I was talking to a friend this morning about how she was starting to feel down about her yoga practice. Yoga usually would alleviate her anxieties and frustrations, but now it was just pissing her off. What do you do when the one thing that takes your sadness away becomes the source of your sadness? I’ve been there a time or two myself. Your teacher is saying some helpful things about gratitude, and all you can think about is how grateful you would be for a margarita right about now.
Yoga doesn’t always leave you with the warm fuzzies. If anything, asana practice simply increases our own awareness of the physical experience. Your teacher gives you physical cues like, “activate your hands” or “point your tailbone towards the ceiling” to bring you into your body. In modern society we walk around, sit at our desks, drive a car, birth children, live our entire lives, and never really experience these sensations. We can do them, but we may not ever think about, “How actually is that done?” “How do you actually lift your kneecaps?” Physical practice brings physical awareness. Sometimes, we gain awareness of just how great the body is, and we feel positive about it. Sometimes, we are in Camel pose and wondering why we feel like our heart is going to beat out of our chest. There are measurable physiological responses that accompany human emotion, and if you are practicing to become more physically aware, you may notice that you are feeling more than knee movements. You will feel feelings, and they won’t always be pleasant ones.
The power of this practice begins when we sit with those feelings we see as negative and really examine them. Sometimes, a sensation is just a sensation; it may not have any meaning. Many times I find that I’m just being made more aware of something already going on in my life. I may think I’m getting pissed because this teacher wants me to hold Downward Facing Dog until my arms fall off, but maybe I’m really angry about all the other times people tell me to do stuff I don’t want to do. Yoga can be a band-aid for these emotions for a time, but it can also be the means of bringing up old, pushed down emotions so that we may sit with them and find our way through them. This is where all of those other limbs of yoga come in. We meditate and contemplate on these sensations and discoveries that come up through asana practice to get better acquainted with our own nature.
Next time your teacher calls out, “One more Wheel!” for the third time, and you want to resort to violence, feel what you are feeling. Don’t start shaming yourself by thinking, “Oh, I’m such a horrible person for wanting to punch that lady.” Simply keep breathing, and try to cultivate some curiosity. What is THAT all about? I mean this lady just really likes backbends. That’s nothing to be angry about. Take responsibility for what you are feeling. You might find that you really wanted to do another Wheel, but you physically could not. So, you really were just mad at yourself, but you projected all that anger onto your teacher. That’s just a simple example, but you may find dealing with your own experiences a bit more complex. Mental illness, physical and sexual abuse, and post-traumatic stress issues can complicate the self-reflection process, and it can be more beneficial to work through any negative experiences with a competent professional counselor.
If your yoga practice is becoming a downer, it could mean that you need a break. However, in my personal experience, when I truly sit in these feelings for better or for worse, I gain valuable introspection. These negative feelings just show us who we are. It demonstrates this commonly quoted part of the Bhagavad Gita: “Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”