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June 13, 2018

I was told recently that my yoga class is like therapy. The person who told me that was in an extraordinarily difficult place in her life, one I could relate to because I’ve been someplace similar recently. She meant it as a compliment (and I took it as such), and also as a thank you, as though it was me, and not the yoga, that provided the therapy.

It bears stating: I’m not a therapist; I’m a yoga teacher. I’ve been a yoga teacher for years now, more years than many, fewer years than many others. And while being a yoga teacher makes me an expert on exactly nothing, I can say I’ve learned quite a bit about human beings while doing my job, quite a bit about being a person. (One thing I’ve learned, for example, is that many, many actual therapists take yoga classes regularly.)

I’ve learned that everybody is hurting. Literally everybody. Some are hurting more acutely than others—some show up to my class with tears in their eyes and whisper to me secrets they can’t keep anymore about their difficult relationships or their sick loved ones. Some come in with physical pain that’s likely a manifestation of some psychic struggle (because I’m telling you, years of teaching yoga has taught me that literally everybody is struggling with something). Or maybe they’ve had shoulder surgery in the past, or issues with their knees for years, or a fight with their spouse the night before, or a canker sore for all I know. Don’t get me wrong, being in pain doesn’t mean a person can’t also be experiencing joy, or contentment, or happiness, at the very same time that they’re hurting (just a bit). And not everyone recognizes their pain, while some may be denying they have it or consciously choosing to ignore it, but I know it’s there when I’m teaching them, because I see it on their faces in class. Because it’s catching their breath and clenching their jaws. It’s in the way they strive to achieve some perceived pinnacle of peace of mind—whether that’s a yoga pose or a serene meditative state or who-knows-what-but-it-must-be-something. I see it. I can’t help but see it. And it can’t be coincidence how often I’ve been approached after class by people just wanting to say thank you because of something I said in class that day (and there are those tears forming again), or because I’m the voice in their head when their pain wakes them up in the middle of the night, or because my classes are like therapy. It’s the human condition to experience pain—psychic, mental, physical pain—all of us, to some degree, all the time. I’m convinced of it.

Suffice it to say, the rising suicide rate doesn’t surprise me. In fact, it’s a wonder how many of us survive our pain for as long as we do. The opioid epidemic makes perfect sense, because every single one of us has pain to kill and opioids succeed in doing that for a bit. And yoga succeeds in doing that for a bit. A beautiful day, a chat with a good friend, a compliment from an acquaintance, a cuddle with a loved one, all these things can succeed in killing our pain for a bit, and we’d become addicted to these things too if we could be—if they were as plentiful and cheap and easy to obtain and use when needed. But none of these things, not one, actually succeed in curing us of our pain. Because the human condition isn’t curable. So we’re a world full of people looking for a happiness fix, or a pain reprieve, however you want to look at it.

A few weeks back I told two auditoriums full of educators about a panic attack I’d had recently. Just yesterday I told my Tuesday morning yoga students about the depression I’d been experiencing following my mother’s death and my dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I’ve learned that telling people that I have pain, and taking for granted that they do too, is a huge relief for most everyone. It removes a stigma, perhaps, or unearths a secret we think we’re supposed to bury. But more than that, it gives people a chance to empathize, and feeling empathy and compassion is a magical way of managing one’s personal pain.

My point (and I do have one) is that so many of us believe that a pain-free existence is the goal, is normal, is our default, and it’s just not. I’m not saying we all need to accept and expect to be in constant agony; I’m just saying that striving for a life of absolute comfort and perpetual happiness is pointless, and painful in itself, so we’re better off filling our personal toolboxes with things that help us manage our pain and live our lives with purpose and peace. There’s peace in knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you just because you’re hurting.

So, I believe in yoga, in meditation, and in mindfulness (they really aren’t three different things, but that’s another discussion entirely). But trust me, yoga is no more a magic pill than is Percocet—it won’t cure you of your humanity. It’s a tool for your toolbox. Meditation is a useful tool. Psychotherapy and physiotherapy can be tools. And for some people, music helps, as does making art, as does communing with nature, as does working up a sweat. The tools in my toolbox are helping me manage the depression I’ve been coping with this year, and they helped when I had that god-awful panic attack a few weeks back. I can enjoy my life with less suffering because of these tools and because of my empathy for my students, my family and my friends.

I am not a therapist, I’m a yoga teacher, but my advice to you is this: fill your toolbox. Seek out the practices and the little joys and the work and the play that help you to ease your pain, all the while knowing that there’s nothing wrong with you. You don’t need to be fixed. Look around yourself at all the hurting people and empathize. We are all having a human experience. And when you recognize yourself in others you’ll realize you don’t have to bear your pain alone. We have each other to turn to, with help and with hope, and maybe, just maybe, our pain is actually the gift life gives us to make us need each other.