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Six months ago, I found myself sitting under an overpass in North Carolina. I looked at the still creek, bare trees, and slate-grey sky; felt the smooth, cold sand under my seat; and listened to the sound of sweetly chirping birds that somehow overpowered the steady stream of cars on the bridge overhead. The area felt surprisingly peaceful in its bare December glory. It was a slice of nature and a sanctuary.
I took a deep breath of appreciation and let a smile spread across my face as I silently said thank you to Mother Earth and to God. Thank you for letting this be the last thing he saw.
You see, this was the exact spot where my big brother hung himself.
This memory came rushing back to me after the news that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had both committed suicide. And like so many, even those who haven’t had someone they’ve loved make the decision to exit this world, I find myself asking why? Why have suicide rates skyrocketed in the last 20 years, despite us living in a time when self-help practices are exploding? Why is this happening in an era where we’re seeing yoga set record-breaking levels of participation, and when the expansion of technology and ease of travel make it easier than ever to connect and stay connected with others?
Why is the number of people choosing to end their own lives growing and not slowing?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do believe that as a yoga community, we can be doing more to truly utilize yoga’s full power and true intentions—particularly when we’re faced with challenging times.
I often tell people that I believe our practice isn’t for the times that feel easy and manageable. Our practice is for when the times are the toughest, when we feel the most broken, threatened, or fearful. The teachings aren’t about how to shut out the things you don’t like; rather, they are about how to embrace those things, gain perspective from them, and expand yourself as a being by facing them.
How Yoga Guided Me Through My Brother’s Suicide
What I know now is that when you learn someone close to you has died, your mind kicks into overdrive as you try to figure out and understand what happened, and also how to handle it. There’s the immediate grieving; and then there’s everything else in your life that needs to stop or be rearranged. People to call, assets to handle. It‘s overwhelming, and can be all-consuming—if you let it take over.
Through this incredibly difficult time, my saving grace was the practice that I had done a thousand times before—the practice of learning to recognize ego and fear and tune in to my inner guide. And in that most unlikely time, my inner guide told me that all was well. My brother was OK. He was at peace. And I was able to see that just maybe, there was a gift from him in all of this.
It was that gentle-but-steady inner guidance that brought me peace, ease, and an almost immediate connection to something greater than myself. It was almost as if my brother was sitting there with me saying, It’s all good. Stop stressing. I’m happy and free, and it’s going to be OK. Everything about that defied logic. Yet if my practice has taught me anything, it’s that this inner guide will lead me beyond what is logical, and it will never lead me astray. It was through constant and unwavering practice that I was able to listen to this voice when I needed it most, and have faith that I’d know how to move forward.
There is no separation between my life and my practice. In the weeks and months following my brother’s suicide, I was reminded of this even more. In fact, my asana practice on my mat has taken more of a back seat over the years. But my practice? My practice comes to life in every moment I live, and in every breath I take. I am my practice, and my practice is me—and that never stops. Ever. When times are the hardest, that is when I have to dig into it the deepest and trust.
Yoga Can Help You Cope, Too
If the news of these recent, high-profile suicides has you feeling down or wondering what to do—or, if the news is bringing up memories of how suicide has touched you on a deep and very personal level—here’s my advice to you: Turn to your practices. Here’s how.
Sit with your discomfort.
These days, so many of us charge hard toward what makes us feel good, and we skirt the tough stuff. In fact, I would argue that we’ve moved away from what makes yoga so powerful and transformative, and instead, we’ve stopped at the surface, opting for the things that feel more pleasant, are more marketable, and don’t push any buttons. A prime example of this is how we use social media as a platform. We are flooded with more and more professional-looking pictures and images of extreme poses captioned with Rumi quotes. Yet we seem to be losing our ability to go deeper, and have more uncomfortable conversations with each other. Even social media yogini pioneer, Rachel Brathen, noted recently that whenever she posts a photo in a bikini with a simple quote, her likes and followers increase drastically. When she posts about tougher topics, she loses followers by the thousands. In trying to make it, we as teachers and practitioners tend to adjust to the market and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t—and in turn, the community begins to think that yoga should only be speaking about positive topics. The result? We’ve lost our ability to sit with discomfort, discuss the tough stuff, and learn that true grace often comes as a result of growing through something hard.
We live in a unique culture here in America, where admitting you need help is often a sign of weakness. The stigma can be heavy when someone seeks mental and emotional guidance. We value toughness and never needing help—which is why it‘s no wonder we struggle to let our guards down to even say something as simple as, Hey, I’m struggling. So many of us practice yoga and meditation within inches of each other, but we never extend beyond the border of our mats to say hello or introduce ourselves. So, as practitioners who want to live our yoga, I encourage all of us to start taking small, but consistent, steps of vulnerability. Practice being the first to say hello and smile. Take a moment and share a dream or even an embarrassing story with a partner, friend, or coworker. And whatever you do, reach out to someone when you feel down or need help. Chances are, whomever you talk to has been in the same boat at some point, too.
Listen to your inner voice.
There is this voice of Wisdom that we all have within. Yoga teachers talk about it liberally, and I think it’s safe to say that we have all experienced hints of this voice. When times feel hard, it can be tempting to ignore this voice—especially when what you hear doesn’t make logical sense. But I would urge you to quiet down and make space to really listen to what it might be saying—and to work up the courage to follow what you hear. The shock of the recent high-profile suicides may be giving you a chance to raise some questions within yourself and get really honest about the answers. Have you been hard-charging along a path where you’ve had to suppress your true self and happiness? You have an opportunity to listen to the voice telling you that—and then to take a leap toward true alignment. Don’t get me wrong: It takes serious guts to listen to that little nagging voice telling you something needs to change, and then to actually make those changes. But what if not listening to this inner guide is the only thing standing between your biggest dreams and making those dreams a reality?
About Our Writer
Erica Jung, E-RYT-500, is an international yoga teacher and creator of Transformational Travel, Science of Spirit, and Trepta Yoga. Erica also trains professionals and businesses on how to create healthier work environments and optimize performance of both individuals and organizations as a whole. A former nurse, Erica writes and speaks about her personal and professional experiences in healthcare, indigenous healing practices, the science of yoga, radical healing, travel, spirituality, and the ultimate life journey of understanding who you truly are. Learn more at www.treptayoga.com.