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The Effortless Breath

Sep 13, 2012

One year ago, I began the pursuit of Yoga therapy research demonstrating the efficacy of Yoga therapy on mood management in bipolar disorder. For more than 365 days, I have been astonished, stunned and baffled, over and over, by the lack of information on such potent therapy for this dangerous and, often deadly, disease.

I know first-hand the destructive nature of this disorder when left un-medicated. Now, I am your most “gani,” most health-food store-y, most au natural gal you can find. I normally eschew medications. I was raised a Christian Scientist, where doctors are passed over for prayer, even in one’s time of dying. But bipolar disorder calls for different measures, and psychosis cannot be prayed away. In fact, it often leads to suicide or, more socially punishable, homicide.

And my family has been ravaged by this illness. My aunt, my father’s sister, traces bipolar disorder back along our family lines to “the crazy Welsh side of the family, the Wests.” That aunt had her break in her forties during her divorce, after her kids had grown and moved out of the house. She is now supported by lithium and by the finances of my father.

My father, a highly successful, creative advertising executive and, later, jeweler, has never been properly treated for his mercurial inner life. He has self-medicated with alcohol and prescription medication since before I was born. He has had few lasting relationships. My mother divorced him, he left when I was seven. He and I are estranged and have been since about age 10.

My sister, D’Arcy, my brilliant, gorgeous, funny, smart older sister, never was properly treated and her moods took her through addiction to drugs from age 12 to 30 when she died of a drug-overdose, a suicide, and a broken heart from a failed relationship. It is to her that I dedicate this Yoga Therapy work.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college. I don’t talk about it much, fearing stigma and changed attitudes toward me. Hiding my illness has become habit. I have learned to become vigilant. Hiding my treatment, however, my personal discovery of Yoga as therapy for mood modification, can no longer be a practice for me. Yoga has worked too well. It sustains me. Too many people can benefit from this information. Research must be done. Advocacy and education are essential. Access must be created.

So I dare to come out.

Not associated with a hospital, college or other institution, without a Master’s degree and on a Yoga teacher’s budget, I have spent over 20 hours per week, on average, since September of 2011, making phone calls, writing emails, searching the Web, reading books and journals and magazines, learning about research designs and scales and measures, discovering Institutional Review Boards, learning to read research articles, meeting with local mental health organizations and chapters, presenting this idea, educating on Yoga and on research and on bipolar disorder, sharing my story, offering free Yoga classes, developing relationships with new mentors, deepening relationships with existing mentors, talking to my instructors, continuing my Yoga Therapist certification through classes at The Expanding Light at Ananda, where I have trained as a Yoga instructor and as a Meditation instructor…

In August, I traveled to Sacramento to discuss this project with a psychiatrist who already incorporates Yoga into his practice, Dr. Paul Copeland. He acknowledged that this project has great potential, greater than he was willing to take on presently. I do not travel much, on my budget and as an owner of two dogs, so making the trip was significant in displaying my commitment to this project, to Dr. Copeland and to myself.

In the last year, I have communicated with The Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, The National Institutes of Health, researchers at Stanford, Harvard, Brown University, UCLA, UC San Francisco, University of Iowa, University of Southern Indiana, UC Merced, Ananda University, NIMH, Johns Hopkins, Dr. Camille O’Bryant at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Dr. Foresman of Arroyo Grande, CA, Yoga Instructors Shoosh Crotzer, Nicole DeAvilla, Barbara Bingham, Liz Owen, Patricia Walden, Bo Forbes, Amy Weintraub, Leslie Daly, Laura Ghiringhelli Knutson, Julie Clayburgh, Dr. David Shannahoff-Khalsa, Cottage Hospital of Santa Barbara, Johanna Powden NP and staff at San Luis Obispo County Mental Health, Niroga Institute, local MFTs Kelsey Kehoe, Cynthia Saffell, Ruth Lapp, and Michelle Kilcoyne, Katy Hansen LCSW, local psychiatrists Dr. Douglas Murphy and Dr. Russel Marks, LA Yoga Magazine, The International Bipolar Foundation, SPOKES, STRIDE,, Kelly Boys of iRest, Kelly McGonigal, Kelly Birch and John Kepner of The International Association of Yoga Therapists, Dr. Lisa Uebelacker, Elyn Saks, The Amen Clinics, Julianna Englund-Flores ND, Mark Schector ND DO, Krishna Kaur, Windhorse of San Luis Obispo, Prajna Yoga, Rob Steffke and Daniela DiPiero of Movimiento, LinkedIn Yoga, Meditation and Mental Health groups, Bipolar Today, Yoga For The Mind, The National Council of Community Behavioral Healthcare, Mental Health America, Bipolar Advantage, California Institute of Integral Studies, Drug and Alcohol Services of San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Obispo Community Foundation, Healing Yoga Foundation, Bikram Yoga San Luis Obispo, Sukha Wellness Center, QOYA and countless other Yoga instructors, friends and family members.

This list is not exhaustive.

This project has consumed my life a little, admittedly, but it is my life and it feeds me. Yoga and bipolar disorder are my life, my every effortless breath. I stay aware to stay well, for my life. Every thought matters. Every breath counts, so I now stay vigilant with intention, for my wellness. For my life.

My frustration is that no one of the above named has any more information than I do about using Yoga as a tool for mood management in bipolar disorder. It has been suggested that I may be one of the world’s leading experts on the subject and that it may be up to me alone to expand this project.

I need help.

Last week, my research mentor, Dr. Brandon Eggleston, informed me that he had too many other commitments and had no further time for this project. Brandon had been my liason to his university’s Institutional Review Board, should I pursue a group study. Because of the climate in my community and perhaps also because of my inexperience with organizing such endeavors, I have not been able to cull even a small group of locals living with bipolar disorder willing to participate in three months of free Yoga classes to conduct a pilot study, thus I was not able to take Brandon up on his offer to assist through his school’s IRB. My sense is that he does have a lot going on, that I would be indulgent to take his removal of himself personally. Still, I am terribly disappointed. He has been very important to me both personally and professionally.

This week, I have been in touch with Stephanie Teasdale of STRIDE at Cal Poly and she is asking around for potential grad students interested in collaborating with me. Who knows, I may go back to school myself.

I feel discouraged, frustrated, hopeful and proud. It all depends on where I look, what I focus upon, how I choose to think.

Still, this work has been effortless. My passion is driven by inspiration, by the love I feel when remembering my sister, by the conviction that Yoga helps and must be made accessible to those with mental illness, perhaps best by others who have mental illness, too, to stimulate compassion and to eradicate stigma, one effortless breath at a time.

I’m’a keep goin’.

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