I often find myself thinking about yoga and how it relates to my understanding of mindfulness. Today is no exception as I think about writing a post that I have had on my mind for sometime. This post relates to tolerating a feeling of fear and how I have had to tolerate that fear in yoga often over the last 3-4 years. I remember that it started with my teacher encouraging me to work on “drop backs”- a pose which requires you to arch backwards toward the floor from a standing position. I remember never being told to do this in my past classes, which encouraged me to think of it as an advanced posture that I would do one day, a long time in the future. My first emotion with this posture was fear. The idea of falling backwards toward the ground and not knowing how to get there and worse feeling pain in my lowerback. I associated the pain with pain that a relative had in their back after hurting it years ago and they have had chronic back pain ever since. This caused me more fear. That fear and that thought immediatedly caused me to tense up and I found my back had even less ability to bend. This felt like an impossilbe task. I then began to notice frustration and hopelessness. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do this posture. I found this thought to be interesting as I have had this thought before about other postures, although none of these postures caused the same fear.
I found that awareness of my internal process has been incredibly helpful in yoga in general and with this particular posture. I have talked before about physical awareness, awareness of what muscles I am using and having to tolerate some discomfort in yoga. Now I am talking more about the feelings that I have had to tolerate to be able to continue on the journey. I have great admiration for my teacher and I believe in her ability to gently guide me in the right direction. I don’t think she asks more of me then I can do, although at times my fear has caused me to question this. I have sometimes felt angry at her or resentful when the fear became to great and I felt as if she had abandoned me into this too difficult posture. I realize that my response to her was me not wanting to feel the fear. I have had to tolerate that fear to be able to stretch backwards in that posture, even when I may not have known quite how to go backwards in a way that didn’t hurt or feel wrong. Much of this yoga practice is just that, practice. Practice is just doing something over and over and not always getting every aspect of the pose, not always knowing how to engage the muscle or flex more, not always knowing what parts of the body to activate. It means tolerating a lot of unknown, but also trusting yourself to figure it out as you practice. I have done this with the back drop and I can’t say that I can do it yet, not on my own, and not in a way that feels completely correct, but it feels more correct then it did and I feel more able to understand the posture then I did. It is a journey that I am willing to take and not have to know how or when I will get there. I guess that attitude has allowed me to enjoy yoga. I have never felt that I had to achieve anything in particular while I was there, just enjoy how it made me feel, both there and when I am not there. And sometimes not enjoy it, but explore that experience as well.
I think I have realized that yoga is a wonderful metaphor for life. In the way that I have had to tolerate fear in yoga, I have also had to tolerate fear in life. Not always knowing the answers and not always being sure of myself. I find that hard and know that I haven’t done it well in the past. I often avoided the fear and instead felt the utter hopelessness of not being able to do things and then I would jump into a depressive place to avoid those feelings. I know realize that I have to tolerate some fear and insecurity to engage in life and live a valued life. If I am not willing to tolerate these feelings then I will feel helpless, hopeless and depressed and life will feel not worth living because I will not be living it true to what is important to me. I will also then feel unable and incapable of doing more with myself because I will be too scared to try.
I had a difficult day recently, where I was feeling quite overwhelmed and tired. This translated to feeling grumpy and short with those I care about. I had a moment to reflect on my experience and what came into my mind was that I had not changed from yesterday or the day before and nothing significant was different in my life, but I was feeling and thinking differently then I have been. Because I have garnered a bit of awareness over the years, I was able to notice my experience and found myself remembering a metaphor that I have learned. It goes something like this: the observing self is like the sky. Thoughts, sensations, feelings and images are like the weather. Sometimes the weather is sunny and bright and sometimes cloudy with a bit of sun and sometimes it is stormy and dark. The weather is always changing. There are even times that there are quite serious tornadoes or cyclones. When weather comes into the sky, it can be comforting to know that there will always be new weather around the corner, it never stays the same and whatever weather is there cannot damage the sky. Knowing that my thoughts/ feelings were all that had changed about me on this particular day, I was able to not get caught up in this bad feeling. I knew that tomorrow or even in a few hours, I would have a different feeling and different thoughts.
Lately I have been thinking about the parallels between yoga and achieving good mental health. Specifically, I mean the mindfulness that is required in both of these endeavors. When I started practicing yoga 10 years ago, I did not realize I would be learning mindfulness. I started because I felt like I needed to do some sort of exercise and I had taken a few yoga classes in the gym and liked them. I started slowly, one day a week in a self-guided class. I chose this class because it was suitable for all levels and it suited my time slot. Little did I know I would be transformed by this class and not want to live without yoga. I was very consistent and attended this class faithfully every week. It took about a year before I started going more then one time a week and finally I wasn’t committed to the same day every week. But still ever since that day that I started, I have rarely missed more then a week or two. Looking back, it wasn’t the “exercise” that kept me attending, it was the way it made me feel and that was directly related to learning to be mindful.
Mindfulness is learned both by the teacher reminding you to focus on your breath and to come back to your breath when you find your mind drifting off, but also by the learning of focusing on your body and what sensations you feel in your posture. As you become stronger and more flexible, you also become more aware of using muscles to get into postures, to hold postures and to get out of postures. You become more mindful of the feelings and sensations your body is experiencing. You also become more aware of some difficult sensations in your body. Invariably when you engage your muscles or when you stretch your muscles, you will sometimes feel discomfort and staying in a posture means having to tolerate some discomfort.
This same idea of tolerating discomfort is central to mindfully tolerating feelings. When we experience feelings, we also tend to be able to locate a physical sensation in our body (lump in our throat, gnawing in our stomach, rapid heartbeat, etc). Once this sensation is located, we are then able to practice mindfully exploring and tolerating that sensation. This allows us to practice tolerating feelings, just as I have practiced tolerating physical sensations in yoga. Sometimes we have to practice tolerating emotions in yoga as well…..but that is for another post.
I had an experience not long ago that really reminded me of why the practice of mindfulness is so powerful in helping people. I was driving to work and had a memory. This was not a pleasant memory, but rather a memory that comes up occasionally and it always evokes embarrassment and shame. I noted these feelings as I remembered and I also noted a desire in myself to get rid of these feelings. I had the urge to get rid of it by saying to myself, “you are horrible, everything is bad, nothing feels good” and many things of that nature. It is an urge that is familiar and that in the past I would often do when faced with feelings and memories that I found too painful and horrible to face. The things I would automatically say to myself would send me spinning into a numb and flat place where I would retreat into myself to feel safe from all pain and all intolerable feelings. Of course, I was left feeling not much at all and while I didn’t feel the horrible feelings, I also didn’t feel the good feelings that one feels at various times. My experience became about avoiding anything bad and therefore always feeling numb, and while I didn’t know it then, feeling much worse then I would have felt if I just allowed the memory and the feelings to be there and not get rid of them.
This time in the car, I did things very differently. I noted the urge to say everything is horrible and go into a dark, numb, and lonely place, and instead I allowed the memory and the feelings to remain inside of me and I explored it for just a little while. It didn’t feel nice, but I tolerated it and slowly it left and was replaced by a different feeling as my attention was moved back to driving my car. I didn’t fall over and die nor did I fall into a heap on the floor, I just allowed the ugly and difficult feeling to take its course and then the feeling and I both moved on.
That memory and those feelings will come back as they have now and then throughout my life. Luckily I know I can tolerate them being there, in part because I know they do not stay forever, they are there for a time and then another thought and/or feeling replaces them.