July 12, 2011

The Side of Yoga That Sucks. ~ Jamie Davies O’Leary

I’ve been in many guided meditations during which the imagery of a still, quiet lake is conjured. My mind’s lake is greyish green and reminds me of Scotland. The water is cold but not freezing. There are giant pine trees. And my mind feels at ease.

Photo: jerryartphotos

Eighty-five percent of the time I like the metaphorical lake meditations.

During the other fifteen percent the green-blue lake isn’t welcome, precisely because its shining surface acts as a mirror of sorts. At these times, I’d prefer turbulence, distraction — even plunging into the cold depths. In fact, I’d rather the whole mountainous, pine tree landscape erupt into a scene from the Twilight films than to have to sit a moment longer. At least those movies made me laugh.

There’s a flip side too.

If you’re not ready for it, the power of yoga and meditation is like gripping a petulant cat by its neck hair and forcing it to take a look at its mess. Claws come out. Resistance. Avoidance.

There are reasons we create distractions and dramas and turbulence — and why the lake (or snow-capped mountain — I’m sure you’ve heard that one too) can be so goddamned annoying to sit with. So we fidget, bite nails, daydream, reminisce, take a nap, eat cupcakes, make excuses. (Yes, I have done all of these things in the last 48 hours.)

Despite going to an awesome yoga festival; throwing a successful surprise thirtieth birthday party for my husband; feeling snug in our community; enjoying family, fireworks, potlucks and good weather — I’ve been agitated lately. Stirring the bottom of the lake. Refusing to cooperate.

I’ve avoided my personal practice. Training to become a certified yoga instructor, I’m supposed to practice daily. I’m usually great on my home mat. But lately, my wrist hurts. And my other wrist. And my whole elbow, now that I think of it.  And my belly. My head.  Plus, I’m tired. I’m busy. I’m sleep-deprived.

Photo: Sarah VDL

But this is more than tendonitis.

It’s more than my tendency to stretch myself thin with too many summer parties and events. It occurred to me — in a rather ironic fashion, too — that I’m avoiding my mat because I’m avoiding the truth.

I was working on a questionnaire for yogaServe, a yoga service organization in my hometown, which I’m beginning with the help of fellow yoga instructors and friends. In a recessionary climate and amid some likely skepticism about yoga as an effective treatment (this is the Midwest, after all), we’re putting together surveys to measure yoga’s impact, including questions to gauge our clients’ level of mindfulness before and after class.

Here I was asking clients to rate their feelings on a scale that went from “never” to “always” on phrases like: “I tend not to notice feelings of physical discomfort until they really grab my attention” and “I could be experiencing some emotion and not be conscious of it until sometime later,” just moments after delivering the umpteenth round of vague complaints to my husband. “I don’t know what’s wrong…” “I’m just feeling tired — ambivalent.” “Energetically, something is off.”

And then it occurred to me. I’ve known all along what’s up. I just chose to keep the water agitated so I wouldn’t have to see it.

Even thinking of it makes me ill.

It’s July and I didn’t make a conscious connection until about a day ago. Fast-approaching is the anniversary of… something, which I’d really rather not remember (I’ll spare you the details). My body and brain have been avoiding stillness — including the quiet that comes before/after/during yoga — in order to avoid this moment.

Back at Wanderlust it flashed into my head. Deep in a lunge designed to make me furious at Seane Corn (literally; she had us hold the pose — the most painful hip-opening pose I have ever been in — for about four minutes) it came up. “What’s standing in your way, holding you back from becoming who you’re meant to be? What are you holding on to? Let it go.” Shit. These things happen in yoga. Here you are having a fabulous, flexible time and then you’re hit over the head with something painful. I dropped the lunge, fiddled with my water bottle. The much talked-about effects of hip-openers (“that’s where you carry your emotions and wounds!”) made my eyes roll for once.

Photo: Emy Racoon

Since that moment I’ve kept myself busy and far enough away from my mat, so that I wouldn’t have to face it again. And not until moments ago, while reviewing a questionnaire to help clients (affected by trauma and addiction, nonetheless) did I realize the extent to which this mindlessness and avoidance has been consuming my recent life.

I’m not harboring hate or rage, or anything frightening like that. I’m just bad at this. My mom tells stories about how even when I was three, I refused to admit when I was wrong. Two and a half decades later I still try to rationalize my anger over by-gone squabbles: my brothers broke my baton, or tangled my hair in the swing set, or killed my lightning bugs. Can you blame me? And that was when I’d retaliated, let alone when someone else was squarely in the wrong.

But it’s not endearing anymore; it’s holding me back. I’m not particularly adept at confronting painful things, much less at approaching someone — who, by the way, isn’t asking for any sort of forgiveness — to say that I have compassion for him/her. I feel defensive. I’m not Jesus or the Buddha. I still feel so much rawness over this event that I think at times not even the Buddha himself would want to forgive this person. What do you expect? It tore my life to shreds and it’s too painful to ever share publicly. It’s human to feel upset. Normal. Justified. Expected.

All true — but what was unearthed for me today was that I don’t want to live my life this way anymore. I don’t know how to commence the forgiveness process. One book suggested creating a forgiveness shrine of sorts, where you offer forgiveness and prayers to the person that harmed you.  But that just feels creepy to me. Merely stating it out loud isn’t enough; I’ve tried that a few times. I haven’t really thought about the other options. I’ve been busy not thinking about it. It’s been years, actually.

I want to enjoy my time on my mat.  I want to continue growing, healing and embodying the principles of yoga, especially as I prepare to teach in communities wracked with undeserved pain and trauma. It’s so ironic I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I guess taking a seat on the mat and letting the water settle is a good start.


Jamie Davies O’Leary is a yoga-instructor in training and also the co-creator of yogaServe, a yoga service group in Columbus, Ohio. She believes she is an old soul with many past lives as her passions are innumerable (and often unrelated): public education, anti-poverty initiatives, eastern religion, Tara Brach’s teachings, beer, art, music, vegetarianism, and interior design. She feels lucky to have found the path of yoga after a lifetime of being entirely too serious and stuck in her head.

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