The healing power of yoga

Now a certified yoga instructor, Degener teaches two classes at UC Santa Cruz, both of which are always full. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

When filmmaker Laura VanZee Taylor saw Maris Degener’s artwork, she sensed something was wrong.

The drawings, posted on Facebook by Degener’s mom, showed haunting images: a young woman with shadowed eyes, a trio of women, one of them an anxious-looking cyclops.

“Everyone was commenting about how talented Maris was,” says VanZee Taylor by phone from her Walnut Creek home, “but I couldn’t believe no one asked what they (the drawings) meant, what was going on there. They were really dark.”

Those questions would lead VanZee Taylor to create a powerful 54-minute documentary film titled I Am Maris that explores Degener’s fall into anorexia, her discovery of the healing power of yoga, and her eventual recovery. The film is now screening on Netflix.

Today the 20-year-old UC Santa Cruz College Ten junior who is majoring in psychology, is also getting requests to speak from Spain to Australia. She has given talks at Lululemon headquarters in Canada and to student groups from the College of Marin to UC Irvine. Parents, therapists, and those suffering from eating disorders have contacted her, and her Instagram account has grown from 7,000 followers to 35,000.

“I was just really inspired by her,” VanZee Taylor says.

Sitting at a table outside McHenry Library, Degener says that, as a child, she was prone to anxiety with a tendency toward depression. She also was a competitive student and athlete who felt the need to excel in everything she did. But as she transitioned from junior high into high school, she began to feel like she didn’t have an identity and, no matter how many accolades she got, she was never good enough. There were also changes at home.

She began to restrict what she ate almost as competitively as she’d done with her sports and school work.

“My eating disorder was my sense of control,” Degener says. “If I could control what I was eating, I felt like I was in control of an uncontrollable situation.”

By the end of her freshman year of high school, Degener was in the hospital. Her heart rate and blood pressure were dangerously low, her hair was falling out, her skin was grey. Eventually, she was released back home and her doctor suggested yoga as a way to exercise.

“I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘That’s just hippie stuff,’” Degener says.

But she happened to see a flyer for a free class at a new yoga studio and decided to go. At one point during the crowded class, the teacher asked everyone to get up and just start dancing.

“I realized, at one point, that I was smiling and it was the first time I’d smiled in two years,” Degener says. “And the fact I was smiling when I wasn’t being good at something was revolutionary.”

Degener went back to class again and again, discovering the healing power of Vinyasa yoga, which besides movement and breath, also emphasizes ethical standards like truthfulness, contentment, not coveting things, and letting go of the need to control. The studio owner then helped her understand how to take what she learned on the yoga mat into the real world.

Yoga became her healing tool.

“Eating was always symptom of a greater root cause,” Degener says. “Eating was one way I was able to control what I was feeling. Sometimes I still bump up against the root causes—perfectionism, anxiety, and feeling out of control—but now I have ways to cope with it. I cope with it through yoga and time outside and the help of therapists and friends.”

Now a certified yoga instructor, Degener teaches two classes at UC Santa Cruz, both of which are always full.

For VanZee, I Am Maris is not only her first full-length documentary film but also a way to reach those dealing with anxiety, depression, or addiction.

“It was about: How do you go to a dark place and dig yourself out?” she says.

The documentary features Degener and her family telling stories of their confusion, shame, and even anger as Degener moved through her illness. There are shots of Degener in powerful yoga poses, glimpses of her art.

“I wanted to show mental illness isn’t a curse for life,” VanZee says. “I wanted to show people with mental illness, once they turn it around and work with it, are the most interesting, empathetic, brave, and strongest people I know.”

To find out more about Degener, go to