Let's face it. Most of us came to yoga because we heard that it changes things. Some of us had grouchy low backs. Insomnia. Stress-induced symptoms. Wrist and shoulder pain. But there is something about yoga that is much more nuanced than improvement of those particular complaints that we accumulate along the way in life.
We may find during the honeymoon period that our symptoms abate and we feel better. We may even notice other impacts that occur as well. And if you keep going long enough, you may notice something else begins to shift.
In yoga we come to meet ourselves and at first, like any new relationship this can be exciting. But if you delve deeply enough eventually you come to the shadow of yoga. At this point you have a choice. You can remain in a place where we skirt the surface of that darkness. The hamstrings are feeling better and hey, maybe you've even lost a few pounds along the way. You could choose to turn towards that shadow though, and come to know yourself in a completely different sense.
Now before we unpack that anymore, let me say that I think we are bombarded with a message of scarcity in the form of "self-improvement". It is suggested to us that we are unhappy because of _________ (fill in the blank with your choice of weight/salary/home products/primary relationship/wrinkles/parents/parenting or not parenting/where you live/paleo/low fat/locavore whatever).
If only we made a few tweaks we would be that much happier. Yoga as interpreted and assimilated for digestion in our culture is not outside of this. Much of it is marketed as self improvement and preys on this sense of not being enough. So we come to yoga with a our suitcase full of insecurities about how we can't touch our toes, our wrists hurt, we aren't stick thin, or extremely muscular, our yoga pants didn't cost $100, we aren't vegan, we don't know what LEMs or Udo's oil or Dharmawheels are.
In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali says that observation of one's habits leads to deep knowledge of our past. All of our reactions to a new experience draw on a similar feeling that we once had. If we have multiple experiences that reinforce a certain feeling or reaction then a pattern is created. We are all deeply patterned individuals. This isn't a value-judgement. Imagine how inefficient it would be if we had to make decisions about how to tie our shoes every time we did it?
Sometimes in yoga you can observe the way that you handle something that you have an aversion to. You have the opportunity to ask yourself, why do I dislike this experience? What do I believe about it? What do I believe about myself?
When you delve into those answers you are likely to bump into thoughts about their origins that can be very uncomfortable sometimes. You may hear yourself chastise the way you handled a balancing pose and realize that the voice in your head in fact belongs to your father. You may realize that the reason you dislike a certain person who practices near you is because they remind you of parts of your own personality that make you feel insecure. It is fascinating how it is acceptable to berate ourselves in a way that we would almost never treat others around us intentionally. For an incredible podcast with Dave Asprey and Neil Strauss on this and much more, click here.
When you begin to notice these patterns and products of your life thus far, it can be tempting to quit. Maybe yoga was just a phase for you anyway.
Here's my suggestion for how to ride out the storm:
1. Find your tribe. If you find yourself wondering when yoga started making you so damned miserable, tell someone else. I bet you will find someone on a mat nearby having the very same thought. We are meant to find our community as a way of checking if our course is true or not. We don't live in a culture where we have elder wisdom. Talk to your fellow yogis, go out for coffee together, talk to your teacher, and find resources online.
2. Know that if you are facing something uncomfortable, it is an opportunity. As cliche as that sounds, the places that incite the greatest reaction are the places where we have the biggest opportunity to learn about ourselves.
3. If you are ready to turn towards the storm all you have to do is stay the course. Some storms last a very long time (see also: Jupiter), but most of them dissipate eventually. And with emotional storms they often lose steam the moment you acknowledge them. Yoga teaches us steadiness and consistency (tapas). Not every moment is meant to be comfortable/ecstatic/Instagram-worthy.
4. Yoga teaches you to find the micro-refinements. Take pleasure in the minor adjustments you make. In a physical practice try a new modification or a different approach to a pose you are familiar with. Try a different teacher. Try meditation. Try practicing as if you are eight years old.
5. You are whole from the moment your cells begin dividing. So there is nothing that can be added or taken away to improve you. You already are everything you will ever be (dentistry and surgery exceptions may occur). So when you hear that voice saying "once we have ____ then my life will be perfect" tell that voice to shut the hell up.
Yoga won't fix your problems because there is no solution outside of yourself that can ever do that. Part of what yoga can teach us is to change our relationship to our problems and instead of looking for solutions we can look for the lessons and growth opportunities. And if you don't believe me then for six easy payments of $99.98 I will tell you what will really fix your problems and then your life will be perfect. I promise. *
*my fingers were crossed when I wrote that bit.