"In the Work, we look at our negative states with noncritical, nonjudgmental observation. But it is very difficult to objectively observe a negative state in ourselves without any criticism or guilt or emotional reaction going along with our observation. The Work likens it to turning on the light in a messy room. The light doesn't make any comment about the room, it just sheds light on the situation. We may see by means of the light that the room needs to be cleaned. But if we turn the light off because seeing the messy room makes us feel terrible, we aren't going to get a whole lot of effective cleaning done in the dark…
How can you expect to have any degree of inner freedom if you are at the mercy of every change, every event, every little incident in your external life? If everything upsets you so easily, how can you have inner freedom?” -Peter Rhodes, Aim: The Workbook
I recently told my class that, in almost twenty-five years of asana practice, I can think of only two or three times I have gotten up from savasana when I didn’t feel better. That does not mean that I have enjoyed every class, workshop or training that I have gone to. I haven’t. In fact, quite the opposite— I have attended many classes, workshops and trainings that I did not enjoy much at all. Nor do I mean to imply that my time in my personal practice is joyful or even enjoyable a lot of the time. It isn’t. Many times, I feel stiff, sore, tired, cranky and distracted.
Of course, I do enjoy my time on my mat some of the time. And I enjoy classes, workshops and trainings some of the time. However, while the number of practices where my mind was critical, complaining or judgmental and where I didn’t like what the teacher said or taught are too numerous to count, I can count only a few times when I didn’t feel better when I was finished.
What this insight tells me is that yoga’s power to shift my state of consciousness to a new reference point does not live in yoga always giving me an enjoyable experience, but lives instead, in my ability to engage my practice as a process that takes me through difficulty, not around it. If I come to my practice or class looking for enjoyment only, I am going to view everything I do not like from a vantage point of comfort and preference and whether or not I got what I wanted. If I like the sequence, the room temperature, the music or the lack of music, the instructor’s cues, etc., then my practice will have been “good.” If things do not go according to my expectations and preferences, I will probably label my experience as “bad.” In these simple examples, I have externalized the responsibility for the efficacy of my practice.
However, if I come to my various practices with transformation in mind, the inevitable upsets and difficulties become possibilities for my growth and work on myself. Yoga, as a transformational path, uses the tensions and frustrations of the practice itself as a means to experience greater love, compassion and acceptance by both meeting the difficult moment as it is and by inviting (and sometimes demanding through extreme discomfort) that we develop a skill set that allows for choice beyond the obsessive, self-critical, perfectionistic stream of conditioned thoughts and feelings. (And for the record, because it is a hot topic, I want to be very clear that I am NOT suggesting that we tolerate abuse, degradation or subjugation of ANY kind from ourselves, our teachers, or our communities.)
And unfortunately, as sincere as we may be about wanting to transform and shift our reference points through asana practice, the negative self-talk of shame-based criticism commonly comes to the forefront of our experience, drowning out any attempt we might make to be breath-focused, attentive to alignment or aware of ourselves energetically. And, perhaps even more unfortunately, these negative thoughts do not come in, waving a flag of objective warning, and tell us, “For the next sixty minutes, I am going to give you a run for your money to see if you really can break free of your patterns and conditioning like you say you want to. Get ready-it is going to be rough, but you can do it.”
Instead, self-hatred and self-criticism—be they internalized messages of childhood, culture or both— come in riding our emotions, so that we feel ashamed, ugly, unloveable, different and bad. Like a toxic miasma of self-loathing, these messages come to us from inside our own emotional body, making it very difficult to gain clarity and perspective about what is happening, why we feel so bad and what to do about the situation in which we unfortunately find ourselves. While the yoga class or practice may have outside triggers— such as an instructor who uses body-shaming language, an overwhelming culture of body-centered narcissism and even a room full of people who appear un-phased by the issues with which we are grappling, the fact that the negative feelings and thoughts are arising within us gives us a clue as to where the solution for moving beyond them lies—inside our own hearts and minds.
I know how upsetting it can be to come to class or to personal practice looking for a break from these demons, only to find that the “enemy” has rolled out its own mat inside your emotional body and inside your head. The experience is awful and upsetting. When consumed by negative self-talk and the shame-based feelings I am describing, it is common to feel like yoga, the class and/or our teacher has somehow betrayed us.
And while I think it is important for our yoga teachers to learn to use inclusive, non-shaming language and for our yoga studios to be sanctuaries that are oriented beyond image and cultural notions of beauty, I believe we, as students and practitioners, must see healing as our personal responsibility in yoga. We must identify and dis-arm the patterns by which shame grabs hold of us and convinces us that we are bad, wrong and unworthy of love and belonging. We need to redirect our attention in order for our prana to enliven a life of love and resiliency, rather than producing shame and fear.
Furthermore, while supportive teachers and friends can help be very helpful, they cannot do the work for us. I have watched my own efforts to help students work through the issues of shame-based comparison fail miserably— no matter how I tried to establish an inclusive, uplifting and competition-free zone in my classes, workshops and trainings. Even the best of teachers’ best efforts cannot stand up to these deeply entrenched patterns, nor should we expect them to.
No one can do the work for us.
And if we we have not uprooted the sources of shame within us, it is impossible for any situation to conform perfectly to our needs in such a way that our shame will not be triggered. Yoga is not responsible for never triggering us. Yoga's value, in my opinion, is that it gives us tools through which we can respond more optimally to our triggers.
Case in point— One time I was in a class with some yoga friends who were all preparing for a yoga competition. As we were talking casually before the practice began, I noticed a feeling of “fat” and shame had washed over me. I looked in the mirror and could see objectively that I looked exactly how I did the previous day and that nothing had actually changed in reality. Then I looked at my friends, all of whom had been on a strict juice-based diet, in preparation for their competition. I realized they were all thinner than usual. Even though the atmosphere was friendly and I knew these people loved me, my own mental comparisons had taken over my mind and I felt unworthy and unlovable. As soon as I realized what was happening, my perspective shifted and the feeling of shame dissipated. Almost instantly, I no longer felt like I did not belong. The shame I felt was not because my friends were thinner than usual. Their thinness was a trigger for me, activating my own dormant patterns of conditioned thoughts that linked being thin with feeling loved and with belonging.
I tell this story to illustrate the futility of expecting outer environments to be 100% validating. My friends said not one word about body weight and size, nor did they make any ostracizing gestures whatsoever and still, after over 30 years of investigating body image, my shame was triggered. Because I have worked through my shame-based feelings so many times over so many years, I could recognize shame, name it clearly, expose it for what it was, and return to a more clear relationship with myself in the present moment. I didn’t have to follow my shame-based feelings as though they were true indicators of reality.
I used to think that that yoga would “fix me” so that I never felt insecure, unsure of myself or plagued by my patterns of self-hatred. Instead, yoga has helped me learn new reference points for who I am beyond those messages and has given me a way to see those messages as false. Yoga hasn’t kept me from getting upset but it has helped me learn the skills to chose how to respond to those things I find upsetting.
Twenty-five years ago, I would not have signed up for this outcome. I really hoped something much more magical would have happened by now. I imagined myself much more “together” than I am now. And yet, truth be told, here I am at 47 years old, pretty happy with where the path has taken me so far. Instead of fixing me, it helped me love my brokenness. Instead of self-improvement, I have some measure self-acceptance. The path didn’t make me fearless but somewhere along the way, I found my courage. I didn’t get perfect, but I am becoming whole.
All in all, not a bad deal.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."