After going through a bit of a monsoon of my own this year, with uncertainty in both my design and yoga careers and my romantic relationship coming to an abrupt halt, I started to sink into a black hole of isolation and unworthiness. To get through this, I threw myself into a bustling schedule of yoga classes, workshops and school applications trying to 'better' myself as I felt that my inadequacies were the cause of all the hardship that was taking place. Self-criticism took over my heart and began to pump black tar of unworthiness through my veins and arteries. It became a vicious cycle; the harder I tried the more I cut myself down. I would preach words of love and acceptance in practice, yet whip myself with a leather strap of harsh self- criticism after class. At one point, I sincerely contemplated throwing in the towel as a yoga instructor because the numbers in my classes had dropped — it was surely because I was doing something wrong. The practice of yoga is my deepest passion in life so it would be a pretty radical thing for me to walk away from it all together. Sadly, little did I know that through all of the turmoil and grief I was causing myself, my sole purpose was to in fact to comfort and help bring myself back to happiness. If you ask me, that is a pretty convoluted way to show yourself love and kindness!
After one of our visits in the spring, my psychologist told me about an online course through Brené Brown's website Courage Works, which featured Kristin Neff's program on discovering self-compassion. At this point, I was desperate and after having a psychic, a shaman and now a trained psychologist tell me that I needed to work on self-compassion, I took this as an oversized road sign on the centre line of a highway.
Through the four-course program, we were introduced to all the facets of love and acceptance as a healing tool for yourself and then, in turn, for all of humanity. Because what you fear is what you essentially see in others, I learned that the simple verb of love can clear away the clouds of fear and allow for the whole hearted acceptance of reality to sink in. After completing the online course, I felt that I was onto something and picked up Kristin Neff's book Self-Compassion — The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. This read helped me change course for good.
Because teaching is such a great part of my life, I often relate any and all life experiences to the practice of yoga. By creating a primary focus of deep self-study, with openness and complete acceptance, we work toward unraveling the great mystery that is “you”. Through this, we cultivate the strong power of acceptance, as opposed to thinking of ourselves as a problem to be fixed, when we step on our mats.
Kristin speaks to the idea of self-criticism as a means of trying to control something that we cannot — life. This control comes from a place of fear that we will be harmed or hurt, feel shame or isolation. The irony of it all is that this fear, in fact, comes from a place of protection and love for ourselves, which is inherent in each and every one of us. In her book, Kristin speaks to three core components of self-compassion: self- kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, making the process a more accessible accomplishment.
The dialogue that runs on an eternal fuel supply in your head is the direct variable for self-kindness. Being gentle and understanding with yourself takes practice. This starts through the simple awareness of the reinforcing words you tell yourself when things go astray. I'm positive that I would never iterate the words "Seriously!? You ALWAYS do this! Don't you ever learn?" to a friend who is in need of support. Without judgment, I would naturally listen to their concerns and help them to feel safe and secure. Kristin describes this as making " a peace offering of warmth, gentleness, and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur". The next time you fall out of Natarajasana (Dancer's pose) or can't wrap your legs around each other in Garudasana (Eagle pose), take note of what you are saying to yourself. This simple act of comforting yourself during a difficult time can literally be the fuel to grab hold of your foot from the inside and kick into your hand once again, taking a stronger second shot at your standing posture.
The word “yoga” roots from the Sanskrit word “yu” meaning "to unite". The union of all beings speaks to the common human experience. As Kristin puts it, "compassion is, by definition, relational", which can be interpreted by recognizing that we are all in this together. What you are feeling, I have felt, am feeling or will feel. Experiences in life come in all shapes and sizes but we are all connected on a baseline intention of being loved and accepted and in turn, happy.
As much as we practice pranayama (breath work) and asana (yoga postures) to bring the focus inward — extending with the inhale and deepening with each exhale — we are also energetically moving with the beat of our neighbour. We subconsciously hold space for them with our breath and movement as they fall in and out of postures just as we have once before. If you can, picture a cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows, swirling around a sea of bitter sweetness as they surrender to the flow and natural current created by the almighty Spoon. Some bumping into one another, some sticking together, others repelling off of one another, all affecting each other in some way with their movement. At the end of the day, they are all in the same cup and all have the same inherent fate. I'm not sure how yoga and hot chocolate go together but I tend to think of my favourite indulgence when I'm in a tough practice.
Kristin also speaks about the hormone oxytocin as being the "hormone of love and bonding" which is a great contributor to the feeling of connectedness. She goes on to say that "people who feel connected to others are not as frightened by difficult life circumstances and are more readily able to role with the punches". Isn't that what we are all striving for? The ability to fall and almost immediately get up. To brush ourselves off and then shrug our shoulders being oblivious to the feeling of failure and isolation all together. She incorporates a very fitting quote by British novelist Jerome K. Jerome that sums it all up: "It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one".
To be mindful is like turning on the flashlight in your tent and realizing that you have been sleeping on your toothbrush all along. We have this incredible ability to create and manifest what we believe to be true while completely dismissing the reality of what is right in front of us. Kristin uses the term "overidentification", saying, "Our sense of self becomes so wrapped up in our emotional reactions that our entire reality is consumed by them." In my experience and opinion, we react this way out of fear of seeing or feeling something that does not coincide with our deepest desires. We react in this way because we want to avoid experiencing failure. This is not to say that our desires can't ever come to fruition but to get there, you ultimately must use the vehicle of reality to facilitate the journey. I have come to realize that failure is a part of life and have used the yoga asana (yoga pose) as a safe training ground.
I come from an active childhood, which yields tight hips and a stubborn, competitive mind so when I first discovered Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose) you can bet that I muscled my way through every breath. Despite the helpful queuing from the instructor, I stayed strong and true to my sense of strength believing that, if I could just focus on something else, the pain would eventually subside. After a handful of classes, my wrists ached, my shoulders tightened and I began to feel like an imposter. It wasn't until I had had enough and completely surrendered to the adjustments that I started to move from a different place.
I approached each posture with a blank slate and maintained a keen interest on each sensation in my body while recalling the personalized queuing from my past teachers. Before I knew it, I was holding the same posture with more ease and comfort than ever before. "Yes failure is frustrating but it's also temporary and eventually yields wisdom" speaks to this very point. On the contrary, by being aware of your physical and mental capabilities, you are able to see things from the objective perspective and then move strategically from there. Often, you are stronger than you think. I am always amazed to see my students transform Uttanasana (forward fold) into the beginning stages of a Bakasana (crow pose) by merely using their full-bodied awareness as they make each move. By looking at life without the use of coloured glasses (rose preferred), we are able to gain a new, realistic perspective and exponentially change how we move forward.
The saying goes, “to appreciate the light you must experience the darkness”, and have compassion for it at that. The amazing thing about the human psyche is that we are able to experience deep pain and love simultaneously. This balance between dark and light is what creates our inherent strength and resilience towards the happenings of life. As Kristen says, "being alive involves struggle and despair as well as joy and glory". In fact for myself, darkness has been the birthplace for love and light. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) makes these words tangible, as it requires balance and attention to the right and left lines of the body. The left line signifies the moon — darkness, depth, softness and shadow — while the right line symbolizes the sun’s sharpness, radiance and light.
There is an ancient tale about Ganesha, a deity in the Hindu pantheon, who is riding home one evening and loses his balance, completely falling off his little chariot mouse. The moon, Chandra, couldn't help but laugh as she gazed down at his dismay. Enraged, Ganesha throws his tusk at the moon completely dimming her light. With this action, the world became imbalanced — no dusk or softness, no place for romance or love, no shadows to define the true shape of the heart. The imbalance of too much sunlight began to bleach the honesty and richness of each experience and the world became scorched, lifeless and dry. This tale teaches us to find beauty in each struggle and persevere by trusting that darkness is, in fact, the seed for love and belonging.
The truth is that once you can acknowledge and practice compassion for yourself, you can then turn it towards others. This will definitely help to manifest your deepest desires with a strong and sustainable baseline of love and acceptance. I was moved and humbled by this read; it truly changed the way I live, love and practice. I hope that as a reader, I have done the same for you.
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