Yoga as Medicine for Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse Disorders: Twelve Pain Management Suggestions To Practice On and Off The Mat


I was born and raised in Los Angeles. My sisters and my friends and I grew up in an affluent community in the Hollywood Hills. Most of our parents were a part of the entertainment or fashion industries: creative, educated and driven.

As a college student on the central coast of California, my extensive manic episode offered a clear-cut diagnosis of bipolar disorder. My father and my older sister, D’Arcy, lived with bipolar disorder but both went undiagnosed and untreated.

Though brilliant, all her life my dear sister suffered with terrible depressions, social problems, substance abuse issues that began in her teens, financial issues and low self-worth. Without an obvious manic or suicidal episode in her early twenties, she continued to suffer in her own way until her suicide, by way of a drug overdose, at the age of 30.


Two years after D’Arcy’s crushing death, I somehow found my way to the Yoga mat. I enjoyed greater self-awareness because of my practice. Because of this awareness, I became better able to self-advocate, which was especially important when negotiating with my doctors about which medicine would be best for me. These secondary benefits of my Yoga practice: self-awareness, self-advocacy – beyond strength, heart-rate variability and weight-loss – were key to finding and trusting both a doctor and medication that worked for me. I was then able to thrive while managing and nearly arresting a chronic, progressive and potentially deadly disorder.

My Yoga teachers encouraged me to become a Yoga teacher. They saw a spark in me.

I made my way to Yoga Teacher Training. I surprised myself by becoming a talented and well-liked instructor.

I had not set out to become a teacher.

I naively trusted that, in Yoga Teacher Training, I would learn why Yoga brought my bipolar symptoms back to balance. I was compelled to find others engaged in this conversation. I wanted to talk about what was happening to me, and about how others could be helped through the model of Yoga, people like my sister, who seemed to struggle under every circumstance, despite gifts and talent and beauty… despite access to the best medical care in Los Angeles.

In searching for a salon, my curiosity and courage began to outweigh my shame, my fear and my grief.

Shame, fear and grief began to change their effect on me. They began to feed my courage.

My willingness to explore and to serve tugged at my flexibility. It stretched me in ways that I could not have predicted.

This phenomenon of the secondary benefits of Yoga must be acknowledged by the bipolar wellness community as part of the journey of recovery.


A childhood friend from my old L.A. neighborhood passed away last month, the same way that my sister, D’Arcy, died: by a drug-overdose. Both my sister and Susie experienced untreated bipolar disorder-related addiction.

This week, Robin Williams committed suicide. He, too, suffered from bipolar depression and struggled with addiction at the time of his death, which came the day after D’Arcy’s suicide’s fifteenth anniversary. Our family was deeply moved by the loss of Robin Williams.

Susie’s affluent, educated Hollywood friends did not have the language skills to address Susie’s behaviors in the last couple of years when things were escalating. My family was the same when D’Arcy died: baffled and stammering and traumatized by years of suffering and unexplainable behavior. Susie and I had communicated via internet in the last few years but the shame that she and her family felt about the disorder overrode the possibility of Susie seeking treatment. Shame was generationally engrained and, for them, it wasn’t considered polite to discuss mental illness.

Susie is survived by a six-year old daughter.


Bipolar disorder knows no bounds. It affects all races, religions, social classes and both genders equally. Bipolar disorder symptoms are ragefully painful. Though street drugs may alleviate the discomfort of symptoms, there are safer alternatives and they must be made widely available to those who suffer.

• Practice Ahimsa or No Animosity, first for yourself and your feelings, for your body and for your mind. This will transfer to your behavior toward others.

• Sit with the pain, stay with the pain, breathe through the pain, and allow the pain to subside. Find a breathing technique that you love, like exhaling longer than your inhale.

• Be mindful of the effects of the disorder, both on and off the mat. Paths to emotional stability and sobriety often merge from several sources.

• Be mindful of the breath in all charged situations, and especially in emotional situations.

• Seek out trauma-informed therapists for self-reflection and to stop emotional and physical gripping. Encourage your vital energy to flow through you, naturally.

• Fill your life with people in whom you can confide.

• Be honest with yourself.

• Strengthen and enliven your body gently.

• Move your breath to nourish and cleanse your organs, glands, bones, blood and brain.

• Let your breath do the subtle, healing work. You do not have to be responsible for everything.

• Remember that your experiences are not your nature.

• Indulge in true rest wherever possible, including in Restorative Yoga poses, time spent in silence and time spent in nature.

To your comfort and serenity on and off the mat~


A similar article appears on the International Bipolar Foundation website, along with my other original blogposts for IBPF:

2 thoughts on “Yoga as Medicine for Bipolar Disorder and Substance Abuse Disorders: Twelve Pain Management Suggestions To Practice On and Off The Mat

  1. Barbara Bingham

    This is beautiful, Brooke. Thank you for sharing it. What a gift we have in the teachings of yoga. As a someone with a loved one with bipolar your twelve steps are helpful for me, too. The breath is so helpful when he goes through his times. He is trying another medication and going off others. He’s tired but feels hopeful (he said) that it will be a good step. I’m going to send this article to him. Bless you dear one as you share your light. You are in my thoughts with love and hugs. Barbara

    Sent from my iPad



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