The Natural Prozac
On a fall afternoon in the mid-'80s, I sat on the tweed sofa in my psychiatrist's office, two years after entering therapy, feeling as depressed as I'd ever felt in my life, as she told me that I was one of those people who would always have empty pockets. What she meant, I assumed, was that my depression would forever interfere with my ability to feel fulfilled. What I heard was a life-sentenceI was a depressive.
Then, in 1989, I went to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. Though I'd been meditating irregularly since 1970, it was there that I took my first yoga class. The language of the class seemed familiar to me from a brief stint in cognitive therapy. If I could change the way I thought about myself and my life to thinking I wasn't a depressive but a person who sometimes felt depressed, my feelings would follow. In class, we were encouraged to listen to the wisdom of our bodies and to simply be aware of the sensations we felt as we moved into, held, and released an asana. So simple. So radically life-changing. Physically, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, waking up, in my case, after nearly 40 years of sleep.
What was this miracle taking place? I had always been an exercise nut. Why was this particular form of exercise not only making me feel better but changing my life? Within a year, I was no longer taking antidepressants. Six months after that, I was sitting in a workshop, in which the leader asked us to name ourselves. I closed my eyes and without hesitation, named myself "Abundance." What happened to those "always empty pockets?" I still had sad feelings from time to time, but the kind of mind-numbing depression that prevented me from properly putting two shoes in a shoe box or remembering how to fold a bridge chair was now just a story I could tell about how I used to be. If yoga worked so well for me, why weren't shrinks across the nation prescribing it to the millions they were putting on Prozac and other antidepressants, costing Americans $44 billion annually?
There are billions to be made by the pharmaceutical industry with the promotion of the concept that what ails us is our brain chemistry, and if we take a pill, we'll be okay. Actually, for some of us, this may be true. A pill like Prozac or one of the other selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can increase the amount of serotonin in our brains, and we may feel better.
But what's wrong with this picture? Why are so many of us allegedly serotonin deficient? Research with rhesus monkeys has clearly demonstrated that early trauma, such as separation from the mother, actually changes brain chemistry. Studies have also shown that stress itself, including the stress of social separation, affects the balance of serotonin in the brain. Could it be that the stressors inherent in our modern culture are the source of an international serotonin deficiency, causing depression in epidemic proportions? "Many of us, it seems, at the fin de siËcle, live deeply disconnected from our well-springs of meaning and purpose, our vitality and authenticity," says psychotherapist and yogi Stephen Cope, author of the book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999). Certainly, our postmodern culture has created a widespread emotional impoverishment. Since World War II, depression and suicide among adolescents has more than tripled. Even more startling evidence of our suffering is found in a study published in 1994, which determined that among people between the ages of 18 and 54, nearly half had suffered from a serious psychiatric illness.