Yoga for a heavy heart.

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Lots of people I know seem to be going through tough times at the moment.  They’re in the valleys of life, rather than the peaks.   I don’t care what anybuddhi says, sometimes life really is a big pile of poo.  And as much as we can reassure ourselves in hard times that ‘this too shall pass’, sometimes we just want to punch the platitudes in the face because, frankly, we are emotional and sensory beings, we feel things, we can’t always simply choose to feel happy – although we’re often pressured to feel it’s this simple.   

Often, when we’re trying to find silver linings, see the forest for the trees, or look on the bright side of life, we forget to give expression to the true feelings.  We feel we should be able to somehow rise above them.  But there are times when, despite our most optimistic efforts, the heart grows heavy.  We feel it there, water-logged in the chest, but we don’t know what to do with it.  If we open the gates, we might get swept away.

This is the part where I say yoga fixes everything, right?

Well, no.  That’s not a promise I’m willing to make.  Theoretically, yoga, like Buddhism, creates a distance between our self and our suffering.  Enlightenment is just that – it is the dissolution of the heaviness that comes with being human.  With a simple switch in perception (that comes to us through practice), we see that we are not our thoughts, or emotions, or bodies, or senses, or jobs, or relationships, or wealth, or social status.  These are anchors that bind us to suffering.  Transcendence sets us free.  Alas, achieving transcendence is about as easy as being able to lick your brain through your left nostril.

So, I’m not going to tell you yoga will eliminate your suffering.  But I will say this: yoga seems to have this uncanny ability to shift things – even if just for fleeting moments.  Sometimes fleeting moments are enough to lift the spirits to hope. 

When the effort of living is reduced to putting one foot in front of the other, yoga might not erase all your pain but it can be the friend who holds your hand. 

©The Yoga Experiment, 2013

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The Extreme End of Empathy

I’m sure we’ll all agree that empathy is a healthy and desirable emotion. It’s also a necessary emotion, as far as living as a cooperative member of the human race goes. Empathy regulates our behaviour towards one another. It makes us helpful to one another. It makes us look after and care for one another. At a fundamental evolutionary level, empathy enhances our chances of survival. It bonds us to one another.

However.

We often discuss problems of empathy in terms of what happens when it’s lacking (cue anti-social behaviour). But having too much empathy can be a problem too, creating an imbalance that hampers our pursuit of peace and happiness. This came to mind this morning when I noticed myself feeling sorry for a tiny nub of banana that failed to make it onto my toast with the other slices of banana. I didn’t want it on there because it was the nubby end bit with the black dot. Poor rejected piece of banana. I’d hurt its feelings. I felt bad inside. And so I put it on my toast. I included the banana. I didn’t want it to feel left out.

That little nub of banana tells me a lot about myself (apart from the suspicion that I might be a raving lunatic). It tells me first and foremost that I, myself, don’t cope well with criticism and rejection.

Let’s deconstruct this.

We learn empathy by relating to the emotional experiences of others via our own. At around the age of 2, we begin to develop awareness of our self as a person who is separate from others. When we experience a perceived loss of love, or a disapproval of some kind, or a rejection, we suffer emotionally. As a result of our own suffering we are armed with experiences that serve as a reference for the suffering of others. We can observe another person suffering and vicariously feel what they’re feeling.

So we’ll offer that person a hug, or we’ll try to make them feel better. We’ll extend a caring heart that says ‘I know what that feels like’ or ‘I can imagine’. Or we’ll include them on our toast with the rest of the banana.

So clearly, at some point in my life, I have felt very left out, and very distressed at having been left out. I wanted to be on the toast with the others.

Wistful nub.

When I was a child, I had a white stuffed cat toy that I named ‘Louise’. Every day I would tend to the emotional needs of that toy. I would take her everywhere, anticipating the anxiety she might endure if left alone. I had this over-riding desire that she feel ok. It is common for children to role-play emotional relationships with their toys. This is one way that we practice and develop our social and emotional skills and make sense of the world around us. But when you can’t leave an inanimate object in a room by itself without carrying a lingering anxiety around its feelings, the developing empathy has grown a little askew.Fretting for the toy was a reflection of my personal distress and a struggle to cope with the fear of being abandoned (an instinctive human fear). Soothing Louise’s feelings was a means of soothing my own. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – actually, it shows some resourcefulness. I’d found a way of somewhat coping and controlling my own emotional distresses, as much as my childish cognition would allow.

What happens when we transfer this extreme empathising to our human counterparts? We worry excessively about the state of the world; we feel tortured by the suffering of others; we put a lot of our energy into trying to rescue people and situations.  The empathic response shifts from a healthy and helpful expression of sympathy to a compulsive need to control our environment, to ‘fix’ external sufferings so that we can feel ok within ourselves; so that we can mute the anxieties caused by our own over-identification.

We can become so preoccupied with our own vicarious suffering that we unconsciously become more focussed on our own needs than the actual needs of the person or situation that suffers. We attach to our own agendas. We become controlling. We interfere. We feel angry a lot of the time. We feel depressed. We feel guilty. We feel helpless. We feel distressed. Altruism becomes enmeshed with self-absorption. We cannot let go and let be. We are too feeling.   We have projected our own sufferings so profoundly onto the world around us that everything we see seems to need repairing or soothing.

We spend our time and energy trying to make nubs of banana happy.

What has any of this got to do with yoga?

I’ll let you decide.

The Yoga Experiment, 2012

 

20 signs you could use some yoga

1.  Relatively small inconveniences, like not being able to find a pen, make you feel like popping an artery.

2.  Your toe is itchy but you can’t reach it to scratch.

3.  You haven’t done a poo for three days and when you do it takes three hours.

4.  You continue to engage in behaviours that you KNOW make you feel bad (like eating the WHOLE block of chocolate or picking arguments with people or watching Jersey Shore).

5.  You have the posture of a buzzard.

6.  You can never find your keys.

7.  You spend a lot of time looking into mirrors.

8.  You spend a lot of time avoiding looking into mirrors.

9.  You frequently say yes when you want to say no.

10.  You always say no.

11.  Your morning tongue is coated in a white substance that looks suspiciously like perkin’s paste.

12.  You hold the world record for how many colds and flus one person can catch in one year.

13.  Your Facebook status is a perpetual rant about how much life sucks and all the ways you hate humankind.

14.  Being forced to sit in a quiet space with only your own company agitates you to the brink of spontaneous combustion.

15.  You can’t sit cross-legged.

16.  You recoil from hugs.

17.  You often find yourself smiling only on the outside.

18.  You feel unable to change.

19.  You can’t possibly leave a list at number 19 because odd numbers in the context of making lists leaves you with a feeling of profound uneasiness.

20.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Body, mind, gollum…

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I’ve been thinking recently, it’s interesting how the human body reflects mental and emotional states.  Given that the majority of what we think and feel is communicated non-verbally – through our body language – the idea that we hold onto emotion and mental tensions on a physical level is not a mind-blowing revelation.   If we’re having a bad day, we might not hold our head up as high; our chest might cave inward in an attitude of defeat, or of protection; our posture retreats.  On days we’re feeling glorious and impenetrable, we might puff out our chests; walk taller; take greater strides.

Walk with me.

When I was training as a yoga student, I unmasked a previously-hidden fact.   I have always been aware, in a peripheral kind of way, that my posture isn’t fantastic.  But it wasn’t until one of my fellow students photographed my body from the side for a postural appraisal assignment that the reality hit home: I have the posture of a buzzard.

Imagine: head juts forward quite a bit more than is anatomically necessary for a standard human being; the shoulders slump forward, melancholy, as if somebody kicked their puppy.  I look like some forlorn creature slouching around the place with nothing much to live for.  Oh hello Gollum, how are you today?

If I’m honest, my body is an emotional inventory of my life; a snapshot of my mental self-image.  It says, among other things, ‘I am afraid’.

I’m reminded of another phenomenon I experienced during my yoga studies.  Whenever I did shoulder rolls, I felt angry and wanted to stop.  Weird!!??  I’d understand if I was frothing at the mouth during some kind of challenging upside-down- pretzel pose but shoulder rolls?  Gimme a break.  Rolling the shoulders is about as innocuous as taking a breath (unless you’re asthmatic… or have emphysema… bad analogy, forget that one).  But there it was, every time, rage bubbling up from under the surface.

A scientific mind searches for scientific explanations.  But I didn’t have a completely water-tight one, so I blended a little bit of science with a little bit of yoga knowledge, with a little bit of intuition and a chunk of life experience, and came up with a hypothesis.

There are three types of reactions to danger in the human body – one is to fight, one is to flee, and one is to freeze.  I’m a freezer.  I lack the faith in my own strength to either fight or flee; perhaps I lack the self-worth.  Maybe if I stand still enough and squeeze my eyes shut tightly, the cave lion will simply not see me and continue on his way.  Make the body look small, yes!  Now there’s an idea!  Roll the shoulders down, huddle in!  I’m adapting!!

When in danger, in any mode, the muscles in the human body tense up – this is how the muscles prepare to either fight back or to run away.  When you fight or when you run, this fear energy moves, it propels the body into action.  When you freeze, this energy freezes with you.

This is how I hold it.  I hunch the shoulders up and forward, for protection.   I have made a habit of holding my fear this way, mostly unconsciously.  I am always looking out for the cave lion (head jutting forward buzzard-style – is he behind THAT rock?).  This anxiety is temperamental; it was there when I came into the world (hypotheses around this one pending).

When I attempt to roll the tension out of the shoulders, the emotions release.  In the development of human emotion, fear gives rise to many strong secondary emotions, including anger (others include jealousy…hate… sorrow… ).  Shoulder rolls = Jen aka Cujo.  The upside is that this releasing is not a bad thing.  It feels ghastly in the moment but as it finds expression, the tension eventually subsides.  And I don’t even have to punch a cave lion in the face!  Hooray!

So, thank you yoga.  You are my release.  You are my mirror.  You may have shown me that I am a buzzard but you give me hope yet – that by watching the body, by gently working with it, I can change my mind.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012