I once had a student who started to drift away and began to look sheepishly apologetic when she did come to class. She avoided my eyes and had an invisible wall around her mat. She used to ask questions or chat after class; now she was the first out of the room and gone from the studio by the time I’d left my mat. Eventually, though, we did talk a little. She told me things were busy. She talked about her kids. Then she looked somewhere into the middle distance and said she didn’t know, really; yoga just wasn’t working any more.
Sometimes, she said, all I feel in child’s pose is anger and disappointment.
Yoga has a corner market on feel good words. I recently had a massage therapist tell me we were both in the ‘feel good industry’. The promise of ‘enlightenment’ tends to make us think we will be more spiritual, and this somehow means we’ll be a little less freakish about time, our kids, our money. There is truth to this. Yoga can show us how good it feels to be alive.
But yoga will also show us exactly how badly we feel. Usually, when honest emotion starts to come up, students leave. They skip class or decide yoga wasn’t what they wanted. They say ‘it’s not working any longer’. The emotion itself keeps them away; they’re ‘not in the mood’ or ‘too depressed to move’ or will - trust me, this is real – feel guilty for feeling so crummy when others are just trying to get their savasana on.
This doesn’t indicate that the yoga isn’t working, but that it IS. The end isn’t this negativity, this disappointment. But negativity is part of the path, and it has to be gone through if you want to understand it, to understand yourself, at all. If you don’t, you’ll be shutting down half of your experience of life, and probably the best strengths you’ll ever find. If you don’t, you’ll continue to skip, overcompensate, repeat, and lull. You’ll segway irritation into nicety, stuff it, and it will erupt later as rage toward an intimate or yourself.
Most of us have spent the majority of our lives stuffing and repressing our feelings, rationalizing them, avoiding them, or sublimating them into exercise, food, cigarettes, television, shallow relationships. Women are taught not to feel anger because it’s not nice, not feminine (or too feminine and bitchy, emotional, hormonal and out of control). Men are supposed to feel competence, all the time. In our efforts to feel better, many of us start shutting it off, wholesale, in favor of pop psychology or easy spirituality. It’s called spiritual bypass. It’s an attempt to avoid painful feelings, unresolved issues, or developmental needs with such words as ‘everything happens for a reason’, or ‘god’s ways are not our ways’, or ‘choose happiness’.
There will be a yoga class, someday, online or at your local studio, where your teacher will start singing. She’ll say ‘exhale’ as if there’s something orgasmic about it. She might allude to the goodness of your heart, your hamstrings, or the light inside.
If you are like me, this may make you clench your bandhas like a fist. There may come a day you lower down into child’s pose, “sweet, receptive, safe” child’s pose and feel nothing but boredom, irritability, and dis-ease. You keep lifting your head off the mat, looking at the clock. There may come a day your brain starts swearing at the lovely yoga teacher saying something vapid about love in your newly blossomed chakra. What are you supposed to do with that?
Here is the thing. Yoga is not about bliss, but about honesty. Spirituality is not certainty, but the longing of the heart. Enlightenment is not ‘letting go’ of bad feelings, but understanding them, what they’re doing to us, and how they are expressed in the body. Non-harming and forgiveness are not about feeling generous or big enough (bigger than and condescending), but knowing the difficulty of right actions and assuming responsibility for the difficult. Forgiveness often comes directly out of acknowledging how bloody bitter we are. Love is not joy, all the time. Sometimes, love hurts. Love is raw.
Yoga is a love story. Not the fluffy, romanticized love story, but the real one. The kind that leaves you changed.
Emotions are doorways, ways in. The goal is not to exist without shadows, to become so spiritual we no longer feel fat, bored, envious, or impatient. The goal is to swallow hard as we take on willingness to go into the dark.
Because yoga asks you to work with both your body and your mind, the inevitable result is going to be messy. There will be times the body itself will start in on anger, hot and fast, trembly, without the reasoning mind having a clue what is going on. There will be days the boredom or loneliness seem so sharp they may actually wound. There will be five thousand ways your mind will tell you it isn’t worth it, it won’t work, that love is not real.
Yet, yoga has probably already given you a clue to this. You’ve probably already felt how love – whether it be romantic or ethical compassion, right living, making a solidity of your name – is the only thing that is real. The highest and best in human beings is subtle, mysterious, and usually tied directly to the shadows. Life is both unbearably cruel and devastatingly sweet, often at the same time.
The shadows will show up. Go there. Apathy, acedia, what Christian mystics called desolation, existentials call despair, moves when we move toward it. It isn’t the passage of time that heals us, but the passing through experiences.
There are hundreds of things telling us to ‘get over it’, to ‘think positively’, or to ‘let it go’. Be wary of these as the roadside distractions that they are.
Yoga is the love story where in things fall apart. God moves away, often at the same time he takes away the ground. First goes this, then goes that. Gone are the thrill of the first months of yoga class, the ease of learning something new every time you walked in the door. Gone is the schedule that allowed you class three times a week. Gone is the strength in your shoulders, the ability to keep on a diet. Gone is the confidence of conversion.
And then a small movement in the heart. And then two.