On the Passing of Michael Stone and Mental Health in the Yoga Community
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Yoga, self-care, and alternative forms of medicine cannot always fix everything.
Michael Stone was husband, a father, a brilliant writer, speaker, yoga teacher, and Buddhist. He was one of my teachers, and one of the best. He also had bipolar disorder. This past month, he died of a fentanyl overdose.
In addition to the many heartbreaking details of this story, we learn that Stone was recently considering revealing his diagnosis publicly, but feared the stigma that comes along with that—especially in the yoga community. The official statement from Stone’s family tells us that, as his disorder got worse, Stone and his wife “established self-care routines. He exercised. He went to bed early. He ate a special diet. They joked about fecal transplants. He saw naturopaths and herbalists and trainers and therapists. He continued his daily practice. As things worsened he turned to psychiatry and medication as well.” The statement seems ready to defend against the inevitable judgment that he didn’t do enough.
We are a group of people that believes in the power of alternative forms of medicine. Plenty of us, including me, arrive on our mats because of darkness and pain and a desire to feel better. Sure, yoga helps sometimes. Other times it doesn’t. It’s certainly not enough.
I’ve heard teachers say that we manifest absolutely everything that happens in our lives, good or bad. I’ve heard teachers say that when we are in a position of “scarcity” we should simply reframe back to the idea of “abundance.” Even in the aftermath of Stone’s death, some are saying that he should have tried acupuncture or a different meditation teacher. Would the fecal transplant have been the magic bullet that saved his life?
These kinds of messages imply that our pain is our fault, that we should be able to control it somehow. We cling to that belief because we, too, are trying to survive. It’s comforting to think that petitioning the Universe could make our pain go away. When someone like Stone reveals the truth that life doesn’t work that way, it’s easier to shame and blame that person than to admit the threat to our own comforting beliefs.
Stone felt that. He has written, “You'd think that given all this inner work, an incredible network of support, strong friendships, a loving partner and kids, and lastly, a life dedicated to embodying the dharma (literally every single day includes practice and study), that I'd be immune to extreme mental states.” He wasn’t. On his last day on earth, he tried: “He got a haircut, exercised, ran household errands and finally acquired a street drug.” If that drug hadn’t been laced with fentanyl, it would have been another item on the list of ways he was trying to survive. But it was, and he died.
Stone never taught in a way that promised to solve everything. He understood that there are systemic social problems in this world that contribute to our poverty, pain, trauma, and addictions, and he worked to make the world a better place. He was a brilliant teacher precisely because he had to struggle with his darkness every day. We are so lucky that he shared what he learned in with us. I wish we could have held him better in that struggle. I wish he could have trusted us to see his worth no matter what he was trying to survive. He couldn’t. We failed him.
We have to acknowledge that yoga, self-care, and alternative forms of medicine cannot always fix everything. It’s wonderful when these things work, but it’s okay when they don’t. It’s okay to have a mood disorder. It’s okay to take medication. It’s okay to do everything absolutely perfectly right, and still feel like the world is too heavy to hold. The world is heavy. Our small arms are not always strong enough to hold it, no matter how many chaturangas we do. At the very least we can see each other and hold each other in our pain without trying to find a solution to the unsolvable. Perhaps that was part of what Michael Stone was trying to teach us.