yoga for depression

Magical Thinking, Yoga, and Internal Inquiry


Mostly, yoga is bullshit. This is breaking my heart.

One of my teachers says I should allow my heart to break.  Another shrugs when I say I'm about ready to leave the path and start working retail.  Leaving the path may be the path, he says.  Neither of these feel helpful. I'm finding myself standing still in the middle of the room a lot, lately, forgetting what I meant to do or losing the motivation. I find myself pausing before the locked studio door in the mornings, looking at the key, asking some kind of question that doesn't have words.

I started to write this last week.  I had been invited to a party.  Since I live in bare feet and messy hair, I generally thrill at the chance to put on a dress.  I've lived in New York and Paris, after all.  I am a woman who firmly believes in pretty shoes.  I sat down, the pretty dress on but the shoes, not.  They lay on the floor in front of the closet.  I looked at the shoes and I poked around with what I was feeling.  The yoga people were going to be at this party.  When I say that, I mean Lululemon, Yoga Fit, and Core Power.  A new yoga magazine has been launched.  As a studio owner, I ought to be there.  I ought, really, to advertise in it.  But their rates gave me sticker shock that lasted four hours and no small amount of cussing.  The party was to be artfully catered.  The magazine spread boasts luxury spa retreats, a few recipes, and a solid block of pretty ads with pretty girls.

My ambiguity about the party wasn't really about the party.  It probably wasn't even about the magazine.  In my normal mood, I would have damned the pretense but enjoyed the swank music and night out.  But there was too much subtext.  My mood was fragile.

The yoga world has been gearing up for something called International Yoga Day.  Studios are hosting special classes.  They're running sales. The internet and social media preen and belch.  But no one mentions that this event is largely being pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Indian BJP.

I'm crabby. There's a new mn yoga magazine and they're running a column called "ask a swami". Green smoothies and finding your tribe (on a beach, apparently) are in the same sentences as satya and ahimsa. Its my day off and maybe I'm just exhausted, maybe it's my own crap coming up, but all I really want to do is quit and stay laying right here. Be very angry or start working retail and leave this yoga crap to the corporate gyms and self help self publishing monolith. The bad guys win. The goodness in us is wounded. I'm tired. #yogateacher

A photo posted by Karin (@coalfury) on May 18, 2015 at 1:09pm PDT

Modi's government is enforcing yoga postures much in the way the third Reich pushed calisthenics.  Modi is connected to a government that is selling wide swaths of his country off to global corporations - think Lehman brothers - dispossessing an already starving people living on less than 20 rupees a day.  Modi is mobilizing one of the largest armies in the world against some of the poorest and hungriest people in the world.  India is allying itself with the U.S. (and Isreal) against China, much in the way Afghanistan was drawn into the orbit of the U.S. against Russia in a previous cold war.  We've seen how that worked out.  International Yoga Day is Modi's nationalist propaganda.  It's then taken up by yoga studios in the west as a very good idea.  I bristled.  I began to write this all down.

Then the shootings in Charleston happened, and I stopped writing.

* When I was a little girl, I really wanted a pony.  I believed I would - someday, after I rode my pony to Olympian fame and wrote a Book - fall in Love and live happily ever after.   I've heard that other people dream of being President.  Or flying.

I'm a recovering alcoholic and the only woman I know who has two bought-as-wedding-dresses, never worn, hanging in my closet.  I haven't ridden a horse in years.

It seems to me that much of our understanding and practice of yoga is this naive.  It amounts to magical thinking.  Suffering begins in the mind, says the superficial reading of this stuff: think positively and your suffering will end.  Doors are said to open and teachers appear.  Wealth is said to manifest.  We will, vaguely, thrive.

Magical thinking is self indulgent, petty, and dangerous.  It's a version of spirituality that hasn't grown up.  Most of us stopped believing in Santa Claus and many of the tenets of 'theology' a long time ago; the archaic structures of religion no longer seem relevant in our post-modern and post-metaphysical world.  We believe in science, after all.  The premises of Buddhism, yoga, and 'mindfulness' suck us in like Walmart's halo over a parkinglot.  Convenient.  It's all the sweetness of soul, with no god in it!  We can go for this.  We consume it.

And why shouldn't we? It's so pretty.  Who wouldn't want to meditate in Costa Rica?

Who wouldn't buy a product that packages 'happiness' backed by modern day science?

We've overlooked, or failed to appreciate, the more substantial and difficult teachings of this path.  The prior ones.  The difficult work of accepting pain as true.  Ourselves as self-interested and completely, absolutely, contingent.

Sometimes, pain doesn't go away.  Sometimes we are rejected.  We don't thrive.  How could we thrive when we don't even live up to our own standards? Green smoothies, aside.  I used to think I was a pretty damaged piece of work.  But any perusal of Barnes and Nobel and it's oversized self help, motivational, and DIY sections reminds me I am not the only one.

Yoga students swarm to the teachers who promise 15 day makeovers, personal power, and bliss. The modern popularity of mindfulness isn't indicative of a healing culture.  It only proves how many of us are wounded.


Today, in India, a right wing government is pushing yoga exercises.  In our Western yoga culture, yogis push yoga in the schools.  I am concerned.

Magical thinking is dangerous.  It pushes 'living our truth' to narcissistic action.  It displaces responsibility for doing our own work onto 'the divine' or 'karma'.  Magical thinking obverts self inquiry and neglects the suffering of the world.

We are dangerously loose with our stories about what 'yoga' and 'India' are.  We idealize, taking what works for us while dismissing what we don't want, a kind of buffet style enlightenment. We adopt the names of Hindu goddesses or the sanskrit words for 'fire' or 'space'.  We hold big festivals with reggae superimposed on Kirtan and asana teachers signing autographs to applause and sighs.  We have no real idea what India is, and tend to forget that Pakistani border, let alone Kashmir and the Tamil, the Maosit uprising, megacity overwhelm and the displaced agrarian community in which IMF and microbank endebted farmers commit suicide and an overwhelming - unthinkable - number of human beings live in famine conditions.  We forget that Muslims even live there.  If we do remember, we remember only in the context of terrorism;  we wonder what 'kind' of Muslims they are.

Tourist yogis who go to trainings and retreats in India send back Instagram pictures of themselves posing in temples, climbing on holy sites, and doing asana in front on the poor street children. Meanwhile, back stateside, the confluence of money and power results in sex scandals. What sells is emphasized over what is honest. Franchised studios shadow Starbucks like a kid brother.  Local studios disappear.  Advertising goes sexy.  Youtube videos teach people to do advanced asana and suddenly orthopeadic surgeons and physical therapists are treating yoga injuries as often as hockey injuries.  Sweaty, enthusiastic urbanites chant 'om' in spa like settings but few of them chant in protests, and while we're vaguely aware of riots in Baltimore we don't do anything other than post on Facebook about it.  Yoga 'service' trips amount to a vacation to third world countries, nominally advocating but really accomplishing about as much damage as Christian missionary work did.  We didn't realize a flash mob style 'om the bridge' event in Vancouver would insult First Nations people or inconvenience anybody.

We didn't think about anybody, at all.

We just wanted to feel whole.

And then the shootings happened in Charleston.


In trying to hold the space of the studio open to process the shooting, I felt exhaustion.  As though I were holding the walls up with my shoulders.  I found myself saying what my teachers have been saying, to me.  I get the irony.

What I say as a teacher is always something my teachers have said to me.

I didn't invent the path.

But I know what it says: now, the heart is breaking.  Now, the teachings of yoga.


I say this, often, when I teach:  we don't practice for the good days.  We practice for when it gets hard. I've wanted to say, in the national debate about mental illness, gun control, and the goddamned confederate flag, that we were racist last week, too.  I've wanted to say Baltimore.  Ferguson.  I don't know a black person who hasn't lived with racism their whole entire lives, and if I inspect my own life I find it in there, too.

I talk about death and grief and mourning in my classes, I talk about the waste feeling of our busy lives, I talk about fear and sadness.  I try to say love and strength and healing, but I say death. Grief.  Ghosts.  I know that in every single class I teach, there is someone who has lost someone near in the last few weeks.  I know this affects a persons practice for a year and more; I've seen it, even if they are so close to their own thoughts and bodies they can't see it for themselves.  I know that in every class there is trauma, financial fear, self doubt, people who have been rejected, taken for granted, people who are afraid to grow old.

I want, sometimes, to say 'feel how much I love you'.  I want to say hope and I end up saying look at your life.  I suppose these are the same thing.


There is more, subtext.  I've been full of piss and vinegar at the yoga world in recent weeks.  But that isn't new.

What is new is my own body going through a shift.  I had thought my yoga practice and changed lifestyle 'healed', mostly, my fibromyalgia.  In recent months, the pain has been steady.  I'm laid up and a week later I'm laid up again.  I feel betrayed.  I feel confused.  I wonder how I can teach if my body starts to give out.  I wonder how seriously I can take the 'healing' promises, if I am losing my health.  I wonder how seriously I can be taken.

There is more, still.  My best friend died this spring.  I wasn't expecting it and I wasn't expecting how deeply grief would move into my days.

And perhaps it is grief, only.  Or grief and physical illness.  But I'm watching myself lose my appetite, sleep, motivation.  I realize I'm depressed.  This makes me angry.  I ask someone for a referral for a therapist.

This is the question: did my lifestyle of overwork and physically using my body as a business tool lead to a worsening of my chronic condition?  Did grief trigger it?  Did depression fray my tolerance of the (always has been there) yoga bullshit to the point of disillusion?  What does any of this have to do with the shootings in Charleston, a pair of high heels, a continent I've never been to?

My teachers have shrugged.  This has felt like loneliness.  I keep finding myself standing still in the middle of the room, some forgotten thing in my hand.  But I know they are giving me solid, and downright traditional, guidance.  They are pointing me back to my own heart, asking me to stay with the question of my life, to answer not with ultimatums or theory but with as honest a next moment as I can stand.

I've been telling people, over and over again: yoga began as inner inquiry.  Through all of it's variations, history, branding.  Through all of those flashy characters and instagram super stars.  Through it's becoming a mass practice directly because of it's association with Indian nationalism.

My writing in the last few months has been hijacked.  It's all about grief.  Or perhaps, more truthfully, about friendship.  Maybe there is no difference: grief, friendship. When he died, I got a tattoo.  This was silly.  Also, not.  I lay in the back of a tattoo parlor in the East Village and listened to the punk rock we used to listen to, back when the East Village was the East Village and we were 16.  I get the irony.  The tattoo has words, they say 'I know I have a soul, because you touched it'.  This is what friends do for us. Make us better.  Illuminate our stupidity. Give us a sense of home and self.  The words of the tattoo are covered with more tattoo, a wordless black band.  

The friend is gone and all I'm left with is this shitty tattoo.  And when the hard days come, the only thing left is soul.  I'd be lying if I said I can wrap my head around this.  

It is impossible to step out of my body.  It is magical thinking to think that my body is anything but the body politic, that there is not a direct sutra-ed thread between my body and nine other bodies lying dead in a church.  There is a direct line between commercialism, economics, and terrorism.  I am all tangled up.  

It is maturity to know this, to go on loving when the heart breaks.  I can't very well leave the path, if I am it.  I might as well have some good shoes.  One of the teachers says: if yoga means union, what is it we are joining?  And what does that union feel like?  I am not writing about rage or morbid grief.  I am writing about love.  

I was, however, totally dressed for the occasion. A photo posted by Karin (@coalfury) on Jun 12, 2015 at 8:59pm PDT

Private yoga sessions with Karin

Traditionally, yoga was ‘whispered wisdom’, a lineage handed down from one teacher to one student.  As yoga burst into the American mainstream, group classes became the norm.  This is wonderful, as it allows anybody anywhere to experience yoga.  It can be a cost effective way to have a consistent practice.  It means we can try out different styles, different teachers, and different locations.  It means you can find a yoga class wherever in the world you happen to go. However, classes can be intimidating, alienating, or too generalized for what you most need and want.  Private sessions return yoga to its heart: the goal of personal transformation.

Let's face it; 'yoga classes' simply don't feel right for many of us.  That in no way means yoga is not an option.

In my own practice and as a teacher, I have seen that a few private yoga classes can teach more than years of group classes.  This is especially true at the beginning of a practice, at a point of ‘taking it to the next level’, or when students have specific physical, emotional, or private concerns.  Private sessions are entirely adaptive, supportive, and personal: any body, with any degree of mobility, can find here the profound healing, restoration, and preventative benefits of a yoga practice.

The basics: $125 per session.  Each session lasts about an hour and a half.  I strongly recommend that you commit to taking these in a sequence- taking a single class will give you a lot of information but no follow through.  To make this more accessible, you can purchase 4 privates and get a fifth for free.

Students New To Yoga

Starting a yoga practice with a few private sessions can rapidly introduce both a sense of familiarity and ‘easing in’.  It can break down some of the barriers of intimidation and alienation we feel in walking into a group of people we perceive to be ‘better’ at yoga than us, more flexible, more strong, or more confidant.  Working with a teacher who will directly answer any question you might have and who can explain yogic concepts and postures as they apply to you and your body, your lifestyle, your experience is an invaluable gift.  It is also entirely possible to set up an ongoing private session as your practice evolves; this can help you assess where you are, how to advance, and keep your practice rather than a synchronized yoga team as the goal.

Taking it to the Next Level

“I am currently in a teacher training program, and stumbled on Karin’s webpage.  After a single class with her, I knew I had found my teacher.  I learned more from her classes, her insights, and her conversations than I have in any trainings or workshops I’ve attended.  She has clearly made yoga a calling and not a career.  She watches to make yoga work, really work, for each and every one of her students.  You don’t find that in most teachers or studios.  You just don’t.” – Cari S

“I am a yoga teacher. I consider Karin to be a ‘teacher’s teacher’.  She teaches yoga of the heart, yoga of life, yoga as the whole experience of being alive.” David S

“Knowing Karin has taught me how to make yoga real – not a brand name or a thing I do once a week, but real.” anonymous

“I’ve practiced yoga for more than 30 years and I have never understood or felt alignment the way I do when Karin teaches.  Not all teachers are teachers.  Karin is.” Maria K

Sometimes we plateau in a yoga practice.  Sometimes we just wonder how the heck what we do on our mats is supposed to translate to ‘the path’.  And sometimes we need to know more; we become interested in arm balances, say, or we are worried our practice has to change as we age, or we want to use yoga as part of training for a marathon.  I’ve worked with a number of people who are in or are considering yoga teacher training and are hungry for dialogue.  Whatever the prompting, private sessions are a powerful way to take your group classes, your home practice, your path a little deeper.  It doesn’t take much – a private or two every once in a while radically transforms a practice.

Yoga Therapy, Yoga for Mobility, Weight loss, Personal Training, or Emotional Healing

We know – science has proven – that yoga works with things from anxiety to cardio vascular disease to Parkinson’s disease and fibromyagia in ways pills and talk therapy can’t do.  But we may also struggle to feel a group class is right for us, or how we can possibly participate.  Private sessions allow you to learn the appropriate modifications, experience the full benefits of postures, express any and all concerns and have them addressed.  All Return Yoga classes are open to and appreciate the participation of beginners and those who adapt their poses: but stepping into a class means the teacher cannot focus on you constantly.  Taking a private session or two can give you the confidance and information you need to adapt group classes appropirately and safely.  Yoga CAN be practiced safely, promote self healing, and turn limitations into strong points. Yoga IS for you, it’s just a matter of answering to your specific needs.

Life coaching, spiritual direction, philosophy, distance coaching

“Yoga”, real yoga, does not mean yoga class or physical postures.  Long story short, yoga is an eight limbed path, and the physical practice of asana is only one of those eight branches.  Many of us are interested in all those other branches.  This is incredibly important and something I want to encourage.  Further, many of us need time to process and dialogue our yoga experience, ask questions, or get some insight into that vast and often times confusing world that is ‘yoga’.  Many of us suspect ‘yoga’ might help but aren’t interested in the group style format.  Private sessions allow for all of this.  It’s your time.  Sessions can be all asana (physical practices), all conversation, or a blend of both.  Karin has training as a counselor, crisis intervention specialist, and advocate.

Quick FAQs

Who are private yoga sessions for? 

Any of the above (new to yoga, looking to start a home practice, wanting to take it to the next level, or have a specific concern).  Privates are also frequently recommended as a starting point or addition to group classes for fertility issues, obesity, disability, anxiety, depression, PTSD, pre and post natal, stress, chronic pain, cancer recovery, sleep trouble, illness….

Q: Why are Private Sessions Recommended for Herniated or Ruptured Spinal Disks? Many doctors are suggesting yoga to people with disk issues. Yoga can be very therapeutic and provide back pain relief. However, certain postures offered in a group class setting could also aggravate disk conditions. Safety and ahimsa (non-harming) is our first priority. With a little private coaching, someone with a disk issue can learn how to practice yoga safely alone or in a group class. In just one private session, a student can gain a basic understanding of which postures are most useful to their condition, which ones to avoid, and which ones to approach in a modified form.

Q: Why are Private Yoga Sessions Recommended for Pregnancy? Pregnancy is such an individual experience that it deserves individual attention and support. This personal guidance empowers the mother to be to practice safely. She can then attend ANY regular group yoga class at her leisure with the understanding of how to take care of herself by modifying postures to avoid strain or injury to the baby.

Q: What do I Bring to a Private Yoga Session? – What do I Wear? – How do I Prepare? There is nothing you need to do to prepare for your private session. If you have a spinal condition like scoliosis and you may want to bring a your X-rays or MRI report for the instructor to review. Wear clothing that is comfortable and will stretch and move with your body. You are encouraged to bring a notebook and pen. If you can, you may want to write down your questions or concerns in the days before your private to bring with you.

Your mental health

Jim Campbell - OmLight Yoga Photography

Earlier today I had a conversation about mental illness.  It made me think of yoga, and I posted on the facebook page.  But then that same friend and I talked again, and he reminded me of the difficulty: on the one hand, it is too easy to call negative emotions or problems in life 'illness' when it is part of being human; on the other hand, 'mental illness', along with a hit list of things from fibromyalgia to IBS to PTSD, are too often minimized and dismissed as being 'in your head'. Clarity: it is not just in your head.  I hope that anyone who knows my teaching knows I believe these things to be very real, very physical, a cornerstone to reality.  I do not advocate over simplistic views of 'healing' that encourage you to meditate your way past DNA or cancer or depression or alcoholism or schizophrenia.

But I do think - I know - that yoga helps.

Western medicine (humanity, maybe) has floundered on these kinds of illness, and yoga offers a kind of healing that is unheard of, elsewhere.  I do not say it makes it all better.  I do not promise symptoms will all go away.  I cannot make the blind see or the dead rise and I will never, ever tell someone NOT to listen to their doctor.

The best shot you've got involves both your doctor and your yoga.

Here is what I said on facebook:

talked with a friend this morning about 'mental illness'. How, of all the medical conditions in the world, most of which have seen an improvement in life expectancy in recent years, the opposite is true for the chronically depressed, anxious, and struggling.

Yoga helps, I kept thinking. Yoga heals. I know this is true.

But I also know that 'illness' is itself limiting. There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, sad, or angry. Life is anxiety provoking. We should feel sad and angry.

The problem is not that we feel these things, but that we feel overwhelmed and damaged by what we feel.Yoga, though, teaches us different. Teaches us to find more more meaning and more power from what we feel. To use these very things to feel more alive, not less so.Yoga helps. I know this is true.

The fact is, anyone who tells you they have a cure or it is all in your head is minimizing your experience.  Anyone who tells you they can change the way you feel or that you SHOULD change the way you feel is being harmful and dishonest and misleading in very important ways.


I do not want to offer you something to make you feel better or to change you.  I want to say it's okay to feel what you feel.  To say yes, I see it, it is there.


To say, still: yoga helps.  I know this.


Oddly, though, I want to throw in an immediate caveat: yoga isn't for everybody.  The gurus who try to tell you their yoga is for everyone are false gurus.  This yoga has worked for me, and I believe there is a yoga that will work for everyone.  It may not be called 'yoga'.  It may have nothing to do with physical postures or breathing or philosophy.  But if it is an ongoing personal transformation, it qualifies in my book.


I throw caveats, everywhere.  Like breadcrumbs.  As if I'm going very deep into the unknown woods.  Perhaps I am.


Mental health.  Yoga for everyone.  I think I will continue to write on these things, to teach and to practice and to sweat them out.  I am not preaching answers.  I'm asking questions.


The problem with mental health is hopelessness, pathology, and society.  Within the individual, healing and a full, humane, joyful life are entirely possible.  Yoga is the process of finding it.


I know, this: I am watching someone I love be destroyed by active alcoholism and am maddened by her inability to see it, crushed by my inability to understand why I was able to get better and she has not.

I sat with a woman for a long time last week talking of chronic, debilitating depression and crushed my fingernails into my palms as she said she didn't believe she could ever have kids for fear she'd pass 'this' on, yet she was grief stricken by her loss; she didn't believe she'd be able to live to old age if it kept on this way, that suicide is inevitable; I knew exactly what she meant.  I know, because I have that depression, too.  I tried to explain that I have it - I have it STILL - but that it is different, now.  That it is truly my strong point, my revolution, my actual reason for being alive and finding joy and being strong.  I cannot much explain it, but it happened on a yoga mat.

I have seen autism, trauma, manic states, and schizophrenia change because of a yoga practice, people become alive again and not crushed, not broken, but sweet and powerful and glad to be alive.

These are the questions.

If this is possible, why not try?