Ode to the Unbroken (It’s time for an emotional revolution).
Where we first learn to abandon ourselves…
In recent weeks, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of healthy, strong yogis in my community who’ve been felled by an emotional crisis—experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, depression and acute grief.
Yet the thing that affects me most isn’t the nature or extent of their suffering, but something deeper and more disheartening: their responses to emotional pain.
Most of the yogis in crisis shared with me some version of a story, laced with barely disguised self-contempt, that they shouldn’t be feeling like this. “Panic attacks—seriously?” said one. “I thought I was past that.” “Why am I going backwards emotionally?” asked another. “With all the therapy, yoga, and meditation I’ve put in, I should be home free,” proclaimed a third. Why is self-attack our first impulse in times of emotional pain, and what can we do about it?
Our attraction to physically challenging yoga practices reveals a bitter belief: strong sensation equals change.
This idea creates a ripple effect; it also implies that developing physical strength is a linear process. What’s more, if we’re truly yogic, we shouldn’t be injured or in emotional pain. Just last year, as I was navigating a Cambridge winter on crutches after a non-yoga-related hip surgery, people stopped me to exclaim in shocked dismay, “But you’re a yoga teacher! You shouldn’t need surgery!” And it’s not a big leap from here to the deep visceral belief that emotional strength is also linear, that we need never look back or revisit earlier stages of evolution.
In the words of a participant at a recent Kripalu weekend, we can figure out the solution and be “one and done.”
We all have wounds; they’re part of what it means to be human.
Whether physical, psychological or spiritual, our wounds are like crazy glue; they bond us in solidarity. If we lived in an indigenous society, our wounds would be seen as shamanic rites of passage, but in modern Western society they’re not. So we forget that our wounds are universal, that others have them too. Eventually, we begin to see our wounds as a sign that we don’t quite deserve to be human. Even in the yoga community, which by definition should be unconditionally accepting, we hide. “I won’t be able to teach because of this neurological disorder,” a young student in training recently told me. “No one can know about my anxiety,” said another. “They’d never come to class if they did.” So we grow ashamed of our wounds, and hide them from others.
We may even project the negative labels we give our inner self onto others. We may think that our parents, teachers or media are judgmental, and often that’s true. It can feel so convincing, this idea that the people we expect to care for us—our friends, teachers, partners—don’t fully value our “broken” parts.
But this is also projection. For when we delve under the surface, the story becomes clearer: it is we who dishonor our inner self, and it’s hard to accept this truth.
Once we figure out that our wounds are liabilities, we floor the accelerator and race away from them. We log as many miles as we can on the avoidance odometer and move on with our lives. We banish our wounds to the underworld of our emotional life where they’re out of sight and, supposedly, can do no damage. This is where we first learn to abandon ourselves. And it’s painful to acknowledge that we’ve left such a valid and worthy part of ourselves behind, so we try to forget that too. At first this is an adaptive, even clever, way of coping. Eventually, it does great damage.
For when we leave parts of ourselves behind, we fracture the Whole Self.
Recently, I was discussing this with Josie, a regular student in my classes. While I was teaching abroad, Josie experienced a resurgence of the panic attacks she’d had years before she began to meditate or practice yoga. She felt afraid: “What if this doesn’t go away?” she wondered. She compounded her fear with self-blame: “I’ve worked so hard on myself,” she kept saying. “I should be in a different place by now.” Josie even beat herself up about not being able to sit with her feelings of panic and self-judgment. As she spiraled toward despair, I stopped the conversation to look her fully in the eyes. “What are you feeling from me?” I asked her. “Do you feel I’m judging this part of you?” Several moments passed, and then she began to cry.
“I don’t think so,” she said when she could speak again. “It feels like compassion. Why is it so hard to do that for myself?”
Like Josie, we craft an outer self that appears ‘together’ and socially acceptable. We hone this personality on the whetstones of productivity and perfection. This outer self may achieve status and win awards. It can form lasting relationships, however conditional and based on “good” behavior they may be. And this collective myopia, our refusal to see the true self, becomes the way we bond with others. On the inside, however, it’s a different story. The self in pain is like a kidnapped child living in the basement. This exiled self subsists on small scraps of kindness from us, or more likely, from those who see us as we truly are.
But if we’re lucky, something happens to direct-dial us into conversation with our ugly wounds. Maybe we reach a point where the outer self is so far removed from who we are inside that we actually feel the dissonance. Maybe our inner pain resorts to sabotage to make us listen. Or maybe a crisis sets it off: We lose a job. The loss of a loved one derails us. Or we take a risk in love and get rejected. Or, like Josie, we experience a recurrence of emotional pain that scares us into self-inquiry. And suddenly, our facade of wellness begins to crumble.
Whatever the catalyst, we come face to face with the self we’ve labeled as “unwell.” This makes us deeply vulnerable.
Usually, we contend with a sense of shock that this terrible, beastlike aspect of ourselves exists at all. Then, we feel the vat of shame in which that self has marinated, the disbelief, the “I thought I’d dealt with this a long time ago.” And finally, we’re called to face the labels we’ve given our inner self: in the past two weeks alone, the students who’ve come to me have used terms like “dark,” “damaged,” “unwell,” and “broken.”
We have a way of seeing emotional pain as “going backward,” as a sign of regression rather than a necessary stepping stone to re-integration. Yet transformation requires that we revisit earlier stages of evolution, and the feelings they evoke, again and again. In my teacher trainings, we have an open invitation for graduates to repeat any part of the training they’d like; this helps them integrate the subtle aspects of information and self-awareness they may have missed the first time around. The same is true of emotional balance: going backward, it turns out, is a therapeutic tool for change.
And this is the tough part: there is no short-cut.
To become free, we must look directly into the eyes of this exiled self in order to see it.
We must listen to the crazy-sounding dialogue it speaks in order to honor it. We must sit with the shame and pain of this self before we can become more whole. And we must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: our fears about how the “world” will react to our inner self pale in comparison to the way we ourselves have responded.
When you come to my classes, workshops, or seminars and move your body, I see your “broken” parts. Your body and your yoga practice share them with me. I see the awkwardness, and courage, with which you re-enter your body after years of absence. I note the physical pain in your shoulder, and see how much it costs you. I feel your grief at the loss of your husband and the mourning that never ceases in your children, and I know what it takes for you to get to class. I see you curled inward with rage and self-recrimination when your fifth cycle of IVF hasn’t taken. I can tell how hard you are on your body, and how difficult it is to nourish it. I witness you struggle with the changes your pregnant body is making, and how hard it is to feel yourself again after you’ve given birth. I read in your posture your pain and self-questioning when you and your partner decide to separate. I note your efforts to please me, to be a “good student,” and I have some sense of their significance. Yes, I see these seemingly broken parts. They are deeply moving. They are also beautiful, and I love them.
We are all broken. We are all, also, whole and unbroken. Broken, unbroken: there is no difference.
What if, instead of hiding the seemingly broken parts of ourselves, we brought them into the light of human regard? What if we shared them with others, not in a here-is-my-terrible-story or a see-how-much-life-sucks kind of way, but with compassion? What if we agreed together to hold in gentle, cupped palms this fledgling and wounded self, to sit and breathe with the feelings that self evokes in us? What if this were the true practice of yoga?
To everyone who has ever felt ashamed, unworthy, or damaged, I say: it’s time for an emotional revolution. It’s time to create a new practice of yoga where we slow the development of our outer self and let the small, courageous inner self catch up. It’s time to share our wounds and shame and celebrate the vulnerability they offer. It’s time to bring this conscious practice into our community, to gently support the disenfranchised parts of others and let them do the same for us. Perhaps, together, we can tear down the veils of illusion that make us unwell.
What would this emotional revolution require? Absolute fearlessness, for one thing: not the absence of fear, but the willingness to move through it. When we hear a voice telling us that our pain or “broken parts” make us unworthy, or that we should have moved through this already, we listen to this voice with compassion. When we feel an anxiety attack breaking over us, we stop and let it come. When our depression, our sorrow, our grief pervades every corner of our mind, we create a safe space for it. When our body shame surges toward the surface, we watch it approach and breathe into it. And when we hesitate to reach out to someone for fear of rejection, we realize that when we love ourselves enough to risk it, rejection matters less—and we reach out anyway. We commit to these acts of radical fearlessness not for the results they might bring. We do so because the commitment itself is part of the process. Our commitment restores to us the lost parts of our Whole Self.
This year, perhaps close proximity to people, places, and conflicts that heighten your stress levels will awaken inner parts you hoped you’d left behind. Then you can begin to reconnect. You can say, for example: “Hey there, panic attacks. I know I haven’t listened to you in a while. Pull up a chair- there’s room. Now: what have you been trying to tell me? How can I hear you better?” Will this make these panic attacks, that depression or grief, the deep visceral shame go away? No. But it will begin a dialogue that can bring you, step by step, from fractured to whole.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: it’s not about how you look in your yoga clothes or the cool advanced poses you can do.
It’s not about how many friends you have on Facebook or how cute your kids are. It’s not about the exotic title your new promotion gives you, or the size of your house and yard. And it’s not about your blog, or the number of books you’ve written. The true practice of yoga asks you to connect the parts of you that seem “ugly” or “broken” with the ones that appear outwardly attractive and whole.
Can you be a part of this emotional revolution?
What parts of your need acknowledgment, or crave the gifts of silence and the slow passing of time in order to integrate?
See if you can bring them out where others can see them; shame always lessens upon exposure.
Let’s all do it: let’s see if we can hold, contain, and surround those parts with compassion. And let’s do it today, before they lose hope.
Adapted from a posting on Intentblog.com
Bo Forbes is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders, and stress management. She is the founder of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, a system that specializes in the therapeutic application of yoga for anxiety, insomnia, depression, immune disorders, chronic pain, physical injuries, and athletic performance. Bo conducts teacher trainings and workshops internationally, is on the Advisory Board of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and consults to healthcare agencies worldwide. She writes frequently for Yoga Journal, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and other leading magazines, and is the author of Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Relieve Anxiety and Depression. Learn more about Bo’s offerings or take her online therapeutics training at boforbes.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta
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