Peace (Shanti)

by Jamie Marquis

At the end of the hour, I lay in corpse pose, shavasana, on my bright-orange yoga mat. My thoughts swam around and around until they trickled out of my eyes and I realized that I was crying. A familiar pang of grief in my chest seems to accompany me everywhere I go: school, work, home, the gym. Will it ever go away? That grief seems unattached to any particular event in my life. I’m tired of feeling this way. I’m tired of feeling sad for no reason. I’m tired of the emotional and physical exhaustion that accompanies this grief. I’m tired of faking it for everyone around me. I’m tired of faking it for myself. I want to find the cause of my depression because if I can find the root cause, I can begin to find a solution, right? I won’t have to feel sad, alone, or exhausted anymore. I will be able to enjoy the things that I love instead of feeling apathetic toward everything. I will feel like myself again.

***

At the beginning of my yoga class, we stand resolutely, uniformly, in mountain pose—breathing in unison. We are twenty-two strangers, though the others’ faces are becoming familiar to me, evenly spaced across the wood floor of the fitness studio on the upper level of the rec center. The wall to the left is made entirely of glass: one big window into the chaos of the basketball court below. Surrounding us on the upper level are weight machines clanking as muscular dudes and scrawny teens alike finish their sets. Yet here, in semi-darkness, we are safe, we are calm, we are one. The semi-darkness allows us to ignore one another and get in touch with ourselves, our own breath, our own needs, both physical and emotional.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The yoga breath, ujjayi (OOH-jai-ee), resonates at the back of the throat. The inhales should fill your lungs and your belly, the exhales should force it all out. This exhaling is used to release not only air, but pent-up energy that needs a place to go. I am a sigh-er, so ujjayi comes easily to me. It is done with the mouth closed: in through the nose, out through the nose. Ujjayi is noisy—I have heard instructors describe it as the ocean breath or as Darth Vader breathing. It sounds like that guy asleep next to you on an airplane, not quite snoring but breathing loud enough that he might as well be. Ujjayi is an audible breath whose roots should start deep within you.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

We spend the first few minutes of every yoga class breathing slowly and deeply, a welcome change to my regular shallow breathing. The music playing over the speakers starts off calmly at the beginning of class to slow us down so that later we can speed up with purpose—this is power yoga after all. The breath drives the movements to get us into each yoga pose. The breath stabilizes us. The breath brings us back to the core of what it means to be alive.

Breathing is an unlearned action. From the moment a baby comes out of the womb, nurses, doctors, and parents alike wait to hear those first cries: an indication that the baby’s lungs work. Breathing is so fundamental and yet we do it subconsciously. Sure, we can control it if we try, but most of the time our breath controls us. My breath tells me I should run more when I huff and puff after walking up four flights of stairs in the Tanner Building. My breath tells me to never socialize again when I’m anxiously waiting for a date to come pick me up. My breath tells me it’s time for bed when I can’t stop yawning. Every day, my breath controls me. But in yoga, I reclaim ownership.

Each movement in the yoga sequence gets one breath:

Inhale, arms up overhead.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, lift halfway up.

Exhale, forward fold, lower to plank chaturanga.

Inhale, upward dog.

Exhale, downward dog.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale, prepare.

Inhale, step, walk, or jump your feet to your hands.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, lift halfway up.

Exhale, forward fold.

Inhale, come all the way up, arms up overhead.

Exhale, return to standing; mountain pose, samastitihi.

We repeat this sun salutation five times, taking it one breath and one movement at a time. In power yoga, we learn progressions—small steps in order to accomplish more difficult balances and postures. In therapy, I learn coping mechanisms, small things I can do in order to deal with the everyday presence of depression.

Sometimes therapy is relieving, an hour during which my emotions start to make sense. Other times, therapy is really hard, and I leave more emotionally exhausted than I arrived. With the natural light of early August washing over me through my wide bedroom window, I sat rigidly at my desk, barely able to breathe. Every muscle in my body was suddenly tense—this was going to be a tough session. My fear and anxiety came on suddenly, and I don’t remember what hypothetical situation posed to me by my therapist brought it on. This floating head on my computer screen coached me through a kind of mindfulness exercise, a meditation.

I don’t really believe in meditation in the traditional sense, probably because I’m not very good at it. My thoughts are unable to vacate my mind; they tumble over each other constantly like a class of excited preschoolers fighting for the teacher’s attention: “Look at me! Look at me!” “I really want a kitty but my mommy said I can’t have one because my brother is allergic. What does allergic mean?” “My crayon broke.” “When are you going to read to us?”

I tried to focus on my breath.

A shallow inhale.

A short exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

In difficult yoga poses, you are instructed to breathe into different parts of your body. For warrior, virabhadrasana, the breath must travel upward and out of your hands and simultaneously give power to your engaged thighs for a strong base. When you are mastering the pose bird of paradise, svarga dvijasana, you have to breathe into your hamstrings. For a headstand, salamba sirsasana, you send the breath to your core. In this moment of paralyzing fear and anxiety over a hypothetical situation, I employed what I knew about the yoga breath. I breathed into the tense muscles in my arms and back. I sent the breath to my fists. I sent it to my legs and to my core.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

I wasn’t really listening to anything he was saying, another reason I’m bad at meditation; it took all of me just to breathe. Slowly, but surely, I began to relax and let go of that fear and anxiety. My yoga breathing technique had a different name here: expansion—allowing room for emotions to be experienced, letting them exist in the space they needed.

My first therapy session can be described in three words: tears, relief, and diagnosis. For months (maybe even years?) I have felt hollow, apathetic, sad for no particular reason. A sudden disconnection from my closest friends, friends I had known for fifteen years, left me feeling confused and abandoned and utterly miserable. I had just gotten home from a multi-state, week-long road trip with them where we got closer than ever before, where I was the happiest I had been in months, and now they weren’t speaking to me. They were golfing without me, together. They were going on camping trips with people that I also knew. They were planning game nights and movie nights and I was inviting myself.

The tears were flowing before I could even open my mouth and say what brought me to therapy. Years of bottled-up emotion came spilling to the surface, unrestrained. Years of being punished for being unable to control my emotions. “Don’t have another coming-apart,” my dad used to say. I have spent the last twenty-three years of my life learning to suppress my emotions and they finally caught up to me; they had nowhere to go. I hate that my throat and the insides of my ears burn when I try to talk while I’m crying. My voice gets strained and catches on itself. I breathe heavily trying to steady myself. I hate it because I feel like any outward sign of emotion discredits the message being shared.

I cried and talked and cried some more while this stranger, my first therapist, listened. The first thing he said to me after I spilled my guts over Zoom was that I checked almost every box for depression. And I felt relieved to hear that. I wonder if other people are excited when they are diagnosed with a mental illness; I was. What I’m experiencing has a name; my feelings and emotions are valid; what I’m dealing with is being researched and studied. This diagnosis gave me answers as to why I haven’t had an appetite for almost three years, why even though I am doing things that I once loved, they no longer spark joy within me. After that first therapy session, the words of Mr. Rogers dominated my thoughts: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.”

Mr. Rogers was right. After months and even years of my unmentionable inner turmoil, I opened up to a trusted ally, a trained professional, and my depression suddenly seemed manageable after just one session. Not gone, but manageable.

Power yoga has been a grounding constant in my life for the last year, a secret coping mechanism for my emotional state that now had a name. My usually-sedentary limbs crave the sensation of gentle extension and near-constant movement. My heart gets excited for an activity that increases its rate without making me feel like I am going to die. My mind yearns for this space where I can process the chaos of life without having to think about it all forthright. My lungs all but scream at me to let them do their job. My eardrums have learned my instructor’s playlist, and they anticipate the change from Post Malone’s “Better Now” to Kesha’s “Praying,” songs and artists that are fairly unorthodox for a yoga class. I have fallen in love with the routine of the class and how, even though we move through the same flow of poses to the same playlist week after week, I am not bored but energized.

I love yoga because it is not about the destination or the end result. It is not about forcing your body into an unnatural posture. Yoga is about listening to your body and making adjustments when needed. It’s about breathing, connecting, lengthening, releasing.

Inhaling.

Exhaling.

Inhaling.

Exhaling.

After only two therapy sessions, we had identified at least one root cause of my depression: a lack of human connection. My friends had unconsciously abandoned me, my parents are on a mission in Australia, my three older sisters are married and my younger sister has her own friends, my roommates have their significant others and in the midst of this global pandemic, I truly have no one.

A few sessions later, I found myself in tears once again (will I ever not cry during therapy?). Yes, we had found one root cause of my depression, but I know there are more hiding deep within me. They are like vampires: never sleeping, hiding from the light, draining me of the very things that bring me life. They are unwilling to be coaxed out of the safety of their dark and cramped hideouts. They love the darkness, they love loneliness. If we can bring them into the light to identify them then we can fix them and then I’ll be healed, right?

***

I kept going to therapy just like I kept going to yoga. The hour is sometimes uncomfortable, and it can be challenging. It is a weekly routine, and yet it requires conscious effort every time. There are still obstacles for me to overcome, mental blocks I can’t hurdle over no matter how hard I try. More often than not, I cry—big fat sobs during therapy, small trickles of release in yoga. My mind wanders and I have to bring it back again and again. I forget that I’m supposed to be breathing, so I refocus on that.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

Exhale.

In yoga, you’re supposed to set an intention at the beginning of your practice. Your intention can be a word, a phrase. Like the breath, it is supposed to guide your practice and recenter you when you get off track. It is supposed to ground you, to sustain you. It is a point of focus, a drishti for the mind.

In therapy, I am asked what I want to talk about during our session. Like my yoga intention, I am never prepared for it. My ever-racing mind is suddenly blank. I still don’t know what is triggering my depression.

***

Weeks of therapy turned into months, and I have overstayed my welcome at CAPS, my university’s counseling and psychological services. I leave with something more valuable to me than a cure: I leave with peace. I leave with tools. I am not healed; I am still depressed. I still have hard days and I know that I’m not done with therapy. But I am at peace with my situation. It seems like as soon as I said out loud, through angry tears, that I needed to find the cause of my depression in order to heal, I was able to recognize something important: I can be depressed and be at peace. I can be striving to get better and recognize that I don’t have to be healed tomorrow. Would I like to be able to run a marathon without a problem? Sure, but for now I am content with my nine-minute mile. Do I wish I could do pushups in a handstand? Of course, who doesn’t want to be able to do that? But right now, I’m just ecstatic that I can hold a handstand for even a few seconds. Do I want to be invariably happy? Absolutely. But am I okay with where I am? Honestly? I think I am.

So I’m not where I want to be. I’m not surrounded by people that I love—we are scattered all over. I don’t have the fulfilling job of my dreams—rather, I am buried in my own schoolwork and papers to grade. I am not perfectly, incandescently happy—I’m sad, but it’s not unmanageable. The fact of the matter is, I am still taking steps to get there. That fact alone brings me peace. I don’t care about the speed or the size of my steps anymore. I care that I’m taking steps. I care that they’re in the right direction.

I care that I go to yoga every week.

I care that I go to therapy.

I care that I am running two or three times per week.

I care that I can recognize when I need human connection.

I care that I know my limits.

I care that I respect and honor myself, my feelings, my emotions, my needs, my wants.

I care that I am self-aware.

And I think that is the greatest progress of all. 

Jamie Marquis is from Lindon, Utah and is an avid yogi who loves doing all things outside. She is the fourth of five daughters and loves her family dearly. She is graduating with her undergraduate degree in Experience Design and Management from the BYU Marriott School of Business in August 2021 and is ecstatic about what the future has to offer. Jamie spends her free time listening to Taylor Swift, reading, hiking, running, doing yoga, playing with her niece and nephew, thinking about the Olympics, and binge-watching TV series.