Yesterday, I found out that a beloved figure in the yoga world, Michael Stone, had passed away, following a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder, a struggle he kept mostly silent and hidden. Shock rang through an international yoga community at the sudden death of one of its own. The tragedy of his passing seems all the more bitter at the thought of his internal struggle with demons largely out of his control.
It also reveals a soft underbelly of the yogic community: an expectation or preconceived notion that yoga teachers have their shit together; that they easily rise above it all and are able to remain in a continual state of zen-like balance. They're vegetarians or vegans, don't drink or swear and lead a squeaky-clean life. These stereotypes are also propagated, ad nauseum, by popular media and frankly, are reductionist and far off the mark of what yoga and meditation are all about.
But yoga is not the only victim of stereotypes. They are widespread and pervasive, and they are harmful. In my former job, every morning when I stepped into the office, I felt like I had entered Stepford suburbia, and if I didn't conform to some incredibly narrow-minded idea, imposed by others, of who I should be: a happy, smiling, pleasant, social and above all, easily acquiescing female, I paid the price, either with social isolation or eventually, in my case, dismissal.
Stereotypes are an insidious cancer that refuse to recognize the full depth and breadth of each individual, and leave no space for variety, vulnerabilities and flaws - the very things that, if brought to light and shared with one another, actually draw us together and create community.
It is a terrible tragedy that Michael Stone felt compelled to remain silent about his mental health issues, but it is a silence I fully understand. I grappled for more than a decade with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in complete silence. I couldn't bring myself to tell my family physician I was suffering these strange symptoms that were not physical. I felt I couldn't tell my parents or my friends. Only when I was living on my own and the symptoms progressively worsening, did I finally seek help because I could see the downward spiral awaiting me if I continued to do nothing.
It was one of the best decisions of my life. I sought treatment and am completely open about it now. I've managed to let go of the shame I used to feel about it, and I'm fully aware that I'm not alone. However, there remains a stronghold of shame and misunderstanding around mental illness, one that needs to be removed, so those who are suffering can rise to the surface, come into the light, and seek the help and support they need.
As a yoga teacher myself, my students should know that I am not perfect. I have shitty days. I struggle. I make bad decisions. I eat meat. I drink alcohol. I use swear words, sometimes profusely, but that takes nothing away from my passion for yoga and devotion to sharing it with as many people as I can. We need to allow space for people to be who they are, and release these rigid ideas of who we think we should be. All we need to be is ourselves.