Spring 2015. I was doing a yoga immersion course. I was lying sobbing on the floor, with a blanket over me, while the rest of the group chanted in Sanskrit. I felt as the gong throbbed through my body that I had entirely lost my margins, that there was nothing of me left I could hold onto. The instructors were entirely unworried. When the session ended I felt cleansed.
Summer 2013. I was on a retreat near Eastbourne learning chi kung, the Chinese art of using energy. I practised the simple gestures and routine. I shook as though possessed by a devil. I couldn’t bear it when someone touched my face. Then at dinner I smiled and laughed more freely than I had done for years. Those instructors were unworried as well. Don’t worry, they said, and don’t intellectualise. Just enjoy the practice.
Indian. Chinese. I was experiencing different paradigms. I needed them.
Before May 2011 I was a management consultant and a mountaineer. I dealt in data, facts and solid reality. The world seemed straightforward. I knew what was going on. Then I had a huge breakdown. Since then, all my bearings have been gone.
August 2011. I was in a psychiatric hospital. I had been overwhelmed by incomprehensible forces moving inside my brain and body. They came in the form of unstoppable tears, of banging my head against a wall over and over again, of trying to break my arms, of smashing crockery to cut myself and see blood, and most of all, detaching from the world and my body so far that I was unable to move or speak. I became completely unresponsive to the pain tests the paramedics administered repeatedly while threatening to call the police if I didn’t respond. I shook wildly. I convulsed with memories so strongly the therapist who saw it said it was like watching labour pains.
I say again, those forces were incomprehensible to me.
But of course, I had doctors, good kind doctors, and they gave names to what had taken me over, to what made me behave like someone I had never suspected I could be. I had had ‘a very severe depressive breakdown’. I was suffering from ‘dissociation’ and ‘impulsivity’ (a word you would never have used of me before). The uncontrollable shaking I experienced was ‘trauma reactions’, the swings from comatose to violent were ‘nervous system dysregulation’.
I read many books to try to understand what was going on. It seemed from those that low self-esteem might be a problem. My own head told me I was lazy, attention-seeking, had a wrongness in who I was which nothing would ever fix.
All the Western thought that came most naturally to me suggested something that needed to be fixed so I could return from a hospital bed to normal working life. I was prescribed and took a lot of medication to try to force that process. It helped me not to die.
But the Western thinking was labels from the outside of something wrong; and I was inside and the states I was experiencing were my whole reality. I was truly taken over by those forces, and they were good as well as bad. My perceptions widened. New feelings came my way. I found I could write as I had never been able to write before. I wandered in and out of trances as though I had found the New World. Also, I was terrified.
The Western psychiatric narrative had its advantages; above all it kept me alive. But I needed as well a story that accepted my experiences as a valid part of life, not as an aberration to be solved and left behind.
I went after alternative ways of describing what was going on. There was the psychoanalytic, of course – that this was a response to my childhood and the fact that I had repressed that, and that being able to express it would help. But though that may be the most mainstream interpretation at this point in history, in my desperate attempts to tame what had overcome me I came to prefer those paradigms that spoke of healthy natural processes and that brought with them a community of shared experience.
Chi kung said this was a neutral energy flow that I could learn to work with, that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with my strange experiences and that I could be balanced and healthy despite them. Yoga teachers talked about prana, dharma, and the eternal play of the universe. When I followed these practises, the self-destructive patterns I was locked in seemed to put themselves on hold.
There was an acceptance of what I was going through in these communities based on Eastern spirituality that reassured me. The teachers of the yoga immersion course had said that strong emotions might come up and we needed to have support in place to help us through that. And when, sure enough, I reached out an arm or leg, or tightened or loosened a particular set of muscles and with that dissolved into sobbing, they put an arm around me, or a hand on my back, or wrapped me in a blanket and let me cry. They were not afraid; they were there to bear witness to the reality of what I was going through, and to sit by my side as it ebbed and flowed.
That was how I came to be alternately sobbing and dissociating under a blanket at the back of the room in which thirty women were singing chants in a language neither they nor I knew, but which had somehow torn me apart from the core.
The difference between that and my breakdown was that this was a gentle tearing, in the company of humans who supported me, and I let it happen rather than fighting against it on my own and being brutally torn apart by its strength as I had been four years before.
On the chi kung retreat I was told over and over, ‘don’t worry; just enjoy it’; and they were with me too when I cried.
From those experiences I learned acceptance; I learned a different way of seeing the world. I started to trust my body and mind and what they do.
And all of that is in my mind every time I get to a yoga class and get on my mat, or when I take the Tube to Baron’s Court, London, for a weekly chi kung class. Often I don’t want to go, because the memories of energy stuck and flowing in my body over the last few years are more painful than glorious. On those days I tell myself that yoga is good for my flexibility and upper body strength and will improve my rock climbing. I tell myself that chi kung is mostly about relaxation and it just involves standing still for a while and then moving my arms around. And when I get to the classes all of that is true.
But both practices also often release tears that I’ve felt pent up in my body all day. And I feel a sense of connection to other people in the room. And something deep in me relaxes, downregulates my nervous system, straightens some kinks inside, helps me walk out again to continue being in my own strange, idiosyncratic world, helps me embrace the complexity of who I am, of what my life, at this moment, seems fully to be.