Ode to the Unbroken

I had a list of things I wanted to write about, including the art of watching and its relation to being present, and the relationship between neuroscience and magic. And I will, later. But something important got in the way. This week, I returned from a memorable teaching trip to Vancouver to find several members of my yoga community in the throes of an emotional crisis that took varied forms: panic attacks, PTSD, depression, acute grief. As I talked with each of them, several themes emerged that were so powerful, so universal, I had to share them with you.

As you read these words, you might think something like “Why isn’t yoga taking care of all that?” or “Why can’t these yogis deal with a little stress—many people have it really tough.” If you think these things, you’re not alone; each person I talked with had the same inner dialogue playing. These responses are common and understandable. They remind me of the time last year when, as I was navigating a Cambridge winter on crutches post hip surgery, several people stopped me to exclaim, in shocked dismay, “But you’re a yoga teacher! You shouldn’t need surgery!” We have a way of thinking that emotional growth is linear: as a recent participant in a Kripalu weekend put it, we can figure out the solution and be “one and done.” Yet transformation requires that we revisit earlier stages of evolution again and again.

We all have wounds: physical, emotional, and spiritual; they’re part of what it means to be human. Our wounds are like crazy glue; they bond us in solidarity. Yet in contrast to indigenous societies, which would see our wounds as badges of initiation and recognize us as shamans or healers, our modern Western society doesn’t honor wounds. So we forget that our wounds are universal, that others have them too. We become deeply self-conscious. Eventually, we begin to see our wounds as a sign that we don’t quite deserve to be human. We learn to be ashamed of our wounds, to hide them from others. We banish our wounds to the underworld of our lives. And we create “wound narratives” that limit us. This happens even in the yoga community, which we might have thought would offer unconditional acceptance. “I won’t be able to teach because of this neurological disorder,” a young student in training recently told me. “No one can know about my anxiety,” said another. “They’d never come to class if they did.”

Once we start to believe that our wounds are liabilities, we race away from them, always conscious of the extra weight they lay upon us. We log as many miles as we can on the avoidance odometer, and move on with our lives. We form outer selves that appear together and socially acceptable. We hone our personalities on the whetstones of productivity and perfection. We want people to see only these bright, glossy selves we’ve worked so hard to build—and soon that becomes the way we bond. At first this is an adaptive, even clever, way of coping. Eventually, it does great damage. For when we leave parts of ourselves behind, we fracture the Whole Self.

It is painful to acknowledge that we’ve left such a valid and worthy part of ourselves behind, and so we try to forget that too. We may even project our own negative “labeling” of the inner self onto others, and see them as judgmental of us. We can convince ourselves that the labels come from parents, teachers, or media, and often they do. It can feel really convincing to us, this idea that the people we expect to take care of us—our friends, teachers, partners—don’t fully value our “broken” parts. But this is partly projection, because it is we who dishonor our inner self, and it’s hard to accept this truth.

Recently, I was discussing this with Jane, a student in one of my regular classes. Jane was gripped by judgment about family members, friends, and even her fellow students. Why did the yogi on her left come late to class? And one of our assistants gave her the wrong assist—how annoying! At the same time, Jane was ashamed of her righteousness, and painfully aware that it mirrored a strong self-judgment. I stopped the conversation to look her fully in the eyes. “What are you feeling from me?” I asked her. “Do you feel I’m judging this part of you?” Several moments passed. “I don’t think so,” she said. “It feels like compassion.” And she began to cry.

Sometimes, the outer self we form is successful in the eyes of the world. It achieves status. It forms lasting relationships, though these can be conditional and based on the behavior of the outer self. It masquerades as a flawless, pain-free rendition of us. On the inside, however, a different story exists. The self in pain is like a kidnapped child living in the basement. This exiled self subsists on small scraps of kindness either from us or, more likely, from those who truly see us for who we are. But if we’re lucky, something happens in our lives to direct-dial us into conversation with our ugly wounds. Maybe we reach a point where the outer self we’ve cultivated is so far removed from who we are inside that we actually feel the dissonance. Maybe our inner pain is so remote and unattended that it cries out to be heard. Or maybe a crisis sets it off: We lose a job. We weather the loss of a loved one. We take a risk in love, and get rejected. Or maybe we drink too much in an attempt to drown out the keening of the inner self. Suddenly, our facade of wellness begins to crumble.

Whatever the catalyst, we come face to face with the self we’ve labeled as “unwell.” This is a deeply vulnerable place. Usually, we contend with a sense of shock that this terrible, beast-like aspect of ourselves exists at all. Then, we feel a reservoir of shame in which that self has marinated, the disbelief, the “I thought I’d dealt with this a long time ago.” And finally, we’re called to face the labels we’ve given our inner self: in the past week alone, the students who’ve come to me used terms like “dark,” “damaged,” “unwell,” and “broken.”

This is the tough part: there is no shortcut. To become free, we must look directly into the eyes of this exiled self in order to see her. We must listen to the crazy-feeling dialogue he speaks in order to honor him. We must sit with the shame and pain of this self before we can become more whole. And we need to acknowledge that our fears about how the “world” will react to this self pale in comparison to the way we’ve responded ourselves.

I have news for you: those parts you’ve tried so hard to hide are not invisible. When you come to my classes (or workshops, or seminars) and move your body, I see your “broken” parts. Your body and your yoga practice share them with me. I see the awkwardness, and courage, with which you come back into your body after years of absence. I note the physical pain in your shoulder, and see how much it costs you. I feel your grief at the loss of your husband and the mourning that never ceases in your children, and I know what it takes for you just to get to class. I see you curled inward with grief and rage when your fifth cycle of IVF cycle hasn’t taken. I see how hard you are on your body, and how difficult it is to nourish it. I see you struggle with the changes your pregnant body is making, and then how hard it is to feel yourself again after you’ve given birth. I feel with you the pain, the self-questioning, the armoring in your body when you and your partner decide to separate. And I see your efforts to please me, to be a “good student,” and I have some sense of their significance. Yes, I see these seemingly broken parts. They are deeply moving. They are beautiful, and I love them.

We are all broken. We are all, also, whole and unbroken. Broken, unbroken: there is no difference. What if, instead of hiding the seemingly broken parts of ourselves, we brought them into the light of human regard? What if we shared them with others, not in a here-is-my-terrible-story or look-how-life-sucks kind of way, but with compassion? What if we agreed together to hold in gentle, cupped palms this fledgling and wounded self, and to sit and breathe with the feelings that self evokes in us? What if that were the true practice of yoga?

To everyone who has ever felt ashamed, unworthy, damaged, I say: it’s time for an emotional revolution. It’s time to slow down the development of our outer self and listen to the small, courageous voice of the inner one. It’s time to share our wounds and shame and celebrate the vulnerability they offer. It’s time to bring this consciously into our community, to gently support the disenfranchised parts of others and let them do the same for us. Perhaps, together, we can tear down the veils of illusion that make us unwell.

What would this emotional revolution require? Absolute fearlessness, for one thing: not the absence of fear, but the willingness to move through it. What would this look like? When we hear a voice telling us that our pain or “broken parts” make us unworthy, or that we should have moved through this already, we can hear this voice with compassion. When we feel an anxiety attack breaking over us, we can stop and let it come. When our depression, our sorrow, our grief pervades every corner of our mind, we can hold a safe space for it. When our body shame surges toward the surface, we can watch it approach and breathe into it. And when we hesitate to reach out to someone for fear of rejection, we can realize that rejection is inevitable at some point in our lives, and reach out anyway. And we can commit to these acts of radical courage not for the results they might bring. We can do so because the commitment itself is part of the process. Our commitment restores to us the lost parts of our self.

This holiday season, perhaps close proximity to your family of origin (or even the long-hoped-for connection that the holidays always seem to unearth) will awaken parts of yourself you hoped you’d left behind. Then you can begin to reconnect. You can say, for example: “Hey there, panic attacks. I know I haven’t listened to you in a while. Pull up a chair- there’s room. Now: what have you been trying to tell me? How can I hear you better?” Will this make those panic attacks, that depression or grief, the deep visceral shame go away? No. But it will begin a dialogue that can bring you, step by step, from fractured to whole.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: it’s not about how you look in your yoga clothes or how the cool advanced poses you do. It’s not about how many friends you have on Facebook or how cute your kids are. It’s not about how exotic a title your new promotion gives you, or how cute you or the size of your house and yard. And it’s not about your blog, or the number of books you’ve written. The true practice of yoga asks you to connect the parts of you that seem “ugly” or “broken” with the ones that appear outwardly attractive and whole.

Can you be a part of this emotional revolution? What parts of yourself need acknowledgment, or crave the gifts of silence and the slow passing of time in order to become integrated? See if you can bring them out where others can see them; shame always lessens upon exposure. Let’s all do it: let’s see if we can hold, contain, and surround those parts with compassion. And let’s do it today, before they lose hope.

This post is dedicated to those students past and present who’ve reached out for help, and also to those who haven’t. May we all be part of the Emotional Revolution.

Please comment and share your experiences below so we can all be inspired by them. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Ode to the Unbroken”

  1. I really appreciated this piece and what it has to say about our shadow side… i’m often anxious about the projections students make onto me, and how I can’t really live up to those, given that I’m human and my life is also messy and sometimes fraught with doubts and anxieties (well, often!).. I just want to take this opportunity to say that your book and teachings have inspired me and I hope to study with you in person soon.. I work with dancers and have undertaken a doctorate investigating the benefits of yoga for student dancers.. I am currently working on a study that will investigate the role restorative/yin yoga can play in the life of the professional dancer.. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Abby, thank you for commenting, and for your kind words about the book. Your study on restorative with ballet dancers sounds great. And it just so happens that one of our TT mentors, Kathy Hartsell, who is a wonderful yoga teacher and a physical therapist, also danced for years with Boston Ballet. She did her final project for TT on body image in dancers. She’d be happy to connect with you; if you’d like to be put in touch with her, email us at support@boforbesyoga.com.

      And if you can’t get here in person, consider our online course!

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