“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~ Jidda Krishnamurti
During my second year of university, I found myself gripped by severe inescapable anxiety and depression. I was a student with learning disabilities, only recently diagnosed, and while I was getting a lot of help from the incredible teachers at the University of Alberta's Specialized Supports for Persons with Learning Disabilities department, I was struggling to integrate the coping strategies fast enough for the courses I was taking. I felt like I was constantly treading water and that at any moment I could drown.
I was on the verge of failing enough courses that I risked being kicked out of school. As I think back on that experience with the wealth of knowledge I have gained since, I can't fathom why the idea of failing a couple courses so completely destroyed my sense of self-worth. But it did, and in a devastating way.
The more fearful I became that I wouldn't be able to finish my degree, the more difficult it became to function. I couldn't get out of bed a lot of mornings, causing me to miss classes and then I was in a terrible position to complete projects and pass exams making my anxiety and depression worse. That downward spiral was relentlessly dark and terrifyingly inescapable.
I had sought the help of a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who taught me how to question my inner dialogue and a couple breathing techniques to help calm myself down during an anxiety attack. This was definitely better than nothing, but really was just a band aid on a gushing wound. Under the advice of my doctor, I went to see a Psychiatrist and my life took a turn from the not so uncommon level of depression and anxiety that most twenty somethings experience during university to the downright psychotic.
I tried five different antidepressant medications over the course of a year or so with no major improvement in my symptoms. Things took an ugly turn when, during one of our monthly fifteen minute interviews, my Psychiatrist asked me what I had been up to. I talked about the usual struggles with my course load, difficulty sleeping and the general malaise that was my norm at the time. With a little bit of rare enthusiasm, I innocently recounted a story about skiing the gully chutes at Lake Louise.
The story was that I jump turned my way down a very steep icy narrow chute. I explained how there wasn't great snow cover and I hit a rock and high sided myself, losing both skis and sliding head first on my back at alarming speed, catapulting off a natural feature and cartwheeling to a stop.
What I explained that caused my Psychiatrist to take particular notice was that at no point during this rag doll down the hill did I feel any fear whatsoever and I thought that to be a little strange. It turns out antidepressants, especially when taken in large doses, cause a kind of mental emotional numbness. At that stage in my treatment I was taking two different kinds of SSRI antidepressants at the same time in fairly high doses.
Upon hearing me talk with such enthusiasm about what I now suspect she viewed as a suicide attempt she right there and then declared that she thought I was Bipolar. This assessment was rendered in the absence of any consideration of the fact that I was a former alpine ski racer and as such had a different tolerance for risk on skis than most. As well, she completely refused to entertain the possibility that the medication I was already on was altering my mood,
I received a prescription for an antipsychotic to be taken along with the two SSRI antidepressants. The combination of those three things had me so strung out I couldn't sleep. Thus I was also prescribed an experimental new sleeping pill that does interesting things when mixed with alcohol and is terribly habit forming. It was at this point that my life became a lot like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
Most days I was completely listless, walking around campus with a vacant stare and no particular interest in anything, least of which my life. During one of these aimless wanderings through the campus library, I discovered a series of audio lectures by a professor of Asian studies named Allan Watts and a series of guided meditations by Jack Kornfield. These cases tapes changed everything.
I started to spend about an hour a night listening to Watts lectures on eastern philosophy and then sitting in mediation following Kornfield’s instructions. This more than anything else helped me to find an hour of calm after days spent fighting episodes of melancholic panic. Learning about eastern religions like Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Yoga and Zen exposed me to exotic world views that somehow penetrated the thick fog of self-hatred, fear and loathing. It was an entirely new world that made me hopeful again.
These ideas poked holes in the thick armour wrapped around my depression and, as if by magic, rendered the thought processes that lead to panic attacks completely inert. Practicing meditation allowed me to explore those exotic and intriguing ideas in my own consciousness and feel their effects immediately. Slowly I was training myself in a kind of mental flexibility that allowed me to face the challenges of my life with an entirely different set of tools. So despite all the therapy sessions and medications, I credit meditation for my ability to not only survive and recover from mental illness but to become immune to its reinfection.
Our goal is to strive towards happiness by becoming agents of influence in the world, able to steer our experience towards things that we define as good and away from things that we define as bad. We are taught from childhood that our actions and behaviours have consequences, therefore it is by our own efforts, or lack thereof, that the quality of our lives is determined. This theory holds up pretty well until bad things start to happen to good people or seemingly correct actions and behaviours don't yield the good feelings or positive results that we desire.
What Yoga taught me that made all the difference is how to see that I had no control over the circumstances of my life. We would like to think that we can influence and direct it, but this is an illusion. Yoga taught me that I have complete control over how I choose to perceive the circumstances of my life. Having learning disabilities was not something I could control. Had I remained fixated on everything I couldn't do easily, I would have failed to appreciate how the struggle to perform certain tasks that others found easy fostered within me an extraordinary creativity in problem solving.
But Yoga goes a step further as a treatment for anxiety and depression. It teaches you that the only thing that really exists and therefore the only thing you have any hope of engaging in a meaningful way is the present moment. After years observing my thoughts during meditation I learned that anxiety resulted from agonizing over future scenarios and depression resulted from ruminating over the past. Whenever I could reside, for even the briefest moment, in the present I experienced the innate perfection of my existence and everything around me.
Incidentally that was the point where my entire life started to become dedicated to play. I moved to the Bow Valley, set on the intention of teaching both Yoga and skiing professionally. Waking up so early to get to the mountain for work meant my morning Yoga practice consisted of about half a dozen key asanas modified for the mobility challenges presented by wearing ski boots. I made the mountain my studio, exploring this brief connecting practice out in front of the Ski School sign at 7,082 feet.
This beloved morning ritual flowed naturally into morning sessions where I would train with my colleagues, observing not just my skiing performance but my thoughts about my skiing performance. The first chair lift of the morning as I ascended into the alpine, the sun rise casting a red orange glow over shimmering snow, I would take a moment from visiting with colleagues to observe my breath. Oxygen drawing in and CO2 moving out into a vast expansive valley filled with trees, snow, rock and sky.
The first run of the morning was a prime time for learning. My head clear from distractions, I could tap into the sensations arising within my body giving important clues about how in balance I was. The way the surface of the snow reacted to my skis let me know if I was aligned. This alignment, or lack thereof, was directly proportional to the amount of power I was able to harness from forces generated in the turn. All of it culminating in a seamless experience of movement with, rather than against the mountain.
When it worked, it was glorious. When it didn't work, I became part psychologist, part detective investigating the influence of my thoughts on my ability to integrate the instructions of my coaches. Ski training in this way opened up a fascinating new dimension to the exploration of what I was capable of on the mountain and as a human being. This was the beginning of a very beautiful period in my life, one I am so fortunate to be enjoying still. This was the origin of my foray into Spiritual Skiing, an experiment in sport as meditation and medicine that is ongoing.
Next Week: The Art of Movement: An Introduction to The Multidisciplinary Approach to Learning.