Tag Archives: Yoga practice

Yoga Philosophy for Bipolar Disorder 101

Check out my latest original blog for The International Bipolar Foundation!

http://www.ibpf.org/blog/yoga-philosophy-bipolar-disorder-101

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The fist of a series of blogs on the Yamas and Niyamas, the “do’s” and “dont’s” of Yoga philosophy.

This one was read by readers in Brazil, New Zealand, Great Britain, Louisiana USA, France…

Enjoy!

The Bravest of the Brave – Yoga as Therapy for PTSD in Recovering Combat Veterans

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At every Yoga conference that I have attended, great attention has been paid to Yoga as therapy for military veterans as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had no point of reference for veterans. I literally turned my body to the side in my seat and resisted the incoming information at these conferences because A) I did not know any veterans and B) I did not care to break my heart over their plight.

Last month, a veteran walked into the Yoga studio.

I want to honor his anonymity and I want to tell his story because it has changed my life. I had seen video of WWI soldiers rattled and lost in their minds, present for Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s moving demonstration of veterans and trauma-sensitive Yoga http://www.traumacenter.org/, but to meet someone scarred by war, during duty for which he had volunteered, and offered very little by way of compensation by the government that had created this situation… I could not turn away.

First of all, this guy is a handsome devil. Young, mid-twenties. He’s got style and he’s got a sparkle and spunk. I am a sucker for young, handsome men with style. Super bright, fervent, and in need of support. Broke his wrist from hitting a wall. Tinnitus, scoliosis, flat feet from military gear. Still, he came to Yoga. But not to a “regular” Yoga class, because of his discomfort around people – to a private class offered to local volunteers. Anxiety. Depression. Unipolar. Bipolar. Insomnia. Rage. Loss of appetite. Disabled and nearly homeless. Lonely and terrified. Fixated on his story and dying to tell it. Suicidal. Suicidal. Suicidal.

Twenty-two veterans of The Wars on Terror committing suicide per day upon their return home drew the attention of The Armed Forces to Yoga and, in some places, Yoga is available to returning soldiers through the Veteran’s Administration. In our tiny seaside community, however, this kid was struggling without resources to back up his efforts to rehabilitate himself. I knew that I did not personally have the resources to offer this young man everything that he needed and I was scared. My thoughts had become restless over the situation, sensing that it was dire.

So, three days after meeting my first veteran, I found myself making phone calls, from my bed, early one morning. The second number that I dialed actually reached a human being. I was surprised, at 7:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, to talk to a very reasonable, like-minded Yogi and veteran named Gail Francisco. I had, miraculously, reached the outreach coordinator for Warriors At Ease http://warriorsatease.com/ and Gail has become both my lifeline and, through me, the lifeline of my veteran. Just as fervent, Gail has pulled out every possible resource available to this young man. When I wondered out loud if we – if I – were in too deep, she said, “It’s people like you helping one veteran at a time.”

This young man and, I feel now, every veteran, is the bravest of the brave. After serving his country selflessly and offering his life for the United States, upon discharge my veteran expressed subsequent feelings of disillusionment and abandonment, deep grief and haunting flashbacks. Trained to kill, he was never untrained. Fight or flight, without the flight. Fight fight fight fight fight. After six years in the service and reprogramming, beginning at the age of seventeen, he was returned to a culture from which he had been awkwardly separated and to which he no longer belonged, mentally. Taught to endure physical and emotional pain, injury, heat, trauma, cold, homesickness and more, he came home unable to control his temper, socialized in the exclusive ways of the military, uncomfortable in his body, mind and soul. Some of our service people have no one to return home to and enlist to escape brutal abuse and socioeconomic circumstances stateside. This, too, is part of my soldier’s broken heart.

So, on Halloween night, we met at the Yoga studio. I did a medical intake and I let that take one hour to help me to gain his trust, to not rush through, and not be too clinical. I asked the studio owner to stick around because I wasn’t sure of my safety. His physical and psychiatric issues were beyond anything I have ever come across personally or professionally, from traumatic brain injury and tinnitus to not being certain which mental health diagnosis was right. He has been prescribed every gnarly medication there is: opiates for pain, anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and more. After our intake, he spent the next hour in supported baddha konasana, where I led him through breathing and visualization. He fell asleep for forty minutes. I was glad, since he had mentioned not sleeping much during the previous week. It began to rain and I opened the door to the outside to finally rouse him. I was afraid to touch him to wake him up. I didn’t want to startle him. I was scared to death of him, while drawn to his vulnerability and need.

That night, on the Yoga mat, my approach was was unconventional for Western standards. He wasn’t paying me and I spent much longer with him than I would have ever projected – four hours total. Intuitively, however, I knew that this kid needed help and that I might be the last person that he might trust before taking his life. I know suicide, and once you know it, you always recognize it. Besides, it was Halloween night, it was raining, I like what I do and, underneath it all, he was very likeable, polite, receptive, willing – exceptional, even.

Over the next six weeks I bought him groceries and dog food, birthday presents and housewares. I brought him Yoga blankets and weight bags so that he could practice at home. I called the Veteran’s Administration and spent hours on the phone learning about services available to him locally and around the state. I took him to court, to the hospital, to the VA in the next county. I took him to the beach and to lunch. Some of those days he was calm, subdued and sweet. Some of those days, though, his moods were so severely unreasonable that I said nothing to avoid exacerbating his PTSD rage. He told me of his plans to kill himself. Some days he could not leave the house or even talk to me on the phone. One day, he refused to wear shoes, and went to his appointment wearing socks, in the rain.

Eventually, though, through the efforts of Gail at Warriors At Ease, myself and my veteran, he ate, slept, got a solid cast on his broken wrist and started the process of enrolling into an inpatient rehabilitation program in northern California, The Pathway Home http://thepathwayhome.org/. There, they have individual and group therapy, service dogs, Yoga, arts and crafts and four months of residential training for twelve veterans at a time. Part of the rehabilitation is to send the warriors into the community to interact with shopkeepers to teach them that not everyone is an enemy. My veteran refused to apply until I told him that he would have his own room, that he could maybe bring his dog, and that it was free.

We have also managed to practice Yoga, in some form, every time we see each other and even over the phone. This young man relaxes faster than anyone I have ever seen in the decade that I have been teaching. He melts. It is so rewarding. He loves it. His body hurts. His body hurts and Yoga helps. It also helps him to feel more clear-headed, less anxious and more present. It helps him to sleep. Sleep is imperative for mood management, be it PTSD or bipolar disorder. Good sleep can dull the blade of anxiety and help to rein in the ferris wheel of mood cycles. It does not matter how good looking or charming you are, you still need a good night’s sleep.

If I could devise some sort of structure for him, a regularity of practice for Yoga and breathing and relaxation, he would benefit greatly. As it is, however, biological rhythms like eating and sleeping are not yet firmly in place and those come first. Yoga is still currently a positive adjunct and every little bit helps. Hit it from all angles, I say: Yoga, sleep, quiet time, good nourishing food, altars everywhere, rosewater spray to reduce anger, frankinscence essential oil to cool your jets, coconut oil on the bottoms of your feet plus socks for sleep, regular exercise, avoiding crazy music, getting out into nature, avoiding spicy foods, wearing soothing colors and natural fibers, practicing trust and faith…

I wish I knew better how to mentor. The mentorship that I could offer was beneficial, but time consuming – necessarily so, and I have no regrets, but would not have been affordable to this young man had I billed him. How do we make therapeutic mentorship care affordable and accessible to those who need it, especially to those with mental health issues? One needs more care than one person can give – it takes a village. Hopefully, my veteran will be admitted into The Pathway Home program soon and begin intensive recovery. His recovery will last a lifetime, as does the recovery for anyone with a lifelong illness. Fortunately, Yoga can be a lifelong practice. I am glad to help wherever I can.

I am pursuing further training through Warriors At Ease so that the next soldier who walks into the Yoga studio can be served with greater expertise. Another warrior will walk through the door. We need all the skills we can gather to support these brave souls to live in peace, and to support ourselves as we do so.

I am so very grateful to this young man for teaching me so much in such a short amount of time.

Supreme Gratitude as Antidote

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It has been a tremendous year – well, two – for me, one of those when my friends can actually comfort and encourage me by saying, “You’re being tested.”

We all go through these rites of passage. Sometimes we can attribute these forces of change to a mid-life crisis or name it some other transitional title to try to make sense of it, to stay grounded. Stories of butterflies and metamorphosis…

In the face of such profound change, that I am still standing is, to me, a miracle. I told my therapist this week, “It’s like tidal waves are crashing over and me and all I feel is a light breeze.” I may have exaggerated that last part a little, but I attribute my stability to my Yoga practice.

  • My Yoga practice, like all practices do, has changed over the past decade. Now, instead of logging serious hours in a Bikram studio like I used to, I sit in meditation, Kriya Yoga meditation, specifically, daily. This practice takes me about forty-five minutes every morning, which is a significant time commitment, in my opinion. I have come to crave it.
  • I apply Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga to my life whenever and wherever possible. I am familiar enough with the limbs now to match the principles to my life. I have had to go back to my Yoga Teacher Training binder and check and check and check…
  • I also teach Yoga and Ayurveda on a regular basis. This grounds me. I maintain vigilant awareness of my breath, body and mood synergy. Though I happen to feel that I need more exercise these days, Bikram Yoga isn’t the right fit for me anymore. I move my body gently these days. The extreme environment of Bikram Yoga studios offer an incredible opportunity for gathering, focusing and concentrating mental and physical energies. The evolution of my Yoga practice has exchanged 105’F for a cooling, gentle Kriya practice, rife with opportunities to practice dharana, or intense focus, and is no doubt part of what is keeping me upright during this period of testing.

 Tough

This year, I broke up with my boyfriend and moved back to the central coast after thirteen difficult and heartbreaking months in Northern California. Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: I am grateful for the opportunity to be back home.

My favorite Aunt Joan died last month – complications from lifelong smoking. She was my family mentor in recovery from bipolar disorder and she was very generous with me in spirit. V I am forever grateful for her mentorship.

I was robbed last weekend – ! – but, Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: there was no activity on my credit cards and my car windows weren’t broken, because I had left the car unlocked. (I dropped the cards without realizing they were in my car in my acute dog-loss grief.More about that below.)

As my friend, Sandra, said to me today, “Practicing supreme gratitude is the only thing that will save you from depression.”

Surrender

In my deepest moment of depression, in bed one winter, when I allowed myself to really feel it and to be OK with it, to no longer suffer it, was my turning point, when the Light began to crack through for me in a broad way. Ishwara pranidana, “surrender to God,” according to Patanjali, is how I would describe this very human experience. Supreme Gratitude as Antidote: My life began to change for the better, in fits and starts, but over time, I saw a shift in subtle energy in the the room that was my life.

I surrendered both of my beloved dogs this year, putting them down. Humane, yes, but torturous for the heart. I had Ruby, my white Mexican street dog – who I rescued in Mexico-  for fourteen years. She was my shadow, always beside me. I called her “a Mexican healer” when people asked what kind of dog was she. The extraordinary sense of loss-of-home that I feel with her now that she is in Spirit is a shift of subtle energy to my core. It was time for her to go and her death signifies a transition for me, in lifestyle and potential. I am grateful to that dog in so many ways. She trained me to relax and to have a daily ritual, dinacharya. I ache from the void. I feel unmoored without her tonight, and profoundly grateful for our service to one another.

My big dream has been realized this season: I am teaching Yoga in a jail-diversion setting to clients of The County of San Luis Obispo with co-occurring diagnoses (mental health and substance use disorders, mostly bipolar disorder). The magic of the creation of this project… the story is uncanny and took years to coalesce. Despite the triumph and victory, I have struggled,  having to advocate for myself, for future Yoga teachers and for clients throughout the entire process: for adequate compensation, for access to the research results, for the design of the program to be beneficial for the clients. Governmental agencies tend to wring the creativity out of their employees by virtue of the way bureaucracies are forced to function. Organic creativity, when sublimated,  is often replaced by fear – in the human body, in the manipura chakra and beyond, and in the foundation of the entity: the halls and offices of County employees. Having to work with that energy came as a complete surprise and caught me off-guard. I found it extremely difficult to navigate and, at one point, I almost quit. We were almost there and I was getting hot and frustrated. I am grateful to my girlfriends Toni and Daniela, who pointed out these bureaucratic tendencies to me, because now I can better navigate them, supremely.

I genuinely love to teach the clientele at the County.

I have so many things and people and experiences in my life for which to be grateful: a roof, a car that runs, food, loving family, jobs and opportunities, a purpose, a magnificent place to live, friends, willingness and education to continue recovery and advocacy…

Even so, I need a regular, unshakable practice of Supreme Gratitude. To keep those waves crashing lightly and to move ahead with an attitude that magnetizes goodness into my life, and magnifies it, I must allow myself to feel, in my body, the goodness, even in dark times.

I need the reminder, as an antidote to being not-in-control of much this life.

May Supreme Gratitude become an essential part of my dharana practice, moving me ever closer to a state of Supreme Bliss, mine by Divine right.

AUM

My Testimonial on Bikram Yoga and Bipolar Disorder

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.

…Bring Your Awareness Back To The Breath…

“I’ve been meaning to e-mail you and tell you how much I enjoyed your
class.  It was absolutely wonderful and relaxing!” -D. Dornan

Restorative Yoga classes and workshops are offered to relax the body and soothe the mind. Here are some tips for any Restorative Yoga class:

Please dress in comfortable, layered clothing to keep the body warm as
you relax.
Mats, eye pillows and blankets will be provided, though feel free to
bring your own.

Slow the activity of your mind as you rest cradled in postures for two
hours of calm retreat, but try not to fall asleep! If you hear someone
snoring, it might be you. Staying awake is part of the practice.
Hover in that place of non-waking and non-sleeping to stimulate your
body’s healing response in passive poses that will calm and refresh
the mind.
Please RSVP so that a station may be prepared for you.
All of my classes are taught in the Ananda style. Ananda Yoga can be made
accessible to anyone willing to try, no matter health issues. No
experience is necessary.

I look forward to seeing you very soon!

AUM Shanthi!
Namaste,
Brooke West

“Be steadfast in yoga, devotee. Perform your duty without attachment,
remaining equal to success or failure. Such equanimity of mind is
called Yoga.”
-Paramhansa Yogananda