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Bipolar Disorder


I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 23. I began the Bikram practice at the age of 29, 11 years ago. I was overweight, isolated and living months at a time with depression that kept me in bed for most hours of most days every winter. I began practicing Bikram Yoga and knew immediately that this practice would be good for me, if not just socially and for weight management but also for my circulation (I have had lymphedema since the age of 12) and for the relief of anxiety, hypo-mania and depression, all symptoms of bipolar disorder. I was fat, swollen, depressed, miserably sad, misunderstood and lonely. I was also grieving the death of my beloved older sister, D'Arcy two years earlier. She, too had bipolar disorder. She went untreated and died a drug addict. I have used Bikram Yoga successfully to help manage my bipolar mood changes. I have minimized my hypo-manic, anxious and depressive symptoms since beginning the practice in 2002 and have been without any unusual moods since 2005 (with the exception of once, after a break-up). Yoga disrupted the cyclical and predictable mood changes that I had struggled with for years, leaving a smoother, more reliable energy level from which I could live well, while still, but more quietly, "entertaining" a mental illness. This practice regulates the rhythm of my days, my metabolism, my sleep/wake cycle, my appetite, my outlook, my confidence, my socializing, my feeling of connectedness to self and to others, my weight management. The practice has provided an opportunity to cultivate the energy and discipline that it takes to manage a chronic and persistent mental illness. The practice can help one cultivate a deeper awareness of oneself for the better management of both gross and subtle mood changes, with or without the diagnosis. It has done that for me. Today, I am an Ananda Yoga and Meditation Instructor, in the same lineage as Bikram Yoga. I am also a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, Bishnu Ghosh's brother (who was Bikram's teacher). I continue to use the therapeutic, Yogic tools that I have learned for mood management on myself and I teach these to others now - with great success! By the regular practice of Bikram Yoga, people living with bipolar disorder can practice self-discipline, self-study, and devotion, all helpful and applicable conducts of behavior that apply to everyone... but that are especially therapeutic for a disorder of mood inconsistency. These tenets of Yogic philosophy have been especially important in my recovery. Yoga is like a miracle. I can't believe that there aren't more testimonials about Yoga as mood management for bipolar disorder. Hopefully there will be more, soon!

Medication was the only treatment plan for me at diagnosis. I was irresponsibly over-medicated at onset. I gained 50 pounds, my hair fell out, I was like a zombie. I had to drop out of school for 6 months, though I was expected to (and did) graduate from college. I went off of medication after one year. I resumed medication in 2005: Yoga practice gave me the clarity to understand that my brain needed something to steady the shifting tides, and that I was working as hard as I possibly could at this hot, sweaty, crazy Yoga thing that definitely helped steady my moods - more than anything else that I had ever tried - but it didn't help all the way, and I was no longer willing to spend my energy controlling - or trying to control - all of my brain's activities on my own. It was just too in-born for me to do anything about. I could finally surrender. What a gift to have such clarity. I have had a talk-therapist since 2004. Doctors think those with bipolar can live a high quality life once medicated but it must be understood that breakthrough symptoms occur no matter the medication. I found my breakthrough symptoms greatly neutralized only with a combination of the regular practice of Yoga and proper medication. Bipolar disorder has high rates of suicide, homicide and substance abuse associated with the disorder. My older sister suicided and my father and aunt both have this disorder of the brain. With this close genetic influence, it is understood that my health is delicate and I need therapies to stay active and to lead a normal life. Without Yoga, I might not be alive today. I had been in bed, for the third winter in a row, for about four months with depression in 2002 when my friends and surviving sister suggested I go to my first Bikram class. I was having suicidal thoughts at the time. Yoga literally saved my life - Bikram Yoga – because of it's popularity, accessibility and because of it's effects on the brain.

Within 24 hours of that first class, I noticed a shift in my mood that lasted from... about that second set of half-moon pose of that first class ("I can do this!") to hours later and into the next day, when I decided to go for another class. The stormy seas of my mind calmed and stayed calmer. The jabs of anxiety weren't so sharp and they finally subsided altogether (until they returned ten years later when I couldn't practice for other health reasons and had been out of the studio for over six months, illustrating the effect Yoga has on my moods biologically and the long-term effect). I lost weight, I gained strength and flexibility and I made friends and developed a community. My focus shifted from my illness to my wellness. I practiced eight out of the ten of my original trial-package days. After 2 1/2 years of practicing anywhere from five to ten times a week (a week of doubles!), in 2004 I recognized that I was not only ready to try a new medication, but that I wanted to attend a Yoga teacher training program to learn more about Yoga and why it was so fulfilling and therapeutic for me. I went from working two days a week part-time to currently teaching five to six Yoga classes a week, independently (not affiliated with any studio) and teaching twice a week privately to a client with bipolar disorder. I plan to offer more Yoga/Bipolar Therapy classes both locally and, hopefully, at conferences nationally and internationally. I hope to inspire someone to conduct and publish scientific, academic research on this subject, if I cannot execute it myself, as no research currently exists on Yoga therapy and bipolar disorder. I may be the world's expert on Yoga and bipolar disorder – I have found no others - at least, that's what three different people suggested to me, just in the last week! I have become an advocate for Yoga and bipolar therapy in my community and I continue my outreach, education, teaching and personal practice to share the therapeutic effects of Yoga to those in need and to help break the silence that veils mental illness.

Brooke West

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