Hemalayaa’s now infamous post “Shocked by Yoga Teachers Who Take Meds” sparked a lot of heated debate in the yoga community. Her original post (now removed due to the hoopla) has been replaced by a heartfelt apology—so I can’t quote her directly. But her view, as summarized by Matthew Remski, that “people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off their inauthentic anti-depressant medications” – has been widely criticized as insensitive, ill-informed and even dangerous.
I have no argument with this. Yes, Hemalyaa’s post was facile. But I take issue with those who insinuate Hemalayaa’s “anti-medical viewpoint” (her words) promulgates a kind of regressive magical thinking that threatens to overwhelm yoga and leave practitioners befuddled and vulnerable to faith healing hucksters. For those who are filled with certainty that we cannot fix a chemical imbalance with a mantra or by thinking good thoughts real hard – this is what I wish Hemalayaa had said…
According to the National Centre for Health Statistics and the International Review of Psychiatry, antidepressant use in the United States has “gone up by 400%” between 1998 and 2008. This means nearly one-in-four Americans have taken a course of antidepressant medication.
Today prescriptions continue to climb, leading Psychology Today to ask the million dollar question. “When do we reach a number or percentage so sizeable that concern about undertreatment tips appropriately into unease about overmedication?”
Despite our faith in pills and the efficacy of medical science, there is loads of peer-reviewed evidence that suggests many antidepressants (as well as many other pharmaceuticals) function as placebos! And much of this research is conducted by the drug makers themselves. I’m not going to delve into these studies, they are easily found through a few taps of the fingers and search engines.
My point is that placebos harness the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and expectations of the individuals thereby triggering bio-chemical responses in our bodies that lead to improved function, even healing. This lends credence to that bugaboo of skeptics everywhere – magical thinking – the notion that how we think, feel and perceive our world, affects our health and well-being.
Even CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) acknowledges that people’s persistent belief in magical thinking “gives individuals a sense of control, hence an important increase in self-confidence in a confusing and impersonal world. When the objective is relief from some personal ailment, such confidence may generate feelings of improvement, albeit perhaps temporary, through the placebo effect.”
I’m not advocating depressed people throw out their prescriptions and think themselves into wellness (our understanding of how placebos actually function is still poor) but I think there is enough evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t throw the “mind over matter” baby out with the bath water just yet.
And I’m tired of that most fallacious argument, so frequently trotted out, that believing we can “cure ourselves” through “positive thinking” stops ill people from seeking medical treatment – that could save their lives! Lets face it modern medicine is hardly a cure-all. In fact, according to a recent paper called “Death by Medicine”, the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the US!
I’m willing to wager that modern medicine has harmed way more people than positive thinking ever has. Maybe Hemalayaa has a point, maybe we need to think twice before medicating ourselves with pharmaceuticals with serious side-effects too numerous to list here.
From what I recall reading Hemalyaa’s post, she was advocating yoga as a tool, a modality by which we can access our thought/feeling complex, and change our lives for the better. Is she wrong? There is a great deal of evidence that “positive thinking” may actually be beneficial to our physical and physiological well-being. (for more on this see my post Magical Thinking: A Defense )
And I’m not blaming or shaming those whose lives are being helped or have been helped by antidepressant medication. I have many amongst my own family and circle of friends. I know the anguish of depression. And as someone who has been heavily involved in the medical system for the past fifteen years due to my husband’s progressive Multiple Sclerosis, I just want to say that depression is very familiar to us.
And sometimes magical thinking is all we’ve got. Informed by medical professionals that there is no cure, we’ve been given no hope, we’ve been told all we can do is place our faith in a whole pack of pharmaceutical drugs in order to slow symptoms. And after several courses of chemotherapy treatment that damaged my husband’s heart, new research suggests that it might not work to slow MS progression after all. So we trust less.
And we’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot more to healing that modern medicine wants to recognize. Like the power of our mind, emotions, placebos and yes, magical thinking to shape our health. When medical professionals told us with absolute confidence, that we must prepare for the worst – they delivered a powerful nocebo (a placebo with negative effects) that induced in us a dark sense of powerlessness and despair. Then, guess what? We were told to consider antidepressants as a way to ‘cope’.
I’m not saying that MS drugs haven’t helped people! I’m saying that magical thinking was -and is -our light in the tunnel, the faith that maybe the medical system doesn’t yet know everything there is to know about healing MS. And we think carefully before embracing the latest pharmaceutical drug being pressed upon us by the industrial medical complex.
So when it comes to antidepressants, I’m not claiming that they don’t have a place, nor am I advocating that we don’t listen to health professionals. I’m just suggesting that we have to stop acting as if medical science has it all figured out. There is no certainty in science. There are studies, research and statistics and they have proved themselves to be amazingly fluid. Especially in the hands of researchers with varying agendas to uphold. But when the bulk of our science seeks materials causes with pharmaceutical solutions, well, then that is what we find.
Just because the material is what we can measure, doesn’t necessarily mean there is nothing else ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. So, coming back to Himalayaa’s post, this is my two bits. Lets be more sensitive before we disparage those that cling to so-called “magical” beliefs. There is no such thing as false hope.