When I was in high school, I was told that going to college was the road most traveled to success—and thus, happiness.
I absorbed as much sensation as I could throughout my college experience—I studied very hard and socialized even better. For four entire years, everything was gratifying or stimulating—or at the very least teaching me something new.
I did everything right! I was awesome and so was my life—but then, I graduated and moved back home.
The life I had built and established myself in seemed to be ripped away from me, and with it, it took some of my identity and ambition. I had applied to over 50 jobs throughout the following year, because it was what I gathered as the “self-worth” calculator.
What was the last four years for, anyway? I thought I did everything right. Like many millennials or college grads, I soon realized a nine to five job really was not calling my name—and I mean literally and figuratively.
I was not fulfilled or challenged, I wasn’t happy, and I definitely did not have “that dream job.” I quickly realized there were many more people who were feeling the same sense of mundane-ity in their own humdrum routine. People just like me who became victims of society taking away their confidence, ambition and ability to care for themselves in order to combat that loss of self-worth.
The pressure and stress I was subjecting myself post-graduation quickly manifested itself within me physically, I became stuck in a perpetual cycle of stress induced weight-loss. For every pound that fell off of my body—three people would tell me how skinny I looked. Imagine what kind of psychological toll that would take on someone who was gaining, instead of losing, weight.
I needed to make major changes in my life, and throughout this time, I was intensely self-reflecting, digesting everything Alan Watts I could get my hands on—which led me to the realization that getting my 200-hour yoga certification was what would bring me to loving myself again.
I’d practiced yoga throughout college to re-balance myself and kept returning to it after graduation—it seemed it was the only tool left in my toolbox.
Life is suffering—but I wanted to find a way to rise above it. It took six months for things to fall into place, but I completed my training in a month long summer intensive program. In this time, I learned a profound amount about myself, and why I do the things I do.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool on the road to self-discovery (or recovery), and here are a few of the things I learned:
I knew what psychology said about body posture before going into my program, and I was very acutely aware of my own posture. Our posture says everything about our physiological state, and on the first day of class I “checked in” with my body posture and what it was saying about me.
Wayne Allen, a psychotherapist and author about all things zen-related, allowed me to analyze what was going on in my physical standing posture . My shoulders were dropped—this position is adopted by people who are overly responsible and form a “helper” identity, creating a “weight of the world” reflex on the shoulders. I was also displaying an exaggerated rounding over of my shoulders when seen from my backside—signaling that the initial over-responsibility did not work, and thus, I was taking on more responsibilities for everyone else to the exclusion of my own wants and needs. The rounding forward (hunch) of my shoulders was an attempt to protect my heart—signaling the need for love, but the fear of being open and vulnerable—illustrated my position of weakness. All three of these characteristics mark the past defeats of my life, coupled with the intense need to “protect my heart.”
Even more telling was how my shoulder posture changed when I sat—moving up toward my ears in a “turtle” position. Allen argues that this posture is assumed by those who see the world as threatening and are used to external or internal criticism. These postures are all learned coping mechanisms, assumed to alleviate the burdens of your reality—they are a grave indicator of your internal attitude. My body was signaling how insecure and broken I was for some time, I just never knew what to look for.
Pranayama is breath-work, also known as medical intervention. The three-part breath is the most basic and fundamental foundation of yogic practice. You learn to inhale through your nose—filling first your belly, your ribs and finally your chest, before exhaling through your nose. It seems simple enough but the first time I consciously tried a three-part breath, I noticed I was not really breathing. I was staying in the space after an exhale and before an inhale for a longer amount of time than it took to inhale, pause and exhale all together. I quite literally was holding my breath. Furthermore, when I inhaled I noticed I was sucking my stomach in as not to accentuate the rise of my belly as my body filled with air, and I maintained this posture during the exhale. I was actively trying to limit the rise of my belly. This is more learned behavior most often exhibited in women. I was breathing in the very top part of my chest—shallow inhalations that did not allow for proper oxygenation of my blood. No wonder I was anxious all the time!
I learned I was rarely giving my full attention to the present moment. In fact, I was barely giving the present moment half of my attention. I learned that my reality and what my thoughts were creating are two very different places—that I was trying to be in those two places at the same time, and it was one of the biggest causes of my suffering. This is still the most challenging practice I work on. Western societies function in a way that nearly requires multi-tasking, and retraining my brain to maintain focus was as challenging as it was indicative.
I learned that I had an extremely high stress intolerance, and being an empath only exacerbates that. Absorbing negative physical or mental energies of those around you is reeling enough, but when you’re struggling with your own energy, outside stressors wreak havoc on your chakras, and maintaining a balance seems inconceivable. Luckily this realization came with the silver lining of acknowledging something was off balance, thus marking a point of reference by which to move forward from. Learn the four R’s: Recognize, relax, respond, resolve.
I learned how much emotion I was suppressing, and then eventually learned how to dissect my emotions to better understand why I was feeling a certain way. This was one of the most difficult aspects of my training—learning to accept the negative emotions that were making me feel unworthy and ashamed—and then dealing with them instead of running away from them.
It is very important to deal with uncomfortable emotions, to eliminate the chance of rumination or avoidance, which can lead to much larger problems. Our emotions manifest themselves within our tissues—women particularly hold a lot of stress in our hips and neck. It is no surprise that the physical practice of yoga releases these emotions, but learning to accept—and thus earn the badges these emotions represent—was as liberating as it was daunting.
“It’s just an emotion, it will pass…”
I was underweight when this program began, and although I had been practicing on and off for five years, I had concerns about how my weight made me “unworthy.” I really met myself when I was on the mat and began to be mindful of my body as I learned more about it. I learned my hips and shoulders are externally rotated, and surprisingly, they’re moving my shoulders in an unhealthy manner, simply because it was accessible for me. I learned strength is just as mental as it is physical, and I learned consistency breeds growth.
What I was able to do at the end of my training versus my first day is fantastic, and am lucky I was able to appreciate slow growth. I learned how to appreciate the body I was given, and how to use it in ways that maintained a healthy balance. I learned that no two bodies are alike (with a few exceptions here and there). Your down-dog is not my down-dog. Your body is not my potential—however beautiful it surely is! They body’s ability to adapt, endure, support and change is nothing short of magic.
Sexism is found everywhere.
I was a sociology and political science double major in college, and I am deeply passionate about gender equality issues and gender’s fluidity, versus the socially constructed idea that gender is mutually exclusive.
When I began learning about energy anatomy and nadi (energetic channel that carries prana, or energy, from the universe), I came across the three sacred rivers (Ida, Pingala, Shushumna) that intersect in the chakras. The Ida was described, among other non-gender based characteristics, as feminine while the Pingala was described, among other non-gender based characteristics, as masculine. But what is feminine that cannot also be masculine? This description irked me in inconceivable ways.
Here I was getting my teaching certification to escape from ways in which society wants to define me—the ways in which the world tells men and women they are allowed “be”—and I was met with the assertion that feminine was synonymous with leftness, introversion and passiveness, or that masculine was synonymous with rightness, extroversion, activeness. However you chose to interpret this—this was my initial reaction, and without hesitation, I ran from the present moment and into a tail-spin of an emotionally charged rants in my head.
The second week into my teacher training, I walked outside of my yoga study to retrieve something from my car, and two men in a pick-up truck started shouting obscenities about my body—my butt and what they liked about it. Then they laughed hysterically at me as they drove away.
These two instances brought me back to the intense shame I felt about myself before starting this program. They were regressive to my psyche and attitude, and it took me some time to digest and then let go of. These two instances were incredible teaching moments for non-attachment and calming my mind.
“Your perception of me is a reflection of you—my reaction to you is an awareness of me.”
Politics are everywhere.
In addition to sexism, I found that politics are part of any business practice, and because yoga has completely taken-off in the west, new issues are coming to light. Whether it be within yoga studios and the hierarchy—where in the national community yoga belongs—or with more religiously held beliefs, politics permeates every facet of life just as sexism does. For example, a teacher of mine mentioned that there were individuals of Western beliefs in her class, who felt uncomfortable with the Buddhist mantras in the practice’s playlist. I never expected to find these sort of complications in a lifestyle that so strongly promotes love—but again, what great teaching moments in non-judgement!
Self-love & love.
Tough pill to swallow—all hate is self-hate. The most simple, yet most difficult realization, was how much I was not caring for or loving myself. It takes time and attention to care for yourself, and I was the first to help someone else, but the last to help myself. This was the root cause of my suffering, and the first way in which I alleviated my suffering. Once you start paying attention to how often you’re thinking negatively about yourself or your choices, you realize how seldom you support yourself. I would never allow my friends to talk about themselves the way I did with myself!
Become your own ally—even more important, allow others to love you, because being vulnerable is the scariest and most rewarding way to see yourself. The loving and supportive energy I received from my yogi sisters was something I arguably had never felt. As much as I love teaching and helping others, I cannot authentically or whole-heartedly believe in what I am doing, unless I believe in myself. Let yourself love, and be loved. Know you are worthy. Deepak Chopra reminds us there are no right or wrong decisions, the universe is not fixed, there are only possibilities shifting with each thought, feeling and action you experience. We can hold duality in this world that teaches us to be polar.
“Rudeness is merely an expression of fear. People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.” ~ Grand Budapest Hotel
So, I emerged from my 200-hour teacher training a little stronger physically, mentally and emotionally with these realizations tucked under my belt. I still do not know where my career will take me, or what I am doing next year, but having the respect and confidence for myself to endure makes the not knowing okay.
I’ve begun to feel more sensation in my life and have seen positive changes in my relationships and within myself. It is my hope that what I learned serves as cues—stepping stones or points of reference for anyone needing to “check in” with themselves in this world.
The hardships of life are much easier to tackle with the resources yoga has provided me, and these realizations were my starting point. Yoga communities are wonderful support systems, I encourage you to create a routine within one.
The most valuable lesson of all was learning what love and support can do for the human soul.
Try it on yourself—you will be amazed.
Author: Kat Liggio
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Author’s own.