“It’s like being homesick, but you’re already home.” I hear comedian Sarah Silverman explain to Terry Gross on NPR about her experience with depression. Her words resonate with me and I find myself feeling consumed with fear. As a pregnant woman, hormonal changes can bring on bouts of mood swings, weepiness, tears, and even depression. Thankfully, prenatal and postpartum depression have begun to receive deserved attention in the news media in recent years. More and more celebrities have come out about their own experiences with it, and more parents feel that it’s worthy of national attention, research, and conversation. I find myself feeling fear because I know what depression feels like. I know what anxiety feels like. If there’s any consistent trigger for these things in my life, it’s been major life changes, and having a baby is one of the biggest changes one can experience in life. Today, while feeling lethargic and sad I begin to feel fear. “Buck Up” a voice inside me commands. “Get moving.” All I want to do is rest. It could be the exhaustion from creating another human life, I tell myself. But then I cry, for no reason. And I look for relief in my normal pleasures- tv shows I love, working out, reading baby or anatomy books, or being on Facebook. But today it doesn’t work. I’m still feeling detached, and I begin to feel fear. Because I know what Sarah Silverman is talking about.
As I enter my third trimester, people have asked me if I fear labor. The truth is, I do, but not nearly as much as the first 12 weeks of my son’s life. I have many parent friends who are eager to share their horror stories of going nearly mad with sleep deprivation, baby blues, and the general panic about not knowing how to soothe a wailing baby. The truth is, I’m afraid to go mad. As extreme as that sounds, this is actually my deepest fear. As a person with a family history of mental illness, and having seen first hand how traumatic having an ill parent can be for a child, these are the anxious thoughts that creep into my otherwise blissful third trimester.
Although I appreciate Ms. Silverman’s description of what depression feels like, for me, it’s been more of an embodied awareness of sensory overload. As a yoga teacher, I know my body and mind well enough to know when I’m starting to come down with more than just a little sadness. I feel the overwhelming need to shut down all things that stimulate me. All of a sudden, the tv must be turned off, the books need to be put away, and the phone placed on do not disturb. For me, changes in mood that have become close to depression begin with the staleness of all things I normally find rich and exciting. Armed with this awareness, I know to begin to turn off, shut down, and restore until things feel rich once again.
I’ve never dealt with the darkness of depression some others have. I’ve never needed to be medicated, and talk therapy has always worked wonders for me, in combination with yoga, breathing, and great friends and family. But I do credit yoga for having given me the awareness to sense when my feelings become more than feelings, and when my mood becomes more than just a passing nuisance. Depression and other mood disorders are physical. Having a yoga practice can make us more attuned to what’s happening in the body and mind. For this, I am truly grateful. I begin to become my own teacher, asking myself the questions I ask my students. “What am I sensing in my body?” “How do I feel?” “Am I able to take a deep breath, and where do I feel the breath?”
If you’ve never taken a restorative yoga class, it can be divine. It’s a meditation of the body in a place of rest. I love teaching restorative yoga. I often feel self conscious, however. I wonder if the students are bored. We hold postures for long periods of time, resting and breathing. I lead students through a series of questions to help them become more aware of what’s happening in their body and mind. I allow them to rest in silence. I allow the silence and the pause to become long and uncomfortable for me. Then, I hold it for several more breaths. You see, I recognize that this silence, this uncomfortable, long, holding, is one of the most valuable things for all of us. As I mentioned, we are quite susceptible to sensory overload. The noises, the news, the sounds, the information we receive from second to second seep into our bodies. We become not unlike a full inbox that needs to be processed, and rather than allow ourselves the time to process, we continue to take in. This is the ideal foundation for anxiety and depression, in my opinion. If we don’t know how to shut down, we don’t know how to process. If we can’t process, we can’t be well. I offer my students a space to process. Despite my own insecurity that I’m not making it interesting or stimulating enough, that I’m asking weirdly worded, open-ended questions about sensations and feelings, I know I’m teaching something valuable. Moreover, some people literally just need to be reminded to breathe, and they need a space to do it.
My anxiety about becoming a parent is normal, and I shouldn’t admonish myself for feeling this way. My yoga practice tells me to have patience with myself and these feelings. I drive to teach my next class. My mother calls. I ignore her call. She wants to plan. The nursery and the shower need to be discussed. But for right now, I can’t. I need to process my inbox first. At first I feel bad, how will I feel when my son ignores my phone calls? But then a flash of happiness runs through me. If my son is aware enough of his own feelings, body, mind, and breath, if he has his mental and emotional boundaries intact, and preserves himself and his health accordingly, I will be incredibly proud. And that’s what yoga is all about.