Lessons in yoga and in life.
Barriers to Experience
Life is a constantly changing process. When many of us step on a Yoga mat, especially for the first time, we get a clear physiological expression of how resistant to change we have become. The rigidity of the body is a mirror image of the mental barriers we have built up over time that disallow us to fully participate in the flowing stream of process that life and experience are.
Whether you want to call them personal constructs, cognitive distortions, or belief systems, many of us bring these mental barriers from life onto the Yoga mat. In a more lay term, we can call these things prejudices. Not against any race or ethnicity, as the term is generally applied, but to experience itself. The prejudice manifests itself in the fact that instead of experiencing life and Yoga as it is, we twist and distort them to fall in line with these prejudices.
(Side note: A mistake many make is to use their time on a Yoga mat, or during meditation, as a tool to block out the tensions and problems created by these barriers. I was one of these people. In an ideal practice, Yoga and meditation are a way to get to a place of self-acceptance where one can move away from these barriers and subsequently engage in the process of experience in a constructive way.)
Carl Rogers, the founder of Humanistic Psychology, expressed that the Ideal Self is one which has the confidence to have a constructive relationship with any experience. Experience can be anything: a conversation, work, deciding what to have for dinner or a Yoga practice. If we have truly accepted ourselves, and life, as a constantly shifting process we can have this confidence. This ability to have a relationship with experience is not inerrant, though. Mistakes will be made, wrong turns will be taken, but we can access this confidence to continue to have a constructive relationship with the experience that results from mistakes. Thus if we are stumbling we are still moving forward.
This method of experience applies to time on the Yoga mat. Whatever level you are at, your Yoga experiences will be more fulfilling and constructive if you accept that level and confront your body from that place of acceptance. To clarify: when I say “confront” I don’t mean with anger, tension or judgment but rather to accept mindfully what is going on with our bodies and to move forward constructively.
On the Yoga mat we can practice the Rogerian concept of “congruence”, the essence of which is to be aware of your experience, and to have that awareness bubble up through your communication. Personally, I have found it quite satisfying to live in this way. On the Yoga mat the communication is with your body but this concept can be effectively applied in everyday social transactions. Have you ever met anybody where right away you could tell they “mean what they say?” They have an awareness of how they feel and their communication is perceived as authentic. Alternately, have you ever met anybody who is either defensive or untrustworthy? In these people there is break somewhere in the experience-awareness-communication chain that is picked up on by those they are communicating with. These are the two poles of congruence and incongruence. On the Yoga mat, and in life, I’ve found that being congruent leads to quite a satisfying outcome for mind and body.
How much energy, both mental and physical, do we waste holding on to these personal constructs? These “stories” of what we “are?” It’s understandable because they are ballast for us. A buoy to cling to in ever-stormy waters. While they are our safety net to fall back on in times of tension or, especially, in the uncertainty of social situations, they have a deleterious effect. They don’t allow us to fully grasp experience. Loosing the reigns of these constructs is at first scary but becomes liberating.
It hurtles us toward new experiences where you may not know the outcome but you are aware of how you feel at any given moment and can make an informed decision. That is true congruence and using this “way of being” on the Yoga mat leads to the same type of new experiences in both mind and body. Personally, from this place I could now decide which direction my practice would go in and was confident the decision was borne of true self, not a distorted one.
The crazy thing is that this resistance to change, of participating in life as a constantly flowing process, is not on a subconscious level. It’s right there at the forefront of thinking! We see our situations for what they are, we even can identify the steps needed to be taken to change, but we don’t do it.
Why? When I was resistant to change I was deeply worried that if I didn’t have that internal “story” then I didn’t have an identity. For however bad my situation was there was a high level of comfort in my “story”. I knew the ins and outs. I clung so hard to this manageable reality that I dare not upset it even if I could easily identify the steps needed to be taken and had confidence in my ability to climb them.
Has this line of thinking ever prevented you from doing something you wanted to do in life or on the Yoga mat? I know it has for me. I’ve seen it discourage people from even stepping on the mat in the first place, which speaks to the courage of those that do. I was afraid that the new realities I would encounter wouldn’t be as comfortable. The irony is that the new reality I discovered by accepting change and process was more satisfying than I ever imagined.
In life and on the Yoga mat, the inherent rigidity in these personal constructs results in this resistance. Like the Dark Side of the Force, resistance to change seems easier and more seductive but this is a rouse. While it gave me an identity to which I could easily refer it also shut me off from the flow of life. On the Yoga mat this led to rigid evaluative thoughts like “I can’t get into that position” or “I can’t hold it for that long.” In life it led to “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not smart enough.”
Life is a series of fluctuations, or waves. Alan Watts said, “You can’t have half a wave.” It doesn’t make sense. A wave indicates movement up and down. In resisting change the wave is shit off before it has a chance to achieve its full expression. If the wave has been halted at the crest it causes constant disappointment in things, others, and oneself for not living up to expectations. Maybe the wave has been halted at the bottom, resulting in a general negative disbelief in things. Maybe the wave has been stopped somewhere in the middle, causing constant feelings of uncertainty. Learning to ride these waves to full expression has allowed me to fully reap the benefits of both my Yoga practice and life. My avenue to this learning was to accept myself and my inherent ability to have a relationship with the process of experience. For many, like me, this ability had been obscured by the aforementioned mental barriers. Yoga helped me shatter these barriers.
Now, I revel in the fact that life is a constant process of change. I think of it this way: fear of change is fear of death. Death is the last great change and I can’t stop it. This isn’t to cast a moribund light on things but rather to illuminate the inevitability of change. When I die my cycle of change will be complete. If the cycle is going to be completed regardless of my wishes, does it not make good sense, and good living, to embrace the process rather than try to control it? To grind it to a halt and wrestle it to the ground while screaming “this is me and I’m never going to change?” The only measure of control I really have is the decision to give myself up to it through the concept of passive volition. Now, I let things happen, not force them, on the mat and in life.
“Be” vs. “Are”
When you don’t know the outcome, but you do know how to fully experience the process of life and Yoga, you suddenly don’t need the safety net of what you “are.” You now have the strength to “be.” I’ve found that to “be” requires a lot less energy than the “are.” When I was concerned with my “are” I constantly had to distort, twist and alter every experience and interaction to fit into that hardened “story” or risk psychological annihilation, and what mental exertion that required! Similarly, putting my body into a new, or deeper, asana was eschewed in the name or avoiding possible physical annihilation. By guiding all that energy into the “be” channel (which is forward facing) rather than the “are” channel (which is backward facing) I was able to float down the stream of process that is life and Yoga in a deeply satisfying way.
Life can get crazy. We win, we lose. We fall in love, we have our hearts broken. I oftentimes felt like I was in an 18-wheeler bombing down the highway with no time to appreciate the scenery. When in an “are” state of mind, the true “me” was in the passenger seat suggesting directions to the false-self behind the wheel. This false-self (the embodiment of my personal constructs) heard these suggestions but made its own decisions on where to go after putting them through a series of “yeah, buts.” I knew how to drive, so why not kick this false-self out? Now I was in the driver’s seat, “be-ing.”
Dissipating this false-self was the key to integrating the polarity of “are” and “be”. This was scary at first, as it was a great assumption of responsibility, but soon I liked being behind that wheel. I became a clear channel for experience. I could digest the bumps and turns on the road of life much better as a wheelman. On the Yoga mat this false-self can be destructive as it can tell you to go further than you are ready for, leading to injury. At the same time it can also deceive you into thinking you can’t go as far as you actually can, leading to an unfulfilling practice. Both have happened to me.
Life and Yoga are processes, paths, streams. I can never be master either but by accepting myself, being open to experience and being congruent I can master the process. I can master how I approach them. I urge you to get that process going because the process is truly who we “are” and who we can “be.”
prepared by Greg Eckard
David Dionisio is a writer, musician and yogi from Braintree, MA. He is currently pursuing his M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling specializing in Holistic Studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.