I recently made friends with someone who has never tried yoga and knows absolutely nothing about it. (Apparently there are still some people out there in this category.) Having lunch the other day, he admitted that the only thing he knows about yoga is what he’s read on my website. Given that, it led him to ask me, “So are all the people who do yoga screwed up?”
Ha! Valid question given what I tend to write about…
My answer to him: People who do yoga are no more screwed up than the average person, it’s just that the nature of the practice is that it illuminates the ways that you are screwed up in a way that it’s hard to hide from.
And let me just say, by “screwed up,” I’m simply implying one thing: human. Everyone has insecurities, fears, self-judgments and hearts that have been (or are being) broken. Everyone has a family. Everyone has a body. Everyone has a lifetime full of experiences—both painful and ecstatic—that have defined who they are.
On top of all that, almost no one is naturally inclined toward feeling the depths of their feelings. And it’s not just a cultural thing. We’re actually hard-wired not to; our primitive brain blocks the limbic system (the part of our brain associated with emotions) because it interprets intense feelings as a threat to our safety.
But when you start to invest time in a practice that is about conscious embodiment, it can feel like an emotional thaw. You liquefy. Yes, in the sense of snot and tears at times, but more in that it’s a gradual process of becoming emotionally fluid. Which is to say, more of who you are; you become able to feel with greater intensity than you had before, and to have a greater willingness to express the full bandwidth of your emotions.
What I find fascinating in my experience as a yoga teacher, student and human being, though, is just how deep the hard-wiring is to avoid intensity; we truly are masterful at backing away from our physical and emotional edges. Certainly you can see this in yourself in a class when you decide to come out early from a pose that has your thighs screaming and your body dripping sweat. Or when you feel the tears well up and you leave the studio to go splash water on your face in the bathroom to pull yourself together.
But we do it in more subtle, sneakier ways, too. My personal favorite is by constantly thinking; there’s a part of me who believes if I could just figure it out, whatever it is, I wouldn’t have to feel whatever bad feeling I’ve associated with that thing. Another way is by steeping yourself in self-judgment while you practice. For example, judging yourself for being fat is simply a way of keeping yourself from feeling the heartbreak or the anger or the fear that’s associated with being overweight.
Another way is by putting ourselves out of alignment in a pose so we don’t have to feel the intensity of a stretch. I’m not talking about bending your knees in a forward fold to protect yourself from pulling tight hamstrings–that’s a good thing. I’m talking about things like letting your pelvis spill forward in a lunge pose. It might let you get into what looks like a “deeper” pose, but it allows you to avoid the intensity of the stretch in your hip flexors. Not only that, but it also makes it so your core doesn’t engage and you can potentially hurt your low back.
Which is the perfect metaphor—the more we avoid brief, conscious intensity (whether emotional or physical) by choosing what’s comfortable, though it might look flashier and more acceptable on the outside, the less we are connected to our deepest self and the more uncomfortable in general we make ourselves.
It’s through allowing ourselves to go in to the intense places, to go toward what’s stuck rather than taking the path of least resistance, to shatter to pieces rather than holding it all together, that we find the wholeness of who we are. We find healing. We find integrity. It’s both terrifying and lovely.
It’s important to understand that the only way to integrity in the sense of wholeness is through integrity in the sense of honesty and alignment. An intense backbend, for example, with your hips out of alignment, is not only not helpful, it can be hugely detrimental. Just as letting yourself be unconsciously run by an intense emotion like anger does very little good, but being fully present and embodied as you choose to run your anger can be hugely therapeutic.
When we seek out intensity for the sake of intensity, we just create more drama, more distraction and more suffering. When we seek out intensity born from coming in to integrity, we liberate ourselves from suffering and we create more integrity. And as someone who has ducked and covered from intensity of all kinds throughout my life, I can honestly say that the more I learn to find my edges with integrity, the more I realize it’s hugely loving to do so; what could be interpreted as intense by my brain has an odd calmness to it. In part it’s because I can feel my own quiet presence in the intensity, and in part it’s because I’m learning to trust that going to those edges is how I reclaim myself.
Having riffed on this intensity and integrity for a bit, I feel compelled to weave it into the topic that was raised in the article “Bruised, Battered & Scarred” on Elephant Journal earlier this week by a former colleague of mine, Tiffany Cruikshank. In it she writes about a time that she was shamed by a teacher in a class for choosing to take a restorative pose instead of shoulderstand. Tiffany goes on to beautifully write about how, since we can never know all of the personal influences that make a student choose to come out of a pose, “it can be tricky to know when to motivate our students to progress and when to encourage them to back off.”
This is a complex issue—as evidenced by the charged comments on Tiffany’s article, but also in my own response to the article. I got all fired up when I read it, thinking, “This is why the yoga world needs more training on how to teach people, not poses!”
And though there is SO much I would love to say about the nitty gritties of why this can be such a triggering situation for student and teacher alike, I want to just address one aspect of how to navigate a student taking her own tack in a class in light of this discussion on intensity and integrity.
As teachers, though we can intuit, we can never really know what serves our students on a non-physical level. Only they can do this for themselves. With that, it is our responsibility as teachers, then, to make sure that a student is in physical integrity in a pose. Through teaching a student the skills of finding physical integrity and catching themselves in the way that they avoid intensity to just do what’s comfortable, we also empower them with the skills to know what is in emotional integrity for them in their practice, and how to find it for themselves when need be.
This doesn’t mean that students will be able to do this right away—given our proclivity as humans to shy away from our edges, often a new student who bows out of a pose early is doing so out of an unconscious habit to not be able to be with their own shaky discomfort. Believe me, I’ve been there. I was actually there in a class that I took last night! Even when it’s conscious, the habit to not be uncomfortable (and hence to miss an opportunity for growth) is so ingrained!
That doesn’t mean we should call them out, though. In fact, it’s never our job to call our students out. It is, however, our job to call our students up. This we do by teaching physical integrity and modeling our own emotional integrity—for example, by taking responsibility for the ways we might be triggered when a student chooses not to do what we’ve suggested (unlike what the teacher in Tiffany’s article demonstrated when she shamed Tiffany).
And so, if we’re doing our job well, and a student takes a different pose than we’ve taught, all we can do is make sure they’re in physical alignment in the pose of their choice and trust that they are there because it’s in emotional alignment with what they need.
And it’s in this way—through our commitment to integrity and our capacity to be with intensity—that we as teachers and students of yoga become more fully ourselves. Which, if you ask me, is the whole point. Even if it does look screwed up from the outside.
**If you want dive deeper into physical and emotional integrity, join me for the How Not to be a Poser workshop series this summer. Not in Ojai? Check out HomeBody Yoga–a 28-day online course to give you the tools to practice at home–including how to be with the emotions that come up when you meet yourself on your mat.