Yoga, Magical Thinking and Depression

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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  Her original post (now removed due to the hoopla) has been replaced by a heartfelt apology—so I can’t quote her directly.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…

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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.

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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. 

Doctors Warn That Anti-Depressants Can Lead To Suicide

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.

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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.

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Tam says:

    i believe the major problem is with the professional doctors and not the medications themselves. Doctors are interested only in symptoms and how to treat them rather the source, if they cannot identify anything or anything serious they simply prescribe antidepressants. i feel like most of them simply learned by heart symptoms and medications without questioning or going any further in each subject/situation. personally i’ve been battling with IBS and hormonal imbalances for years, the two prescriptions i was constantly getting were antidepressants and contraception pills, which were just masking the symptoms of the situation. i’m thankful to my stubbornness for trying and experimenting with natural alternative and questioning myself for the source. Now i’m happy because i feel and i’m healthy, i took herbals medicine (most probably placebo effect), practice positive visualizations (-power of suggestion), start dancing in order to release tension and stress and finally decided to quick my job that was making me sooo unhappy (which was actually the source of mental sadness expressed in physical dysfunctionalities).

  2. sara says:

    I agree. I can’t comment on the article either, but there are a couple of points:
    Our antidepressant use is through the roof, and is concerning.
    What is a placebo if not an example of magical thinking?
    Yoga is a fantastic toolbox for maintaining wellbeing on all levels.
    We need to make our health choices consciously and in an educated way.

  3. jmlol says:

    Anti-depressants are meant to be a band-aid, but are used as if they are a cure. People are prescribed by doctors, but you wouldn’t get legal advice from an electrician…. why would you get mental health advice from a doctor and not a mental health professional.
    But, either way, positivity is proven to help; why knock it?

  4. J. Brown says:

    Appreciate this. I was just commenting on Matthew’s Facebook thread with a little bit of a similar push-back but yours is a much more thorough consideration. Hope you don’t mind if I post a link to this there but I just can’t resist. Cheers.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Yes, thought your comment was great. Like!

  5. Tiffany Rose says:

    I think the author has missed the point. I followed the commentary on Hemalyaa’s blog and I didn’t get the sense that anyone was saying that anti-depressants are the be all and end all. I think people took issue with her using her brand as a way to appear to have some expertise in mental illness and actually invited people to come to a workshop and come off their meds.

    And then in her apology post admitted that she was going to research the work of others in order to offer advice on a topic she had no expertise or business trying to profit off of.

    She like many who seem to feel that because they receive validation in their teachings via festival teaching gigs, DVDs, workshops etc have used it as a way to overreach and spread potentially dangerous opinions.

    There are plenty of mental health experts in yogaland
    Like Dr. Bessell Van Der Kolk and David Emerson, the kinds of posts Hemalayaa wrote muddy the waters with ill informed nonsense – that can cause harm.

    But I appreciate the authors perspective on magical thinking and placebo effect, and would love to see more conversations on this topic.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      I did acknowledge that most of the critique of Himalayaa was on point. My post was responding to underlying assumptions (and sometimes direct statements) that Hemalayaa was leading people down the dangerous path of airy fairy, magical thinking…as opposed to the facts of cold, hard “peer-reviewed” science.

  6. Michael says:

    First, know in your heart that what you and your husband are going through touches me greatly. I want for the two of you peace and contentment.
    The medical system the world has developed in the last one hundred and fifty years swirls around “studies” most often financed by interested parties. The outcome of these studies is, to some degree, predetermined. That is why they are so often discredited years later. It is very difficult to trust this kind of system. Dollars guide most everything in our world, as they say follow the money. If only the system had as open a mind as you. Buddah said “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      I love that quote – but apparently there is some question as to whether it is actually attributable to Buddha!

  7. Michael says:

    The quote comes from Dhammapada which are teachings of Buddah. Because of the sometimes sloppy translations of Thomas Byrom it is sometimes said that this is not a true, actual quote. Since it is acknowledged that it comes from a collection of sayings by Buddah, I’m good with it. I love the thought and what it conveys.

  8. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    Thanks for the clarification Michael!

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