Yoga has been a major tool for helping me learn how to feel.
Unlike most other forms of exercise, yoga is based on the idea of mindfulness: get into a pose and think about how it makes you feel.
It was in yoga that I learned that my emotions are absolutely connected to my physical flesh. Yoga taught me that I could observe the emotions that were arising, and, rather than react to them, embrace them and let them be present and flow in their own way. Yoga taught me how to be okay with being uncomfortable, and how movement and breath could help me calm down, slow down, and, in many cases, ease my physical pain.
Yoga also, however, thoroughly f*cked me up.
Yoga is a vast practice with many philosophies within it that do not always agree with each other. I had to learn the hard lesson that yoga is not a panacea—especially not for trauma.
Some branches of yoga focus on gratitude, contentment, and loving-kindness as emotions that we should cultivate, and I think we in the West sometimes misinterpret those practices to mean we should make ourselves feel contentment, gratitude, and loving-kindness, no matter what’s going on in our lives. That’s a lot of pressure, because we can’t make ourselves feel anything we don’t feel, and trying not to feel is not only impossible, but tends to make the emotions we’re avoiding even stronger.
If you feel angry at your dead mother, envious of your best friend, or still miss that boyfriend who broke your heart five years ago—that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you, and telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way isn’t going to change a thing. Sitting there with frustration in our hearts and trying to paste gratitude over our homicidal rage is an exercise in futility. We cannot change our emotions.
What we can do, however, is give ourselves space to feel these emotions and express them in appropriate ways. We can adjust our attention and make choices with our behavior, which is what most of these ancient meditation philosophies are actually trying to teach. We do have choices about where to put our energy, attention, and action in our lives. We can feel angry and, at the same time, focus on someone we love or some sweet moment we had that day. We can feel envious and also choose to put energy into improving our own lot in life. We’re not trying to erase the uncomfortable feeling and override it with gratitude, but when we can shift our focus, sometimes we can shift our internal experience and perspective at the same time.
Cultivating mindfulness can help us make choices in our lives that are more supportive to a loving and kind life, but we can’t just randomly will ourselves to feel like giving strangers Care Bear Stares and overwhelm everyone with love and gratitude we don’t feel. We don’t have control over our emotions, but we do have some control over our attention and our behavior.
When I started going to counseling after I was sexually assaulted, a big theme my counselor and I were working on was self-blame. I was having a really hard time understanding that what happened to me was not my fault. My perpetrator had assaulted me after months of asking me for sex, begging me for sex, shaming me for the sex I’d had with other people. It was the sort of nonsense that made me feel that I owed him sex whether I desired it or not—messages that, by the way, are prevalent in our culture. I did say no, I kept saying no, but I didn’t fight him very hard when it finally happened because I had swallowed the Kool-Aid. My counselor was trying to help me believe that I am the only person entitled to my body and that what happened to me was not my fault.
Then there I was in yoga class, lying in savasana, the fully relaxed supine pose that ends most classes, after a pretty tough sequence of poses. Everyone was exhausted, and so ready for five minutes of rest. During this vulnerable time lying with my body open to the ceiling, the teacher started playing a recording of a woman that said something like, “You are an incredibly powerful being that manifests everything that happens to you in your life. You may think to yourself, why did that person treat me so badly? I didn’t deserve that! Well, you did! You did something in your life that brought that moment into existence! You are just that powerful!”
I started to cry. Uncontrollably. I left the room to go to the bathroom and choked on sobs, unable to pull myself together for the closing of this stupid yoga class. I ran out of the room, pulled my hood over my head, and escaped home. That, my friends, is what we call in the biz a trigger response.
In the West, we think karma means that whatever you do comes back to you, for good or for bad. As it turns out, however, that’s a pretty Western interpretation of the concept that simply reinforces the idea that we live in a just world where bad things only happen to bad people. It’s one of the reasons victim blaming (even when you yourself are the victim) is so common in these situations. If we did something to cause our own assault, that means all we have to do is stop doing that thing and we’ll be safe again.
We all want to believe we have some modicum of control over our lives. Living in a world where something bad could happen at any time is not a world any of us want to live in. But that’s the world every trauma survivor has to wake up to every day.
In India, the word “karma” means action, and the general idea is that every action has a consequence. But we have absolutely no control over what those consequences might be, and they could catch up to us in another life when we are a completely different person. Even good actions can have negative results, and that’s never going to be predictable. All we can control is our intentions, never the results of our actions. That’s a fundamental principle of Hindu philosophy that us Westerners have deeply misunderstood. It’s actually a way of explaining why bad things dosometimes happen to good people.
While yoga can be a really effective way to connect with our bodies, some branches of yoga philosophy (and Buddhism and Christianity and so on) see desire and anger as anti-spiritual and the body as a barrier to communion with the divine.
A big piece of my healing included locating my spirituality in my body—in my desire, rage, pleasure, and everything else that was going on in there. In order to let the erotic energy come through and give me the courage to change some things, I had to connect to my organs of perception: my feeling, breathing, sweating, bleeding, crying body.
I had to practice being with all the emotions and all the pain in my body—the source of the wound and the source of healing.