Truth and Illusion

It is often after a long and challenging practice that I find myself lost in the post-yoga buzz. A combination of intense and still flowing energy, physical sensations, sweat, a wide range of thoughts, heat, sometimes tears, and all of the feelings that can be cultivated with practice completely take over. We come face to face with our truest self, stripped of ego, raw and deliberately exposed with nowhere to hide.

One day I found myself in this space, turned to my side, and through gentle tears I saw myself so clearly for the first time ever. I realized with perfect clarity that I didn’t like myself very much and when that thought came to consciousness the tears really began to flow.

When our yoga practice becomes a mirror for us to see more clearly the life that we’re living we have a number of responses at our disposal. For most of us, it will be whatever our general habits are off of the mat. When we experience frustration, anger, fear, sadness, shame, vulnerability, discomfort it is not uncommon for us to want to avoid, distract or numb ourselves, deny the experience, blame someone or something else, refocus our attention outward, or hide.

When these feelings show up on the mat, the responses will look very similar. Some will avoid the practice all together because of how vulnerable it makes them feel. Some will numb themselves to the feelings that come up or resist what their body, heart, and mind are telling them and continue to push until injury. And when those who tend to run away realize they can’t hide and still maintain this practice there is also the potential to experience a breakthrough.

When I decided to dive deeper into my realization I discovered that at its core were decades of shame. Layers and layers of the belief that I was not worthy of this practice or this life…that I was not good enough to have what I had…that I didn’t deserve the love of my husband, my family, or the friendships that I had managed to develop over the years.

The thing about peeling back these layers is that it takes time to work through. These deeper truths are usually clouded by bigger illusions, stories that we’ve created, to distract ourselves from what’s really going on underneath. So what do we do from here?

Truth is known as Satya in Yoga Philosophy. In The Four Agreements, it is the agreement to “be impeccable with your word.” In order for us to see our truths and the beliefs that we hold we have to first identify the words we use, the phrases we speak, and the thoughts that arise within us with complete honesty. We must first bring awareness to what we do, say, and think now in the present before we can call ourselves out for its insincerity.

Decades of therapy, both with professional help and general talk-therapy among trusted friends and loved ones, were a big part of my journey. Years of practicing and studying Yoga Asana and Yoga Philosophy were also integral for me. The most significant factor of all though is that I have surrounded myself with people who love and encourage me to seek out and live my truth objectively.

My husband is amazing at this. He is the first person who has ever really taught me to see through my own B.S. especially when witnessing me belittle and criticize myself. He does not concern himself with how things appear or what someone else might think. He has the courage to call things out exactly as he sees them with honesty and respect, without holding back and without outside influence. I used to call him my “caller-outer.” He does not let me or anyone else get away with saying things that aren’t true especially when used to manipulate people (including myself) to think or feel one way or another. I am blessed to have him by my side. I am forever grateful for him, his integrity, and his love.

And then I needed my teachers. Taylor Hunt was the first who saw through my attempt to hide, resist, avoid, and stay numb on my mat. He heard me “joke” about how my body had too much “stuff” to twist and bind and he very publicly called me out. I needed this. He saw through the game I played to keep hidden. He saw that I practiced without being emotionally and mentally present, just scratching the surface and going through the physical motions that I knew so well after years of practicing this set sequence. He saw my resistance to going deeper, to trying harder, and to seeing what was really underneath it all. He helped me see the illusions I created and encouraged me to finally face them.

The rest of it is all me. I am reminded over and over again through continuous study, through mentors and through friends that I have power I can choose to own whenever I want. I do not have to continue looking outside of myself in other people’s validation or by achieving a posture to be or feel worthy of my practice or the life I am living. Unlimited potential is mine only when I am ready and willing to stand in that power and finally be seen.

As I continue this journey, I must stay diligent for myself and I must be willing to be that voice for others, lest I fall back into old patterns. Reminding those around me also helps me to remember: Pay attention to the stories you have created to convince yourself and others to look the other way. Recognize the words you use to describe others and yourself, your body, your actions, and your behaviors. Notice when you say something unkind and make yourself see the truth that lies beneath those thoughts or feelings.

It is not true that other people can “make you” feel anything. There is something deeper within you that causes a reaction to the words and actions of others. It is not true that you can make others think or feel or do anything. What someone does is their choice, their story, and has nothing to do with you. It is not coincidence that both of these reminders are also two more of The Four Agreements.

It is not true that you need to have a different body size or shape or structure to be your BEST self. It is not true that you “can’t” and that you need longer or shorter/bigger or smaller of anything to practice where you are. It is not true that you aren’t good enough/strong enough/flexible enough to try anything. It is not true that you don’t have enough time for something you truly want to do. It is not true that you have “no choice.”

When we become aware of our own illusions and can identify the truth that lies beneath, that is where the work begins. We can then call ourselves out when we hear the B.S. We can then take that time to explore where those thoughts or feelings are really coming from and sit with it…feel all of the feelings no matter how uncomfortable it is to speak it and bring it to light.

And as resilience and ease grows with that practice, we can begin to shift our perspective and recreate our habits. We can replace the thought patterns with ones that are rooted in our truth. We can identify the actions that perpetuate those beliefs and begin to make a different choice in how we live. And ultimately, we can choose to own our strength, live in our light, and stand in our power and know that we are all valid and worthy just as we are.

Healing from Diet Culture

As I continue to work on living my best life into my forties, I must face the debilitating beliefs that plagued my childhood, teen years, and younger adulthood. I am grateful for ever coming across The Four Agreements more than 10 years ago to help me start to reset my way of thinking. I realize now that this was a necessary step for me to even begin this journey, but it has been incredibly challenging to undo the thought process of diet culture and it still is.

This undertaking feels massive as the weight-loss industry makes billions over billions of dollars on our own belief that we are all not good enough as we are. Thankfully, we have advocates like Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch who paved the way to change this way of thinking by gifting us with the principles and practice of intuitive eating.

This issue cannot be addressed in one post. It is not enough to cover this topic with one voice. It is worth the effort to call bullshit on this industry and this societal mindset with as many advocates and resources as we possibly can.

Please join me on this journey to heal ourselves from this culture of self-loathing. With each upcoming post I will address beliefs we must begin to overcome together. We need to change the narrative. We need to shift our perspective and begin to see ourselves and each other much more clearly. We need to live more truthfully, choose to live with compassion and embrace our BEST selves once and for all.

A Catalyst for Change

Looking back at the times I was the most lost, the most broken and damaged I have ever felt, I remember feeling like it would never end. It is so easy to swim in despair and stay there……and more importantly, on some level, want to stay there.

As humans, we are so good at adapting whether we realize it or not. When we experience discomfort, pain, trauma, grief, loss we find ways to cope. That new behavior or story we create to justify what we believe creates a “new normal” that can stick around our whole lives and we forget who we were before or without that experience. We become comfortable with our new patterns and attach to the avoidance of pain and the desire for pleasure.

A child being told in various ways both directly and indirectly that she is not good enough, not smart enough, too fat, too weak, too dark, too ugly, too visible, unworthy, and on, and on…may grow up to prefer to be invisible. Coping strategies she develops may include hiding behind the things, behaviors, and people where she feels the most comfort, the most safe. Maybe she learns to believe and own all of those opinions of others and becomes addicted to the coping strategies she developed over time.

We create patterns in our mind, in our heart, and habits in our lives to protect ourselves. We numb ourselves, or hide, or resist, or run away, or lash out, or project on to those around us. At one extreme, some patterns can be irreparably more damaging to ourselves and others than the deeply buried motivation for the behavior itself. And at the other extreme, some patterns are much more subtle.

Sometimes it is simply denial of what we see happening before us. Sometimes it is withdrawing from the people in our lives or blaming them for our own misery. Sometimes it is the jokes we tell at our own expense to deflect or redirect how we really feel. And sometimes it is the stories we tell ourselves, the beliefs we hold, out of habit that is required to continue the very patterns of behavior we’ve created and so the vicious cycle of self-sabotage continues.

So how do we get off this merry-go-round? Sometimes *life* takes care of it for us and brings us to our knees. Sometimes hitting “rock bottom” is all that it takes for the motivation of a better way of living and trying to be a better person becomes a clear choice regardless of how difficult the process of recovery can seem. And sometimes we need a true catalyst for change.

The element of Tapas in yoga is knows as self-discipline, austerity, and is essential for transformation. It is the consistent effort to see ourselves clearly, honestly, and commit to the work required no matter how uncomfortable or emotionally painful the experience may be.

We will tell ourselves and those around us stories about why we can’t do something or why we have to do things one way versus another. Those patterns are often based in the belief that “good” feelings and positive experiences are the only ones worth having. It is the belief that only the things that we (think) we want can be considered blessings and answered prayers. This belief assumes that gifts of happiness are made only of rainbows and lollipops and any other feelings or experience must be thrown away with the trash, blocked out of our memory, and avoided like the plague. And we wonder why some patterns in our life continue to repeat…

A consistent yoga practice allows us to dedicate that time on our mat to be in our body, to listen to the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that come up. It allows us to address the beliefs that suddenly have no where else to hide, and in order to sustain the effort we learn to detach and continuously come back to our breath instead. As insecurities arise, as our ego becomes challenged, as we are made to feel raw and exposed, this practice of Tapas teaches us to build strength, openness, and resilience through the discomfort. We are taught to choose compassion in order to survive. We learn that without challenges there’s no reason, nor is there the ability, for us to grow.

And so that girl who believed once she was damaged beyond repair, begins to fall in love…with herself and with truly living. She begins to embrace and accept her whole self–her past, her present, and future. She begins to treat herself and others with love rather than react from a place of fear. Through her practice, she discovers the ability to see and stand in her power. She finally begins to understand that living life is not about a superficial sense of feeling “good” because the moments of darkness helped to define her light. And as the journey continues, living a life of gratitude replaces a life once filled with despair.

The Answer is Experience

“What is the point?”

An exasperated student asked herself this when she was first introduced to the Ashtanga method of Yoga Asana (physical postures). Depending on how one is exposed to this method or the expectations of yoga the student already has, it can feel very fast, quite vigorous, and for some unnecessarily challenging.

This question, to me, has many layers and it goes far beyond what method of yoga a student prefers to practice. I also hear this question in those who have a certain belief about themselves, their body, and what yoga is in fact meant to do for the practitioner.

I am certain that every yoga teacher has also heard someone tell them at least one of the following: “I’m not flexible enough.” I’m not strong enough.” “My body doesn’t move that way.” “I have too much/not enough _____________.” “My __________ isn’t ____________ enough for that.” “I will try it when I can _____________ first.” “I can’t do that.”

It dawns on me that those who hold these beliefs before trying is in their own way asking “what is the point?” They have already decided what they’re able to do so why even try.

Here’s the thing though–if we spent our lives avoiding challenges, not allowing ourselves to try new things or give ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow beyond our current abilities, we wouldn’t have the chance to evolve at all. Physically or otherwise. No one goes to school because they know everything already.

In yoga, regardless of the method, what we are given is the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and that is power within itself. When we arrive on the mat we allow ourselves the experience of what it feels like to be in our body. We move and we breathe and with this process alone, whatever it looks like, we open ourselves up to feel not just new physical sensations, but also the emotions we hold back, and the thoughts that dictate our lives.

A consistent yoga practice allows us to build a foundation of experiencing vulnerability. When I move in this way, how does this feel? What are the sensations in my body? Can I honor those sensations by finding that balance of Sthira (effort or stability) and Sukha (ease) within my physical state but also in my heart and in my mind? Or do I allow the feelings of frustration to take over and fight, resist, or avoid the experience? Do I allow my thoughts to take over and suppress them, deny them, or proclaim them as fact?

What would happen if we let the stories go? The beliefs that we have about who we are and what we can do and the expectations that we hold for what we “should” do or “should” look like. Because here’s the thing: none of those stories are true.

Yoga does not ask us to contort ourselves into shapes beyond our ability. It doesn’t ask us to balance on our hands or stand on our head without first building a strong, safe, stable foundation. Yoga asks to meet us exactly where we are and build the flexibility, strength, and balance from there. The engagement required in each posture is so subtle and it takes time. A consistent practice–of any method that sparks a light within you–is the way to bridge the gap from where you are and where you’d like to go from there.

This is a philosophy that can’t be understood without experience. And the only way to practice changing the stories, changing our habits and creating new ones is to see the ones we already hold as clearly as possible.

Yoga allows us to engage with that intention and helps us on a journey of growth and evolution. The next time you hear yourself speak in a way that is a story disguised as truth, what you can do is practice shifting your perspective. Rather than declare yourself all-knowing you can approach your practice, your body, and yourself with openness and curiosity.

You can instead choose to allow yourself to fully experience each moment. You can let go of past beliefs and abilities, let go of future expectations, surrender to what is, and simply take it one breath at a time.

The Evolution of Self-Discovery

It has been almost two years since my last post and with good reason. The journey that practicing yoga can take us on is immeasurable and one can often feel lost several times before a meaningful path is revealed.

11 years ago I just wanted a shift. I had no idea where this journey would take me. I arrived to this practice the way many practitioners do. I grew up living a sedentary lifestyle and decided it was time to start moving. Yoga was a physical practice that challenged my body….the fact that I could sweat and my heart rate could jump up in under 15 minutes was amazing to me!

Fast forward to the opening of Hamsa and the home of my daily practice. The continuous study of Yoga Asana, Yoga Philosophy, Ayurveda, and the community that comes together to support each other, learn and grow has helped me to discover more of myself than I was ever willing to see before.

True self-discovery is allowing yourself to shift your perspective, to see everything you are as clearly as possible–all aspects of the self. The subtle sensations within the body, the feelings in the heart, the thoughts within the mind all have the ability to come to the surface through the practice of yoga.

At the close of most of my classes I invite my students to reflect on this. I ask them to meet all of those sensations cultivated by their practice with openness, with curiosity, with compassion. Without judgement, we have the opportunity to truly live our truth once we can identify who and where we are right now, in each moment.

We are valid. We are worthy. We are deserving of the effort we put into ourselves to learn who we are so we can direct our path towards where we want to be. This practice is known as Svādhyāya or self-study. This is a hallmark of yoga philosophy and it is integral to the evolution of self-discovery.