Without an iota of humor, satire, or sarcasms, I seriously ponder the thought: Would yoga have saved Robin Williams life? What would have happened if the great comedic mind had discovered the teachings of a sage named Patanjali who invited all of us to “Still the fluctuations of the mind?”
One of Robin Williams’ infamous quotes was: “You are only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it!” Yoga would suggest that we not lose it, rather learn to harness and manage it. This madness is known as the ‘monkey mind’. It can entertain us, or drive us mad. When I heard Robin Williams’ passing was connected with depression, I immediately thought of the ‘monkey-mind’ we all have in common.
If Robin Williams had studied the yogic principles he would have discovered the Four Noble Truths. The first ‘Truth’ is often as translated as ‘Life is suffering’, meaning that to chase after the delights of the world, expecting them to bring lasting pleasure, always leads to disappointment. Even when you do find something pleasant or pleasurable how soon do we grow tired of it? None of these ‘things’ offer any real satisfaction or peace. We have to wonder what Robin Williams was suffering from in his mind. What was he chasing?
The second noble ‘Truth’ is not being able to be content with what we have or who we are. Have you explored the powerful question: What makes you think you will be happy with more if you aren’t happy with what you have?
This ‘Truth’ teaches of a craving or thirst known as tanha, where we are continually searching for something outside ourselves to make us happy. Is it possible Robin Williams’ extreme highs, disguised as over-the-top-over-of-the-box humor, were balanced with equally extreme lows due to his thirst for something outside of himself? Yoga is all about going within to find our peace and stillness.
This last week I have been reading a best-selling book entitled The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. She was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner when she realized that what she really wanted to do was have more time to study yoga and write. Her book thesis, having sold over a million copies, is that we have to determine what makes us feel good and what makes us feel bad. We all know that Robin Williams made us feel good with his humor and antics; what we don’t know is what made him feel so bad he would take his own life. The key is to learn from his demise and seek to determine the cause of our own suffering.
The third noble ‘Truth’ and third Happiness Project premise is similar: Determine where the suffering or ‘not right’ feeling is coming from and seek to put an end to it. The Vedic masters taught when we release our need to ‘feel’ a certain way all our suffering and dissatisfaction will come to an end. The goal is to become the ‘observer’; to be aware of what the sensation we are experiencing is by just noticing, and letting it float pass, rather than getting caught up in the drama of the emotion or experience. Imagine if Robin Williams had trained his mind to observe his depression, or sad feeling, the same way he was able to observe life and makes light of it. Would his suffering have been lessened?
The philosophical teachings of the Fourth Noble ‘Truths’ are sometimes compared to a physician diagnosing an illness and prescribing a treatment: The first ‘Truth’ has us confront the fact there is an illness; the second ‘Truth’ seeks to determine what the cause of the illness is and the third ‘Truth’ holds out hope for a cure. Often the so-called illness is a dis-ease in the mind from wanting something different than what we have.
In yoga, part of the prescriptive treatment for happiness is the physical practice of yoga known as the asanas or poses that help harmonize and strengthen the vitality of the body and mind. In the traditional Sun Salutation sequence there is a very important pose known as Adho Mukha Svanasana or Downward-Facing Dog that has been documented to calm the brain and help relieve stress and mild depression. As a yoga teacher myself, I like to describe this pose as a time we get out of our ‘mental head space’ and have the opportunity to release the thoughts stuck in our mind by taking our head to the ground, dumping all that does not serve us.
If Robin Williams had shown up in a yoga class the verbal instructions he may have heard would have been something like this: Stand for a moment in Mountain Pose, quieting your mind with the realization there is no mountain too tall to climb if taken one step at a time. Take a deep cleansing breath, releasing any thoughts of the past . . . or the future . . .Be here now! Raise your hands in gratitude, bow forward to ground yourself . . .
In a German study, 24 people who described themselves as ‘emotionally distressed’ took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Though not formally diagnosed with depression, all participants described themselves as being ‘out of balance’ or just not themselves in the previous 90 days. At the end of three months, the control group doing yoga reported marked improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being; their depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%. Oh, don’t you just wish Robin Williams would have been part of this experiment?
There are several ways to describe the meaning of the Fourth noble ‘Truth’, one of which could be taken from one of Robin Williams’ most famous films, Dead Poets Society. Remember Robin being cast as the maverick teacher, John Keating, where his character inspired his students with the words ‘Carpe Diem – Seize the day’.
The most important ‘Truth’ may well be ‘Seize the day’. Throughout the movie John Keating/Robin Williams could have been described as a pseudo yoga teacher, espousing what master yoga teachers teach: To end of all suffering, we must avoid harming all other living beings, we must sharpen and focus our mind, and as we seek inner wisdom and calmness, each of us can reach perfect happiness.
Swami Vivekananda translated Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as “Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.” Somehow I think Robin Williams would have related to the description of “mind-stuff.” As a yoga student Robin would have had a chance to understand that once the mind is properly restrained, then the ‘seer’ or the ‘true soul self’ can rest in its own true nature, neither too manic nor too sad.
Seriously, yoga may have saved Robin Williams life. Please understand I am not taking mental illness or depression lightly at all. Many of my prayers are sent to the Divine for the ‘Peace and healing of others . . . both for body and mind disturbances.’ My message is: If YOU know anyone who is suffering, invite them to meet you on the mat . . . a yoga mat! Blessings ~
KC Miller is the Founder of Southwest Institute of Healing Arts, featuring a Yoga Teacher Training program taught at Spirit of Yoga, an educational facility and public yoga studio. Each week there are several complimentary yoga classes, known as Student Yoga Practicums, available to anyone wishing to explore yoga as a tool for balancing mind and body. To a complete list of yoga class times go to www.MySpiritofYoga.com