According to Goethe, “There is strong shadow where there is much light!”
That has all the gravitas and sincerity of a great yoga aphorism—mostly because it’s quite true, and I would suggest, an unavoidable tenet of undertaking the asana practice.
While many see it as a joyful excursion into the light, the regular practitioner knows it to be an arduous journey, both into the light, but often through a valley of shadows.
We hear a lot about “light” and “illumination” in the asana practice, in the studios and in the community. We don’t hear a lot about the shade, the darkness, the shadows and the negative—unless that is to be told we shouldn’t be dwelling on it.
It’s not uncommon for folks to become uncomfortable when the shadows emerge into conversations. When we start sharing what’s really going on, many in the community feel uncomfortable and want to shine right over it.
That leads pretty quickly to a case of the “spiritual bypass” —you know this one: “I’ve left all of that behind; sure, I’ve had trauma in my past, but it’s all light and happiness now.”
Perhaps, but highly doubtful; in my opinion, this posturing is way too prevalent in our community.
Even the myriad translations of “namaste” often include words that talk about the “light in me,” or “that which is best and brightest in me,” which implies that if we are successful at completing an asana practice then we should be filled with light and brightness and no worries.
More often than not, it just doesn’t pan out that way—sh*t comes up, darkness creeps in. By continually casting the practice in this realm of fuzzy, warm “light,” teachers may not really serve the students.
Think about it through the role of a teacher: you’re there to create sacred space and to usher folks into personal transformation and change. That is beautiful and lovely, but just as often sticky and messy and tough and emotional. You simply don’t know what will occur, or arise, or present as you guide students through that. Therefore, it’s a little one-sided to basically package the whole thing in a ball of light and bid them farewell.
I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve left plenty of classes with serious issues on my mind, with past traumas, current dramas, all of my failing and perceived losses. These get stirred up in the asana practice, and it should be acknowledged that as we pursue and seek the light, our shadow grows rather than diminishes.
Think about it, the brighter the light, the deeper and more distinct and large and exaggerated the shadow gets. And, when we think shade, we think cool. Thus, it can be very confrontational when we are looking for bright and warm and fuzzy to get cold and dark and distinct.
I would argue that is the reality of the practice. This entirely informs my opinion and perspective as a teacher and student. Yoga is the linking of seemingly oppositional forces into complementary energies which creates overall greater alchemical and catalytic potential; in this safe interpersonal laboratory, we are at work to dissolve and resolve, to compose and decompose, with the intention of optimizing our experience and our life.
For me, it is not the ablution of the ego, not to eradicate or triumph over, but to find right mindfulness and position and service.
It is not the dissolution of negative energies or consequences (as we perceive them), but rather harnessing both the cusp and the trough of the wave—the energy is moving at either point, in the ebb and in the flow. It’s our role to become accustomed to looking into the shadows whenever we seek the light, and in looking into the shadows—to cast our own light of discernment. We have to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of— “this, too, I shall include” or, “this no longer serves me.”
The shadows, the shades, what do I mean you say? Easy answers, but clearly not all of them—your trauma, your sustained drama, your victimhood or survivorship, your abuse, neglect, frustration, diminishment. The acts you’ve perpetrated on others, the evils you have ignored, the deeds you’ve left undone, the words spoken in anger. All of those shames, humiliations, embarrassments and things you’d rather just forget. Many yogis aren’t comfortable bringing that into the room, but that’s where it presents.
We come seeking insight, illumination, perspective. Then, we may find ourselves in judgment of what we uncover because it’s not all light and bright and grace and elegance. In fact, it may feel repulsive, repugnant, shameful or wrong. But it’s there, so what are you going to do about it, with it? Are you going to keep stuffing it back down every time it comes up? Do you think that simply “rubbing the asana practice” over your worries will erase them? As if somehow getting on your “sacred colored rectangle” will somehow eradicate up to half of your life and experiences?
Nope, friend, as you’ve figured out, that’s not how it works. It works like life—to fill you up with power; life is both sweet and sour (thanks, Bjork).
So, you process it, on the mat, in meditation, in reflections off of the mat, and for as long as you need to. You revisit it, more than you want to, more than you think you can. And then, you revisit it again. You recognize that processing it doesn’t mean avoiding it, or repackaging it, or denying it. It doesn’t mean dwelling in it or defining your life around your trauma; rather, we simply put it in perspective. An occurrence, like many—there is something to be learned and much to be ignored.You do exactly what it is that you are most afraid of… and you do it in service to self, not to conquer ego, but to serve you. And, you talk about it and process it. You use the asana practice for discernment, but you also find another way to work on the issue. And, when the shadow grows, you turn the light into the darkness. You don’t turn your back on the darkness and your face to the light, you shine your countenance into the valley of shadows and you walk. You walk into your greatness, including all of you with the best of you.
You do the work because the tests will continue to happen until we learn the lesson. There is one thing or theme that is following you in your life, frustrating you, haunting you, holding you back—own it, understand it, reach into the shadow and bring it to the light. See it for what it is, not what is was. You’ve already identified what is was, that is not what it is. What it is is what you see when you do this work, today and each other day in the practice.
As we arrive here in the northern hemisphere at the longest days of the year, at the height of the solar inhale, the maximization of solar energy, the potential of creation and illumination, let us also acknowledge that the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow.
And in trusting ourselves, know that this is the perfect time to do some of that shadow work, and to discern.
It’s a wonderful season, full of life and promise and potential becoming reality—take some time, do a personal devotional flow. Shine the light into the shadows, plumb the depths of the darkness and be not afraid. This is the work, this is the season. Make haste and get your flow on!
Give thanks and praise!
Editor: Brianna Bemel