I spent the weekend with Brittany and Alex recording Season 1 of the Live the Light of Yoga Podcast. We used my latest book, A Deeper Yoga; Moving Beyond Body Image to Wholeness and Freedom as a springboard for discussion. Each episode centers around a topic, theme, or teaching from the book with me riffing, preaching, exploring, commenting on the issues related to said topic. We covered suffering, studentship, compassion, perfectionism, practice, addictions, recovery, white fragility, shame, gurus, modern yoga culture, dogs as perfect beings, and, of course, Love. As far-ranging as the subject matter was, we only scratched surface of what might be said, leaving plenty of room for more conversations to come. If all goes well, the podcast will launch in early March.
One of the recurring themes in the book and in the podcast is the relationship between yoga as a protocol for self-improvement and yoga as a practice of self-knowledge and self-compassion. Once again, we find ourselves in a both/and conversation here. I know for me, there has been plenty of improvement needed from the git-go— from bingeing and purging, compulsive exercising, obsessive thinking about food and my body, depression, shame, anger, and more-- all of which needed a bit of “cleaning up.” Time and again, I see yoga practitioners come to yoga and engage the process of that necessary cleaning up work, even if the symptoms vary person to person.
(And, to be clear, I am using the word “yoga” here to refer to a Path of Consciousness which might involve an asana class, but might just as likely involve a visit to a psychotherapist, a 12-step group, or a meditation training. I do not limit my perspectives of yoga to a the public asana class setting.)
At any rate, we enter the stream of the teachings and clean some things up. And, in so doing, we eliminate a tremendous amount of suffering and often improve our self-esteem. Think about an obvious example— Don’t want to be hungover? Don’t drink too much. Then you will feel better about doing better. Don’t want to get a speeding ticket? Follow the speed limit. Then feel great because your insurance premiums aren’t going up. Want to avoid the Walk of Shame? Well, you get my point, right? Basic stuff.
Up to a point, we can make progress that improves self-esteem, solves a lot of our problems, and ends some of our personal suffering. After a point, however, we are going to be up against our humanity— with it’s flaws, failings, and limits. Additionally, we are going to be up against what my teacher called Life As It Is, what the 12-step communities refer to as Life on Life’s Terms, and what the Buddhists call dukha. . And, no matter what the new-age propaganda says, life rolls on with its ups and inevitable downs, gains and unavoidable losses, all of which which call us to interact with the suffering we can not change, the circumstances we can not fix, and the rough edges of our personality that no asana achievement, essential oil, crystal, vitamin or herbal supplement, positive affirmation, or chakra-balancing technique can fully eradicate.
The stage I am referring to is not a beginner’s problem. It may take decades to realize that, for all the improvements and gains along the way, still, we are who we are. And, to me, this stage is where we find the limits of yoga for self-esteem only and are initiated—by necessity— into the practice of yoga for self-knowledge. This stage of practice calls us to cultivate self-compassion and curiosity instead of achievement and self-improvement. Instead of always working “on” ourselves, this stage is about working “with” ourselves.
For instance, what if, despite your ongoing best efforts you occasionally (or regularly) fall prey to jealousy, insecurity, pettiness, and/or angry outbursts. Let’s be clear, you know better. And, you would do better if you could. On top of that, your current situation is not what it is for a lack of trying. (If you don’t relate to what I am describing, then chances are: 1.) You are still improving well and so that stage is still working for you, or 2.) You might have a few blindspots. At any rate, keep reading so you can learn something about the rest of us.)
In addition to the help of a trained psychotherapist, honesty is one of the best tools I can think of for pointing myself away from the shame and self-criticism that comes from not being able to fix everything about myself and/or my life and stepping toward self-compassion and curiosity:
Telling the truth is not always easy, but sometimes we can pave the way with phrases such as “Wow, I wish this wasn’t the truth, but I am really feeling ______________.” or “I feel like I should be better than this, but the truth is ________________.”
I also find words like “contraction” helpful when describing an uncomfortable inner state. “Wow, I am super-contracted hearing that comment.” or “Wow, I am contracted right now and feeling less-than, not-enough, or whatever.”
Humor, too, can go a long way to help. “Well, this is certainly not my finest hour, but I __________________.” Another phrase I rely on is “You know, my conscience is pricking me. I feel uncomfortable about ___________.” I have a friend who says, “________ is really eating my lunch right now” and while that statement makes no logical sense, it seems to work as doorway into truth-telling.
If you know me personally, you have most certainly heard me say at least one or two of these statements because even though my fiery nature is tempered well beyond where I started, still, I say things. I wish I had it all handled. But well, I don’t. (See what I did there? Told the truth with a little nod to the part of me that does know better and so often does do better.)
Another tricky aspect is that even with the best intentions, our impact is often different than what we had intended. And impact often involves other people with their perspectives, projections, shortcomings, talents, and rough edges. For instance, I might think I am being funny and I hurt someone’s feelings. Or I think I am being helpful and someone experiences being handled, underestimated, or invalidated. The list goes on and my guess is you have your own list to work with by now. Self-compassion and honesty help us acknowledge the disparity between intention and impact and pave the way for doing better in the future.
Which brings me back to the irony that we are often able to improve once we are honest, compassionate, and curious instead of so ambitious about changing and improving. I believe we want to be known and loved in our wholeness and these pesky areas of personality are often crying for our attention to be understood, not just eradicated, ignored or put into fancier yoga-inspired clothes. So often, when given the light of our own love in the form of honesty, self- compassion, and curiosity, the seeds of what seemed so bad and wrong are free to grow and flower into greater self-understanding, humility, and self-acceptance. And that is living the Light of yoga.
Okay, more can always be said, but that is enough for today.
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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."