June 20, 2011

Yogi’s Choice Cigarettes™: all of the flavor and none of the guilt!

Recently, elephant journal columnist Candice Garrett wrote a refreshingly candid blog post about having one of those days and opting for a nice stiff drink at the end of the day.  The article drew mostly compassionate and understanding comments. It also drew one critical comment, which went on to give birth to its own thread with 8 replies. This sparked a popular (and awesome) follow-up article exploring the idea of where judgment of others comes from and the yoga being the ability to stop, breathe and look inside yourself: all of which I firmly believe in.

Among my circle of nutty yogi friends, we joke about marketing a new brand of cigarettes: Yogi’s Choice. Yogi’s Choice cigarettes allow you to enjoy your vice with none of the guilt; which is what I believe to be the nut of this issue. Now, as someone who is on the front lines of helping women find alternatives to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping I need to be very clear about a couple of  things.

  1. I do not condone nor do I support the use of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes as a way to cope
  2. I am addressing the messy self-judgment that comes along with these things that can lead to more use.

What I do support is looking at the feelings of self-criticism or guilt. Ms. Garrett made herself vulnerable in her original bad day post and it was obvious (to me, anyway) that she already felt a hint of guilt about opting for the G&T instead of the yoga mat. The critical comment served to fuel the (perhaps tiny) flame that was already burning inside of her; a flame that I know all too well.

I often remind my students (and myself) that yoga is about listening to your body and your self. It’s about allowing yourself to give yourself what you need. To that end sometimes your yoga practice is deciding not to practice yoga! It is also about allowing your self to make unhealthy choices as a way of choosing more and more healthy choices–without beating yourself up about it!

The absolute key to freedom and mental health is to find compassion for your self. Think you have it? Here is a check-list for you to help you determine if you have that tiny flame of guilt and shame inside you (and if you didn’t, you’d be one in a billion)

  1. Do you defend yourself when you are criticized?
  1. Do you find yourself being critical of others?
  1. Do you feel “lazy” or bad about yourself when you’ve spent a day “doing nothing”
  1. Do you find yourself saying or thinking things like “I should this” or “I should’ve done that”

That’s enough to start. Most of you can probably identify with at least one of these. Think of these tendencies as a little tiny flame inside you (most likely established in childhood by way of any number of experiences that get lodged into your system). Any time you engage in one of these four behaviors (among others) you are turning the flame up. That little flame of self-criticism, guilt and shame suddenly burns so hot that we desperately look for some way to douse it. The trouble is, the only way to really douse the flame is found inside us, not by way of anything external.

Now, before you go getting all who does she think she is on me let me just tell you that I have an ex-husband that helps me practice this almost every day. During our married time together, his judgments and criticisms of me were unrelenting. In hindsight I see that I ended up on the brink of self-destruction because on some level I believed what he was saying. Though I spent many years defending myself and then eventually silencing myself and constantly criticizing him, it was really my own self criticism and  lack of self compassion that lead to my near demise.

Now, three years (and many painful growth opportunities) post divorce I am a different person. It seems that my ex has not (yet) experienced his personal transormation. He still lobs the criticisms at me left right and center. Everything from you’re a fraud, to you’re a bad mother to you’re arrogant, selfish and have boundry issues are sent my way via email, text and during the very rare telephone conversation.  This is where my practice really happens:

Step 1: Notice my knee-jerk reaction (most times it’s anger and then counter-judgment in the from of calling him some nasty name like “asshole” or douche-bag”

Step 2: Notice how my body is feeling (most times it’s the good old 3rd chakra: shame kicking up)

Step 3: Breathe and remind myself that the urge to judge (or defend yourself against) others comes an internal self-critic. The self-critic says, “See?!?! This person sees you for what you really are!! Hit him with everything you’ve got and prove him wrong!!” ~ Begin to actively talk internal self-critic off the ledge.

Step 4: Upon realizing that my urge to judge/defend against the ex comes from my own inner critic (lack of self compassion)~apply same logic to the ex, seeing that his original criticisms come from his own inner-critic (lack of self compassion)

Step 5: Understanding lack of self-compassion in self and lack of self-compassion in others results in compassion for all.

In the end I usually don’t respond at all to his attacks. In doing this, I keep my flame on low, and in doing so I refrain from giving him fuel for his­–a benefit for which I don’t expect to be acknowledged.

Is it really that simple? Yes. Is it easy? No way in hell. It’s hard enough to honestly acknowledge how we judge ourselves, but there is something infinitely more challenging.

The challenge is to stop judging ourselves–to stop steeping in guilt and to put aside our feelings of shame. Here’s a little guide, going back to those original steps. I’ve suggested some alternatives to the self-critical behaviors:

  1. Do you defend yourself when you are criticized?

New Behavior: try just creating a wide berth for that criticism to land. Let is fester  for a while on it’s own and it will eventually lose it’s potency. In the meantime, you will have lots of time to notice your urges to defend and can engage in some self-investigation without engaging with the critical person.

  1. Do you find yourself being critical of others?

New Behavior: Yet another opportunity for self-investigation and self-realization. Notice your urge to criticize and take some breaths (an excellent suggestion posed in the Crack Smokin’ Yoga Teacher article) Criticism is just another form of defense~it’s a preemptive strike. What do you have to defend yourself against?

  1. Do you feel “lazy” or bad about yourself when you’ve spent a day “doing nothing”

New Behavior: It’s ok to rest for God’s sake! Even the Almighty himself rested on the 7th day. Remember: if you don’t allow for your own self-care, you are not likely to authentically support others in theirs.

  1. Do you find yourself saying or thinking things like “I should this” or “I should’ve that”

New Behavior: Simply change the “should” to “could”. Empower yourself with the notion that you have choices. “Should” implies that you have done something wrong~ and that is just more fuel for the flame. “Could” allows you to take accountability for your choices.

It’s a process. I have to remind myself every single day. I thank writers like Candice and the many other elephant writers who fully admit to being human. People who see fit to criticize and judge those writers well–as we say in the biz–that’s their stuff. As one who is in the public eye, we can feel satisfied that we give individuals an opportunity for self-reflection whenever we put something out there. Where they engage in that amazing opportunity is entirely up to them.

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