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Is Happiness a Choice for Everyone?

Let’s talk about a blanket statement that I often hear in yoga classes, “Happiness is a choice.” I’m sure you’ve been in a class where the teacher either mentioned or used this phrase as the theme for class.  I get the intention behind it. It’s one way of saying, if you focus more on the positive and try to be happy you can be. It’s a really well intentioned message to impart onto your students. I do agree that this can be true, BUT I’d like to present a different perspective and highlight the people this leaves out: those struggling with depression.

The NIMH estimates that in the United States, 16.1 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2015. That’s 6.7% of the population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. It is a leading cause of disability.

Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health highlights the problem among young adults. From 2008 to 2010, more than 8% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 reported a major depressive episode in the previous year. When it comes to gender, women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men.With those statistics in mind (especially considering the fact that depression is more prevalent in women and yoga is more popular among women than men), you have to assume there are at least a handful of people in your classes that have or have had depression. In fact, I’m one of the people that have had depression and maybe that’s why I have this alternate view. Look at the symptoms of depression:

Feelings of sadness or emptiness that don’t go away within a few weeks may be a sign of depression.

Other emotional symptoms include:

  • extreme irritability over minor things
  • anxiety and restlessness
  • anger management issues
  • loss of interest in favorite activities
  • fixation on the past or on things that have gone wrong
  • thoughts of death or suicide

Physical symptoms include:

  • insomnia or sleeping too much
  • debilitating fatigue
  • increased or decreased appetite
  • weight gain or weight loss
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • unexplained aches and pains

 

Now think about the message that the phrase, “happiness is a choice,” might send to these people. If I was in the middle of an episode of depression and I heard that in class I might have a number of negative reactions like anger or hopelessness. (If it’s a choice, why am I having such a difficult time?)

If we were discussing a less prevalent issue, I might say that we can’t always be sensitive to every single population at the same time, but this isn’t that kind of situation. Yoga isn’t just a group fitness class. A yoga class should be a safe, inclusive space where everyone is welcome. It should be a space where everyone can get on their mats, breathe, move and hopefully in the process work through some of their shit. It can be hard to feel safe in a space where your own feelings and what is true for you is being glossed over by a blanket statement.

I hope that no one takes this as me calling out yoga teachers who have said this in their classes. That’s not what I mean by this at all. I only hope that maybe you’ll consider rephrasing it or picking a completely different phrase that is less exclusive.  We all make mistakes and sometimes we don’t even know they are mistakes until much later. Believe me there are things I have said in class in that past that I am completely horrified by now. We live and we learn. This actually reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou. She says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

What are your thoughts on this? Is there anything else you have heard said in a yoga class that you think is exclusive? I’d love to hear from you.



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