Raise your hand if you’ve ever been on your mat trying to pull together some semblance of an asana only to get thrashed and waylaid by mean, nasty, pooh-poohing naysayers in your head?
Not you? Okay then, you lucky bastard, stop reading and start emailing me your super-power secrets stat!
But, if you can relate to that first sentiment, please proceed….
Learning to deal with those inner voices of self-criticism and judgment is something that I definitely need some more work with. These negative voices are one of my biggest obstacles in my Ashtanga practice, and in life too, but I’m putting this in the context of yoga because that’s where it especially affected me today.
My practice was decimated by a deluge of self-loathing, misperceiving mean-girl voices in my head. This morning, I lost the battle with them and it felt really really bad. I let them break me down with their nastiness – “You’re too heavy to pick yourself up!” “You’re so lazy and tired, you should just lay down and give up!” “Your legs won’t go behind your head because your thighs are too fat!” “Why even try uddiyana bandha today, there’s too much yuck in the way!” “You’ve let yourself go, your practice is sh*t, why even try!” You see what I’m saying? Self-sabotaging, hateful, delusional voices in my head.
Ashtanga Yoga is a practice of doing the seemingly impossible, over and over again. It’s inevitable that at some point in the process of learning Ashtanga you will feel despairingly hopeless about how crazy hard it is and how far away you feel from achieving any level of mastery. This is a topic David has been discussing with our group here in Kovalam over the past few weeks.
(Side note- If your yoga practice is more Yin, this context of negative voices on the mat might not be as relatable, but perhaps it will make more sense to think of this post pertaining to general life.)
I’m writing this piece for you today, but it’s really for me. More often than not, I write what I most need to hear. In that sense my blog is a bit journal-like, a catharsis and reflection out in the open for all the world to read. Scary. Y’all must think I’m a basket case!
Anyways, the point is, you can’t let yourself fall prey to feelings of self-crisiticm all the time.
So what can you do about those negative voices that arise in practice?
Here are a few thoughts courtesy of David, my fellow yoga students in Kovalam and from my own personal experience as well:
– When a voice arises, listen to it, and then respond. Ask questions of it, follow it through. There might potentially be some wisdom there, a lesson to learn from what it’s telling you. Determine if that voice is serving you in anyway. If so, take what you can from it and then proceed. If not, toss it out. Don’t let it hold any more weight over you. Breathe and move on.
– Follow the sensation of that inner voice. Where do you feel constriction? Where does your breath stop? Can you pinpoint any pain or discomfort in your physical body connected to these inner thoughts/voices? When you acknowledge these sensations, you might experience them softening. Experiment with directing your breath and a conscious feeling of relaxation into these blockages. Observe as your body responds, how your thoughts ease and calm down as well.
– Purposefully harness your focus back to your breath and the central axis. As you deepen your breath and take pause between the inhale and exhale, you have more control over the fluctuations of the mind (that’s straight from Patanjali so you know it’s legit!)
– Chant a mantra. Fill your consciousness with a sacred vibration instead of following down the paths of the mind. I like to use Sat Nam (Truth is my Name). I internally chant “Sat” as I inhale, and “Nam” as I exhale. Sometimes I work with the mantra connected with the sound of the breath “So Hum.” It doesn’t necessarily matter what words you use, as long as you can connect with them.
– Turn the thoughts around. For example, imagine you are dealing with an inner voice that shouts, “You suck! You will never be able to do this!” Say right back to it, “You can do it, keep trying!” It might feel false at first, but you might just trick yourself into believing it.
– Vary your approach. Sometimes you will need to be forceful with these voices. Talk back – tell them to shut it! Other times, you will need to treat them with care and kindness. Acknowledge their presence and then see if you can work around/with them.
– We are our harshest critics. We live in a society that is quite critical and judgmental as a whole. But just because that’s the norm, don’t feel that you have to go along with it, especially not in your spiritual practice! Give yourself the space and freedom to practice kindness with yourself. This might feel a little odd at first, that’s ok. Be gentle and loving with your demons, they might actually need a little tenderness in order to back down. Your yoga practice is a safe place to FEEL. Emotions of pain and sadness can arise, and when they do, treat yourself with the loving kindness that you would show your dearest friend when s/he is suffering.
– Remember that one reason you are practicing in the first place IS to conquer these demons. Have faith in the process. Trust it. Keep chipping away, keep trying, don’t lose hope! Return to the mat and trust that what you are doing has a purpose.
– Always remember, this too shall pass. These feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing will pass. Give yourself the freedom to keep going without falling into a catastrophe mindset. Keep reminding yourself: This too shall pass – always! Change is the only constant. Give thanks for that!
– Acknowledge and appreciate the little victories. You might be a perfectionist (me too!) but don’t let this stop you from taking pause to remember all the moments of progress and goodness in your practice/life. Never disqualify the small successes – they add up!
– This one might be the hardest, but it is the most important: Step back and see if you can wrap your head and heart around the truth that, no matter what, you are perfect. At the core of it all, you are not your thoughts, your feelings, your body, your yoga pose, your intelligence – you are Sat (truth) Cit (consciousness) Ananda (bliss). This is really what it’s all about, it’s right there in the first three Yoga Sutra, which translate more or less to “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, when this is achieved, the Seer abides in his True Self.” That true self is always present, but our perceptions are just too muddied to see it. You are perfect; nothing else really matters.
Humans are funny and fickle, so we each deal with our demons and personal challenges in our own unique way.
I know that I personally am a “feeler.” I sort through my emotions best by diving into the feelings, experiencing them and then moving through them. I feel the emotions strongly in the energetics of my body. That’s why breathing practices like this little Kundalini tool and EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique are especially helpful for me when I’m struggling. But not everyone jives with that. My husband Thad is much more of a “thinker”. He gets very analytical and philosophical with his emotions and struggles. He subjects himself to self-inquiry and research, hashing it out with words and arguments of reason in his head.
I hope these thoughts have offered you some new ideas and tools.
What helps you most when you are struggling with feelings of self-doubt or self-loathing? How do you work with the negative voices of judgment and self-criticism that arise in your practice and life?
I would love to hear from you
With gratitude and love,