Yoga can help—but not in the way that you think.
I feel fortunate.
I got to grow up in a time and a generation that has dominated Western culture since we were but wee sprouts. I’m part of the baby boom generation (a person born during the post world war II baby boom between the years of 1946 and 1964) and even though this vast swath of American culture is steadily and inexorably moving into senior status, I still feel very lucky.
We had The Beatles and the cultural tsumani they unleashed.
We were in eye of the civil rights hurricane. We were the generation that awakened to the reality that war is not always just. We experimented with tuning in and dropping out and letting it all hang out. We also got to usher in the first big wave of Eastern practices such as yoga and meditation.
The yoga we explored was mostly grounded in the yoga tradition. There wasn’t such a thing as yoga and meditation. They were really the same thing. Yoga was not about feeling good all the time, never judging and never showing your shadow. Yoga brought those things to the surface so that they could be seen for what they are. No one pretended that the yogic path—or our life path—was all bliss and light, because it’s not.
Is Constant Bliss a Worthy Aspiration?
I was interested to read a commentary this morning that appeared in The New Yorker’s blog. Writer Anastasia Kirtiklis talked about how practicing yoga can bring up emotion, and how in our current, commodified yoga culture, acknowledging uncomfortable emotions is discouraged.
If we just think good thoughts and wish for bliss, that’s what our reality will be. This certainly makes yoga much more palatable to the mainstream.
The only problem is that reality doesn’t work that way.
This particular section of The New Yorker blog was especially resonant for me, explaining the deficiencies of a yoga culture that persistently focuses on finding bliss. A practice that yields the unfortunate effect of shielding us from half our lives:
“My biggest issue with the love and light spiel is that it encourages repression. This is why spiritual bypassing … is such an issue. Take a person who isn’t comfortable with his emotions and tell him that he’s headed toward enlightenment if he transcends [his emotions]. Poof! You have a person with little-to-no self awareness who sits on a cushion blissing out and avoiding half his life because he skips that crucial early step of meeting and feeling his emotions.”
I would add that blissing out and avoiding difficult emotions is a very poor way to prepare ourselves for living in reality.
All Emotions Welcome
For 25 years my main mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, owned The Last Resort Retreat Center, a small cabin in the mountains of southern Utah. They taught profound, intimate retreats to no more than 10 people.
The modest size (which allowed teachers and students to get to know each other very, very well), high-altitude stillness and teachers trained by Osho and B.K.S. Iyengar in the early 1970s (when all kinds of experimental, provocative, emotion-exposing therapies were taking place at Osho’s ashram—a spiritual hermitage) combined to form a crucible for stirring up emotion. Pujari guided us to be with it—all of it. Feel it.
What’s the energy of anger? Of fear? Of jealousy? Of hatred? Of generosity? Of love? Of grief? Of resentment? You get the picture.
I was always amused that Pujari chose to lead us through vigorous back bends every third day of every silent vipassana (in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality) retreat, the days we were scheduled to check in with him privately and report our experiences.
For bringing those emotions that are quivering just below the surface out into the open, back bends are yoga’s most effective pose. Freeing these emotions in the midst of our “interviews” was a-okay.
The presence of difficult emotion was never considered to be a sign of something gone wrong in our practice. Rather, the presence of emotion was seen as an opportunity. Bring it to light. Get to know it. Let it be. Let it go when it’s ready to move on. When it inevitably reappears down the road, you just might have a better handle on how to relate to it. Or maybe not.
When you sit in silence for seven, 10 or 30 days, you basically see it all. The emotions we distract ourselves from (through electronics, television, drugs, alcohol, music, yoga and music in yoga class) are inescapable. We get to know our 10 or 12 greatest hits, those same old thoughts and worries that suck up most of our mental energy. No escaping neuroses either. Yes, meditation is hard.
It is being completely present with the multitude of pleasant and unpleasant energies that wander through our mental landscape, that transforms knowledge into wisdom and judging into compassion.
After 25 years of practice, I’ve come to understand that there’s no shortcut around emotions. The only way to the other side—the ability to be with them without losing our bearings—is to learn to walk right through them.
How Knowing Our Neuroses Transforms Us
When people ask me how meditation has changed me, I tell them this: when I first started practicing, I had no idea what my neuroses were.
I was so caught up in them, they felt like normal. Later on, I began to realize that my neuroses might not be so healthy. I waged war on them. Every time my stuff came up, I’d quash it as quickly as I could.
Here’s what hasn’t changed—my neuroses still do appear from time to time. What has changed is that when I see them, I’m much more likely to greet them as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, by saying, “Hello, old friend.” I see now that my neuroses have had a purpose, to teach me humility, kindness, gentleness and compassion.
Wishing for bliss doesn’t make us automatically blissful.
Avoiding, denying or suppressing the things we don’t like about ourselves doesn’t make them go away. Avoiding, denying and suppressing arguably energizes them and buries them deeper inside where they can more easily guide our actions. So yes, yoga is hard, but living in reality is worth the work.
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Assistant Ed.: Meagan Edmondson / Ed.: Catherine Monkman