January 17, 2014

Yoga & the Highly Sensitive Person.

Growing up in a society that does not recognize or value sensitivity, I would be told that I was “artsy fartsy,” “too sensitive,” and “too emotional.”

In school I was constantly picked on because I’d react. The events in the world overwhelm me, the radio and television gets on my nerves, and my environment has a huge effect on how I feel and operate. Almost everything on a sensory level can become a trigger. The littlest things and people, can easily exhaust me.

Self-judgment and frustration are core characteristics of the highly sensitive person.

At the age of 28, I moved into a yoga ashram to figure out what was wrong with me. Everything was too much for me to handle. I expected yoga to be a cure. Little did I know that yoga wouldn’t be a fix. It actually made things worse because it opens up the senses. It took years for me to realize, understand and accept who I am and the differences that I have inherited were genetic.

Just as church and religion weren’t an answer, neither was yoga. Self-knowledge and acceptance was the cure, and it had always been available.

A highly sensitive person (HSP) is defined as “a person having the innate trait of high sensory processing sensitivity.”

This information comes from a little known book that has changed my life, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron. HSP’s have a highly attuned nervous system due to genetic traits. Studies show that around 20 percent of the population are HSPs.

Historically, the HSP could often be found as artists, musicians, counselors, pyschics and shamans, scientists, dreamers and discovers, the advisers to kings and queens, nature lovers and philosophers, spiritual leaders, and persons who operated behind the scenes. We are genetically suited for certain roles in life, and tend to be wallflowers rather than the center of attention.

And while a person may be a HSP, the degree of sensitivity varies by individual and how it impacts us varies greatly. The HSP is able to sense and feel life to a depth that persons without this genetic trait are unable to. Scents are stronger, sensations impact us more. The words that people use, and their tone of voice and mannerisms, communicate more than just words.

Being a highly-sensitive person can be a curse or a blessing.

The HSP who grows up in a supportive environment will have better tools for handling this trait and operating in the world. The HSP who grows up in an unsupportive environment will be riddled with self-harming perceptions. Recognizing and operating with this genetic trait can be a life-long process.

Yoga helped me recognize that I wasn’t broken, just different.

I always knew that I was different.

Going to elementary school in up-state New York and the suburbs of Washington DC is especially difficult for a young HSP. Both are environments notorious for being tough and needing thick-skin to be successful. It wasn’t until reading the Highly Sensitive Person book that I could even conceive of sensitivity as a genetic trait.

I’d considered myself irrational, overly emotional, and too sensitive. According to my family and schools, I was wrong to be how I was. A person who was not so sensitive would have brushed comments like that aside, but I was created as me, and I took their judgments within and began to judge myself as others had judged me.

Yoga revealed to me the different aspects of my being, the layers of reality from which I am created.

In my experiences as a yoga instructor, certain types of people come to class, and the common element is a desire to know and improve oneself. If a person wants to be better physically, or if they are seeking enlightenment, the drive behind it is the same, improvement. To be able to see and recognize the need for self-growth, and to take the steps to support that change, requires a depth of character and sensitivity that our society denies and suppresses. Most people who come to yoga classes are highly-sensitive persons seeking a way to be at peace with their body, mind or spirit.

Self-acceptance does not happen after doing yoga postures or breathing certain ways or after going through great effort.

Peace occurs because a person relinquishes the patterns and self-harming beliefs. And for a highly-sensitive person, that challenge can be greater because we see, hear and feel so much more than most of the people in our life. Yoga can help a person see and learn who they are, yet self-acceptance only occurs once the emotional perception shifts, and we allow ourselves to be who we are.

To be at peace, the struggle can be relinquished, now.

Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodaha is the second yoga sutra of Patanjali. It roughly translates that yoga is the ceasing of mind cycles, or stopping the identifications of mind. When we stop identifying with the judgments and beliefs about who we are, we discover yoga, or peace.

For a sensitive person, this can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Our ability to see and feel with greater depths causes us to see more faults, more issues, and to see our own self with painful detail. There is no fixing who we are, we just are, and once we stop the inner struggle, the identifications with what we believe about who we are ceases, and the state of yoga emerges.

Compassion and forgiveness are footsteps on the path to peace.

While the highly sensitive person is able to forgive others and have compassion for them, over and over again at the drop of a hat, the most difficult thing to do is have compassion and forgiveness for oneself. We must be able to forgive our tendencies to please other people, for judging our self because others have judged us, and denigrating who we are simply because we are different.

In this area, our sensitivities become gifts, for once we know and feel peace, it is boundless liberation.

Om. Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Swarup Roy Chowdhury/Pixoto


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