In recent weeks, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of healthy, strong yogis in my community who’ve been felled by an emotional crisis, experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and acute grief. Yet the thing that affects me most isn’t the nature or extent of their suffering, but something deeper and more disheartening: their responses to emotional pain.
Most of the yogis in crisis shared with me some version of a story laced with barely disguised self-contempt that they shouldn’t be feeling like this. “Panic attacks- seriously?” said one. “I thought I was past that.” “Why am I going backwards emotionally?” asked another. “With all the therapy, yoga, and meditation I’ve put in, I should be home free,” proclaimed a third. Why is self-attack our first impulse in times of emotional pain, and what can we do about it?
Our attraction to physically challenging yoga practices reveals a bitter belief: strong sensation equals change. This idea creates a ripple effect; it also implies that developing physical strength is a linear process. What’s more, if we’re truly yogic, we shouldn’t be injured or in emotional pain. Just last year, as I was navigating a Cambridge winter on crutches after a non-yoga-related hip surgery, people stopped me to exclaim in shocked dismay, “But you’re a yoga teacher! You shouldn’t need surgery!” And it’s not a big leap from here to the deep visceral belief that emotional strength is also linear, that we need never look back or revisit earlier stages of evolution. In the words of a participant at a recent Kripalu weekend, we can figure out the solution and be “one and done.”
We all have wounds; they’re part of what it means to be human. Whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, our wounds are like crazy glue; they bond us in solidarity. If we lived in an indigenous society, our wounds would be seen as shamanic rites of passage, but in modern Western society they’re not. So we forget that our wounds are universal, that others have them too. Eventually, we begin to see our wounds as a sign that we don’t quite deserve to be human. Even in the yoga community, which by definition should be unconditionally accepting, we hide. “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.” So we grow ashamed of our wounds, and hide them from others.
We may even project the negative labels we give our inner self onto others. We may think that our parents, teachers, or media are judgmental, and often that’s true. It can feel so convincing, this idea that the people we expect to care for us—our friends, teachers, partners—don’t fully value our “broken” parts. But this is also projection. When we delve under the surface, the story becomes clearer: it is we who dishonor our inner self, and it’s hard to accept this truth.
Once we figure out that our wounds are liabilities, we floor the accelerator and race away from them. We log as many miles as we can on the avoidance odometer and move on with life. We banish our wounds to the underworld of our emotional life where they’re out of sight and, supposedly, can do no damage. This is where we first learn to abandon ourselves. And it’s painful to acknowledge that we’ve left such a valid and worthy part of ourselves behind, so we try to forget that too. 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.
Recently, I was discussing this with Josie, a regular student in my classes. While I was teaching abroad, Josie experienced a resurgence of the panic attacks she’d had years before she began to meditate or practice yoga. She felt afraid: “What if this doesn’t go away?” she wondered. She compounded her fear with self-blame: “But I’ve worked so hard on myself,” she kept saying. “I should be in a different place by now.” Josie even beat herself up about not being able to sit with her feelings of panic and self-judgment. As she spiraled toward despair, 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, and then she began to cry. “I don’t think so,” she said when she could speak again. “It feels like compassion. Why is it so hard to do that for myself?”
Like Josie, we craft an outer self that appears ‘together’ and socially acceptable. We hone this personality on the whetstones of productivity and perfection. Soon this collective myopia becomes the way we bond with others. The outer selves can achieve status and win awards. It can form lasting relationships, however conditional and based on “good” behavior they may be. On the inside, however, it’s a different story. The self in pain is like a kidnapped child living in the basement. This exiled self subsists on small scraps of kindness from us, or more likely, from those who see us as we truly are.
But if we’re lucky, something happens to direct-dial us into conversation with our ugly wounds. Maybe we reach a point where the outer self is so far removed from who we are inside that we actually feel the dissonance. Maybe our inner pain resorts to sabotage to make us listen. Or maybe a crisis sets it off: We lose a job. The loss of a loved one derails us. Or we take a risk in love and get rejected. Or, like Josie, we experience a recurrence of emotional pain that scares us into self-inquiry. And 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 makes us deeply vulnerable. Usually, we contend with a sense of shock that this terrible, beastlike aspect of ourselves exists at all. Then, we feel the vat 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 two weeks alone, the students who’ve come to me have used terms like “dark,” “damaged,” “unwell,” and “broken.”
We have a way of seeing emotional pain as “going backwards,” as a sign of regression rather than a necessary stepping stone to re-integration. Yet transformation requires that we revisit earlier stages of evolution, and the feelings they evoke, again and again. In my teacher trainings, we have an open invitation for graduates to repeat any part of the training they’d like; this actually helps them integrate the subtle aspects of information and self-awareness they may have missed the first time around. The same is true of emotional balance: going backwards, it turns out, is a therapeutic tool for change.
So what, then, are we to do when these seemingly dark inner parts make their way into the light of our awareness?
I’ll explore that question in Part II of this post, coming tomorrow.