I have a yoga mat made by a company called "holding." It’s short for "holding the edge," a phrase that describes a key concept in yoga. When we arrive at a difficult posture, one that causes discomfort, we stop carefully and notice it. We don’t react by flinching or jerking back, but we don’t shove forward either. We bring awareness to the physical (and mental, and emotional) sensations we’re experiencing in that posture. If there is physical pain, we carefully back out of the posture. Otherwise, we relax into it, breathe deeply and hold the edge of discomfort.
It’s also called “riding the edge” or, my favorite, “dancing on the edge,” which accurately portrays the movement of moving forward and back along an edge of discomfort. And there is great wisdom at the edge. It teaches us not only what we’re capable of physically, but what our patterns of reactions are, mentally and emotionally.
In the face of discomfort, what arises? Fear, anger, judgment? And what’s our natural tendency–to ignore the sensations and shove blindly forward, thus risking pain and injury? Or do we run away from the difficulty, missing an opportunity to grow and advance?
This concept of holding the edge–neither forcing nor holding back–applies to most other areas of our lives. Relationships are best served if we show up fully and completely, not holding back but not forcing what can’t be forced. Successful careers are built on the concept of giving it your all, but not shoving forward into uncontrollable circumstances. And it applies to our food lives.
If you struggle with mindless, emotional or stress-based eating, the concept of holding the edge will serve you well. Let’s imagine a scenario, one that happened to one of my clients who wrestled mightily with mindless eating. She worked as a house sitter for a battery of wealthy clients who regularly traveled to exotic locales; she lived alone in a modest little house in a development. Her regular dietary habits were stellar: she ate three to five well-planned meals a day, rarely if ever snacked, and ate her meals sitting at a table, not driving in the car or working on her computer. She was a poster child for mindful eating.
But when she was staying at a client’s house, the gloves came off. She would eat her usual meals during the day. Around sundown, she would start to get uncomfortable–bored, lonely, out of sorts; sometimes, she found herself inexplicably stricken with grief. By 9 p.m., she would find herself alone in an unfamiliar house, standing at her client’s kitchen counter, elbow-deep in a bag of chips. And she couldn’t stop, until she had devoured most of the chips, cookies, cartons of ice cream in the pantry and freezer.
Afterward, she felt shame, disgust, powerlessness. It was exactly the same pattern as an addiction. Was it because she felt lonely and vulnerable in an unfamiliar home? Was she grieving as she compared her modest home and life to these majestic digs? Was it just the novelty of a pantry filled with forbidden foods? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that somewhere along the line, she checked out. Discomfort arose in the form of a craving, and she succumbed to the edge. She yanked back from the discomfort and ignored the information at the edge.
What does holding the edge look like in this instance? The urge to eat arises, and she stops. She notices the sensation. Ouch. It’s awful. Eating some chips, cookies or ice cream will create a pleasing cascade of happy brain chemicals that will relieve the sensation for a bit. But she doesn’t yank back; she holds the edge of her emotions. They get stronger, worse. Maybe she goes outside and sits on the ground, feeling the earth beneath her body, looking at the stars over her head.
Maybe she gets mad. Maybe she sobs. Again, doesn’t matter. The point is, she meets the sensations of discomfort. Something is there at her edge, some deep emotion that holds great wisdom and the potential for mental, emotional and spiritual growth. And she observes it, attentively, listening to the answers as she would a trusted friend.
As it turns out, she did all of the above. One night, alone at the home of a family who was taking some fabulously pricey vacation, she held her edge. She grieved for being alone, unmarried and childless, living in a modest home, for being heavier than she wanted to be, for feeling helpless and vulnerable, for the sheer passing of time. She went into the expansive yard, lay facedown under the stars, and pounded on the manicured lawn with both fists. She sobbed for the better part of an hour.
At the end of it, she felt renewed, purged, clean. And while it would be a tidy end of the story to say "She never ate emotionally again," it would not be true. What was true: she felt empowered. She rarely ate emotionally again, and when she did, it was never to the same degree, nor was it mindless. She consciously chose to eat in the face of a painful emotion, and she did it mindfully–one or two cookies, a handful of chips, all the while knowing that she was choosing to reward her body with a little surge of happy brain chemicals.
That’s the power and wisdom any of us can find at the edge. The process may look something like this:
1. When discomfort arises, and your first impulse is to head to the kitchen, stop. Do nothing. Close your eyes and breathe, deeply in, deeply out, 50 times. Feel the cells of your body softening and relaxing.
2. What’s the level of your discomfort? If 1 is barely noticeable and 10 is unbearable, is it a 2 or an 8? Having a somewhat objective measure puts your feelings into perspective. If your discomfort meter reads “3,” you might be able to just let it be there; it may subside after a few minutes.
3. If your discomfort is substantial, find a quiet place and space to let the feelings come up. If you’re in a work situation—a meeting, a cubicle—change your surroundings. Go for a walk, find an empty conference room, take a bathroom break and go sit in your car.
4. Sit there with your feelings. Imagine having them in for a visit and a cup of tea. Let them talk, and listen attentively, as you would to a trusted friend.
5. Allow some space for whatever arises. It’s not necessary to label or judge it. Just accept it. Envision being in a difficult yoga posture, or catching a tricky wave in surfing. And see what happens when you find your edge and take it for a ride.
PHOTO (cc): Flickr / ehiuomo