If you approach your yoga (asana) practice as a mind-body connecting activity — that’s to say as more than an aerobic workout — it has the power to transform. And I don’t mean just by improving physical flexibility and strength. It can change the way you relate to yourself and the world around you. Your mat/chair becomes your personal laboratory where you can watch and learn about your patterns of thought, belief and behavior. A common yogi-ism is that “the way we react on the mat is often a reflection of how we react off it.” For example:
- Let’s say there’s a pose you dislike — maybe its uncomfortable or maybe you feel awkward when attempting it. You can tell when the teacher is building up to it and lo and behold, just before the class moves into it, you suddenly find you are in need of a bathroom break. A break that, by the way, lasts only as long as you estimate the class will stay in the pose. Realizing you’ve got your bladder on speed dial for the purpose of escaping a situation where you feel uncomfortable, tells you something about how you probably deal with similar situations in life.
- Or, maybe rather than running off to the bathroom, you stay in class, attempt the pose “unsuccessfully” and then berate yourself for not being able to do it “as good as the person next to you.” Were you truly unsuccessful, or was that just your judgement of your effort? How often do you berate yourself off the mat, rather than giving yourself props for trying something, even if the outcome isn’t “perfect” (in reality or in your mind)? Did you feel unsuccessful because your version of the pose didn’t compare well with your neighbor’s?
When you observe with self-compassion and non-judgement, you begin to notice the internal chain of events that, in this example, lead to fleeing discomfort. You will also begin to understand the source of your inner critic. According to vipassana meditation teacher, Phillip Moffet, , “It’s quite common for the voice of judgment in your head to not be your own, but someone’s from your past, like a parent or teacher. Sometimes, this voice of judgment doesn’t even reflect your current values.” Awareness gives you the opportunity to begin to make changes, or to at least, pause and respond, rather than just reacting.
As regular readers know, I became a consistent practitioner of the physical part of yoga to stretch tight, aching, somewhat spastic muscles. What I’ve barely written about is that my long-term commitment to yoga began the day my true internal voice appeared and told the critical voice of my mother to “shut up.” I was on my mat, in the midst of practice and struggling with feelings of unworthiness. Until that moment I hadn’t realized the inner critic I’d accepted as my own voice, was actually my mother’s.
My mother was often abusive — physically, mentally and emotionally. Something she denies to this day. I learned early how to avoid much of the physical abuse. But, the price I paid was swallowing my own needs, thoughts and desires. I became a Pleaser, thinking that if I could just do everything “right” she wouldn’t get mad. There was no way for a child to understand that abuse is about the abuser, not the victim. The abuse wasn’t 24/7. There were times she was very loving and a lot of fun. But, I never knew “how the wind would blow.” So, I became good at blending into the woodwork until I knew what mood she was in and trying to guess what she would want, need or think, before she did. I accepted that everything she said about me, my father and the way the world worked was true. Though my values and beliefs about the world shifted as I became an adult, I continued to carry the self-image she’d created and to unknowingly operate from a place of self-protection — with behaviors and coping skills that had kept me safe as a child, but weren’t very helpful in forming healthy relationships or a healthy self-view.
I didn’t meet my true voice the first time I stepped onto my mat or even the third or fourth. I had been practicing for months — probably 3 times a week — and had begun seeing a therapist because I was struggling with MS-related cognitive impairment. I knew that yoga was helping my body and reducing sensations of stress. But, I’d had no idea that all the mindfulness and paying attention I’d been doing on my mat was leading to that moment.
The moment didn’t immediately make life perfect (spoiler alert: yoga doesn’t ever make life perfect). I continued to struggle with the inner critic and other patterns that growing up with an abusive parent creates. But, each time I returned to my mat, I knew it was an opportunity to work with these feelings and thought patterns. To develop a relationship with my true inner voice. To get to know myself from a perspective that didn’t begin with my mom. And that, my friends, is transformational.
However, transformation isn’t always sunshine and light with ah-ha moments that suddenly make everything better. As the quote that introduces this post says, the process can involve moments of darkness. That’s something I’ll be addressing in my next post.
Be good to yourselves today. If you liked the “Tree of Transformation” image above, please check out HeavenonEarthSilks on Etsy. There are many beautiful pieces there.