapy group and private classes both locally and, hopefully, at conferences nationally and internationally, to continue to represent those living with bipolar disorder in a respectful and enlightening way and to share the healing potential that Yoga offers to the mental health community.
I hope also to inspire the conduct and publication of scientific research on this subject, if I cannot execute it myself. No research currently exists on Yoga therapy and bipolar disorder.
I may be the world’s expert on Yoga and bipolar disorder – I have found no others – at least, that’s what three different people suggested to me, just in the last week!
I used to spend months crippled in bed by this disorder. “Like a flower petal blooming,” through Yoga I have become a Yogini, an advocate for Yoga and bipolar therapy and research, a teacher and a more confident woman. I continue my outreach, education, teaching and personal practice to share the therapeutic effects of Yoga to those in need and to help break the silence that veils mental illness.