Yoga and the Death Cap

This original post went out Tuesday, August 25th, 2015.  
I mentioned my swollen shoulder in another newsletter that I sent by email.

What I didn’t detail:

My complicated relationship with, ahem, yoga.

I used to practice yoga for three hours straight and then drink two bottles of wine in a row.  I was a practicing alcoholic and a serious yogi at the same exact time.  The years that I was a practicing alcoholic I taught way more yoga classes than when I quit; it took many years for me to realize it would take many, many, many more years to allow myself to accept that life doesn’t always make sense.

I did a lot of Pinca Mayurasana; too many vinyasas; and yet here I was allowing my body to convert alcohol to acetaldehyde which was dislodging the PLP coenzyme over and over to contribute to poor serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine circuit function and thus, aggravating my depression.

At this point, I really did have a beautiful yoga practice; balanced my green juice with In N’ Out Burgers; and was authentically, slowly on my path.  Meaning, Good God yes, that sloppy ugly stage in my life was part of my path that eventually led me to another sober path with less yoga and no alcohol.

Whether it was perfectionism or bad genes or my sensitive soul shrinking in response to homophobia (a complicated thing made manifest even now, humph), I was very good at drinking for a very long time.

I also looked pretty good according to artificially imposed standards on Southern California yoga teachers (someone needs to come up with a fridge magnet called “Artificially Imposed Standards on California Yoga Teachers Kill Grey Matter While All of the World’s Problems Swallow Us”).

Yoga and meditation saved my life because they loved me.  They made me develop entirely new circuits in my brain.   The hippocampus, which often shrinks with depression, had to grow to acquire new information.  Yoga was like a sister to meditation and meditation introduced me to self-love and compassion.

Yoga taught me that I was a bad-ass, that there had to be something deeper and stronger in me beyond the drinking.  Meditation taught me that I was an alcoholic; I sat with myself a lot.  Meditation teaches you where you are stuck by sort of giving you access to a video recording of your life that you can slow down at any moment to review; it not only does that, but it allows you to organize patterns from that video so you really can see where you are stuck.

I knew I was an alcoholic.

I knew it for years before I was strong enough to walk away.

So the day and a year after Amy Winehouse was found dead, I quit alcohol.  (Okay, this is silly to mention, but so is astrology.)

Two years later, I quit nicotine.

And now I’ve been sober for 3 years and nicotine free for one.

Yoga can be a potent tool to find freedom; or it can be a poison.  The perfectionism perhaps lies in the Western desire to achieve some sort of perfect body; and getting distracted by this poison can be quite easy when there is no cut and dry way to initially distinguish a yoga class that provides tools for freedom vs. a poisonous one.  Personally, I think of a good yoga practice as a sensible button mushroom; and a poisonous practice as a death cap mushroom.  In their infancy, they are easily confused for one another by novices; but as they grow all you need to do is look a little closer and pause and it’s pretty clear which one will kill you.

Depression: The Physical Body You Inhabit

To provide light entertainment, here is a clip of Will Ferrell from the movie Elf.     You can get more of this good stuff once a week by subscribing to my newsletter.  Thanks!

In 2005, I wore a dress with big pink flowers to a friend’s wedding; I danced on my toes and I smiled big and my hair went everywhere and the rhythm was not there and I probably looked like a virginal 15 year old even though I was 23.

My friend pointed and laughed at the way I moved in front of a lot of people.  We were similar flavors of angry, me a virgin (and not happy about it), and she in love with characters from Lord of the Rings and self conscious about it.  I stopped moving and I yelled at her.

All the ticklish, fun feelings were gone; the good memories with her, dancing on the bar at a very, very big club on Sunset Boulevard and dancing in our apartment and fighting over the one Thai iced tea that was delivered to our apartment door.

It took me a really, really long time to realize I could start over in my body.

That sweating and moving and continuing to beat to my own drum would help set me free; well that has not been an over night lesson; that has been a mythical one involving lots of “no, no, no not that way Renee, not Renee don’t fall out of handstand that way” and “no, no do not have knots in your throat, but do not sing off key either.”  First of all, these obstacles in the path were both external and internal.  There, it seems, will always be people who have unsolicited opinions about how you should be on this earth.

And also that this thing called horizontal violence is happening constantly in little minor ways everywhere and it’s not just in my head.

I was the nerd or brainer or girl who was going to find a cure for AIDs, except for at 23, I didn’t really feel like I was that girl at all.  I don’t think I had the words for it yet, but I wanted to be able to feel all the feelings and hold other people’s hands or eyes, if they preferred, while they felt all the feelings too.  I wanted to feel beautiful; and have someone who actually wanted to be my girlfriend say my tits looked fake.  I wanted all of my internalized homophobia to go away.

Okay, so how does depression come in?  And how does this relate to the Physical Body You Inhabit?

Yoga gave me permission to start feeling all of my feelings.  For about a year, I cried in almost every single yoga class I took.  It felt good.

Depression relies heavily on negative thought patterns being drilled into the skull.  Yoga practice relies on one paying attention to the present moment; and restorative yoga and yin yoga rely on the freedom to feel all the feelings.  Feeling everything meant it was able to move and change and not dig its teeth into my being in the same way.

Being able to find some child-like joy and wonder or peace within the body is a really great thing.

Here’s my Self-Help Exercise for Getting To Know The Physical Body You Inhabit:

  1. Wear comfortable clothes; empty your bowels; and set up a space where there is room for you to move around, bigger is better.
  2. Play music that you like or you may like
  3. Lay on your back and listen to your breath.  Say out loud three times, “Inhale, exhale.”
  4. Can you keep your eyes and fingers and toes soft? And then roll along the floor in one direction (think tootsie roll)? And then roll in the other direction?  Can you do this for five minutes?
  5. Now stand-up.  Put on your favorite song to dance to.  Blind fold yourself & dance.

For those of you who like more rules or guidelines, make up your own rules and guidelines.  I personally set a timer because as much as I crave being more of a free-spirit, I also feel free with a timer.  10 minutes is good.  If you are a total dork like me, you can imagine you are dancing with a bunch of animals in the wilderness.  Pretend you are like 5; you don’t have to know what animals actually inhabit a temperate forest or the desert; you just make it up.

Right now, I actually am pretty happy with my physical body and how I move, but honestly it’s not because I have the perfect girlfriend who tells me how beautiful I look naked all the time.  It’s because I’ve done the work to love myself.  It’s because when I’m home, I turn off all the lights and light the candles and put on a leotard (which is a actually a very practical garment), and I dance.  And I do the shit I want to do that many, many people have pointed and laughed at me about and continue to do (I’m still not a great singer, but I’ve gotten past the point of needing your permission or my voice teacher’s permission or any humans because I do this singing thing because it makes me feel alive, and that matters).  Because somewhere between 10 and 100….many people are told it’s better to give up on feeling alive, and so they do so, and they walk around passing that thought curse to me, you and whoever will listen.  And I can say from experience that if that curse has been drilled in your head, it takes time to get out.

I think the aphorism, “The first step is always the hardest” is a load of crap.  I’m not trying to take the hope out of your balloon, but what I would say instead is “It’s hard, but do it anyway.”  And find people who inspire you to keep going; and be patient with finding those people.

Namaste y’all,


The Bid Sadness Dance

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Tonight, I, the puffball, was walking down the street past two matching Calicos.  One Calico was staring at me next to a wheelbarrow, and the other was revealing only its eyes and ears, hiding behind a big white plastic bin.  These cats were staring me down from their perfectly green house with the very loud Mickey and Minnie Mouse window covering.  Walking further down the street, I thought I passed an unusually fungi that looked a little like amorphous clouds, but at further investigation was only popcorn sprawled on the lawn.

Puffballs are mushrooms by the way.

Everything can be about mushrooms.

Or it can be about depression.

Or it can be about texture or shape.

I call myself the puffball because I left the house wearing two pairs of long underwear, wool socks, a leotard and fleece, and then this puffy jacket that is only warm in places like Los Angeles where there is no weather.

I am living in Portland.

I am currently obsessed with mushrooms.

I am also a survivor of and someone who currently experiences waves of Clinical Depression. This month is devoted to my take on my own depression, mixed with a bit of science, and mixed with a bit of very personal self-help.  I believe always if you are reading this not just because you enjoy my writing but because you also suffer, please make sure you get professional help.

So back, to mushrooms, and their relationship to self-help for depression.  In my life right now, mushrooms are hugely symbolic of so many things.  Firstly, I think it’s interesting to note that one mushroom may be psychedelic to one and poisonous to another or nutritious.  With the exception of the deadly four, most mushrooms are poisonous on a fairly unpredictable scale.  Moreover, so much of the hard work a mushroom does is done underground.  Meaning, the self-help, the really tough work, that move a person from a really tough place to a better one is often invisible to the very visible, quick-moving, impatient world we live in.  I think of this often when someone is doing a handstand press; and quite a few people seem to think she came out of the womb that way.

I know with my writing, for example, I’ve worked my damn mother-f****** ass off to write a couple of decent essays over many years.  The essay I just got published at The Manifest Station, for example, took at least four re-writes with breaks in between that spanned a couple years.

The self-help work one does happens pretty much underground; or to put it a different way, the beautiful flowers and essays and results and marriages and tangible-object-like-things our culture likes to celebrate only come to fruition after there’s been a lot of underground work.

There are some extraordinary things that start to happen when you decide you are going to be a bad-ass and heal yourself.  But in my estimate, I could tell you it takes a lot of fierce decision making, a lot of love, a bucket of forgiveness, and this thing called hope.  (And then there are vitamins, exercise, therapy, and psychiatry.)

So two points come to mind:

  1. Improving mental health takes a lot of work that may be invisible to the naked eye.
  2. Be a bad ass and heal thyself.

Point three is messy and is something like this:

  1. You must know thyself to heal thyself.

Stuff that other people may think is weird that I think is absolutely necessary to my mental health: Screaming (on a regular basis); rolling on the floor only with the intention of rolling on the floor; telling my cat stories about girls; telling girls the truth; dancing big in an open space; meditating; restorative yoga; spending less money; sex; putting time and energy into my creative work; not putting time and energy into organizations that are greedy and people that drain me; writing in a journal really simple sentences like this, “This _________ bothers me because of ____________________.”

I have been told by more than one smart person that when something bothers me, I should write it down.  This is a brilliant idea; but sometimes a jaded depressive with a stick up her ass (aka me) will look at you like you are stupid because it feels like, “Well I already know what’s bothering me so why do I need to write it down?”  The answer is something like “Writing it down activates different circuitry in your brain making your problem clearer.  When your problem is clearer, it is easier to fix.”

Writing stuff down that bothers you is useful for life in general, not only Depression.

As I learn to know myself, I can see more clearly what throws me over the edge.

Am I the only one here that wishes she was fit to go live in a cave and be celibate for the rest of her life?

Two or so years ago when I was pretty raw from sobriety, I met a girl I call the Little Electron.  On the first date, she was weird.  On the second, more weird.  She ordered four orders of salmon sashimi and proceeded to eat it really, really fast.  On the third, I tried to cuddle her; and she basically squirmed away from me like an angry worm.  For the record, I love weird; a weird girl with good posture and a quick mind is my kind of woman.

Things fell apart pretty quickly after I tried to cuddle her; and I later figured out from her blog it made her ‘feel like she was being impaled.’  We got into a couple of arguments during our brief relationship (or was it after?); and then we tried to be friends; and then I friend broke up with her.

Six months later, weaving the brilliant lyrics of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes with my own words, I professed my love again to her by email.  She was quite the wordsmith herself , and she enjoyed time to sit on anything that involved emotion, and so it seemed like the perfect approach.

I found out: she was taken (romantically); she was moving to San Francisco for a new mad scientist job; and wasn’t sure we could be friends.

If I didn’t have a very sensual and a very serious relationship with my own damn body, this may have shut me down.  Many, many, many people thought or told me I was crazy or it was unnecessary or basically looked negatively upon said letter.  My letter was incredibly romantic and incredibly sweet and there was nothing like, “And if you don’t come to the clock at Cal Tech at 2 a.m. with a candle and a plate of Salmon sashimi, the possibility of me continuing to breathe air will be impossible.”  There was nothing like that.

No threats.

No mean lines where I broke her apart.

I didn’t need that damn useless sentence people throw at you, “There’s someone better.”  “She’s a jerk.”  None of that is true.  I needed the Big Sadness to come and to move all the way from my toes to my fingertips.

Sometimes the Big Sadness will come and it’ll be about a relationship and you’ll take it to the dance floor and dance through it.  That night, the Little Electron who opened me up to playing big and seeing the microscopic, accompanied me through my own farewell dance.  I offered up every single dance that night to her, and to our relationship.  I wore red because she wore red.  I danced fast and I danced hard.  And I sure as fuck didn’t give a shit about all the people wanting to contain my sexual energy and my angry energy and my confusion and put it into a little potion and then Define it.  At one point, I thought the floor might collapse leaving me and these dancing peoples in this room, this temple, in Los Angeles, crashing into the floor.

I did yoga for many years because it heals me.

What heals me right now is a lot more rambunctious and a lot more round.

This goes back to the point I made before: You must know thyself to heal thyself.

I bought a guitar in 2001 because of a girl.

It took me almost 13 years to realize that I actually bought the guitar because I kinda really dug music too.

Again, you must know thyself to heal thyself, and be patient if you are confused.  It’ll come.

Also, I love this song; and I think it can be sung a healing mantra, just saying.  So consider it.

Namaste y’all,

Restorative: Reflecting on 2015

This 18 minute practice involves: A. Suggested written work to reflect on 2015, B. Sound practices to move energy, and C. Some great restorative poses to surrender/let go of stuck energy. Enjoy. If you are interested in my thoughts on the New Year, please subscribe to the newsletter. Happy 2016, Renee