yoga & the true self?

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Was on a fairly good writing schedule before the retreat. After, everything just feels like chatter. Is this important? What am I doing here? What was I saying?

Retreats most usually take me somewhere I didn’t expect. On this one I read a few books about somatic psychology and feeling. One, Focusing, by Gendlin, is about a method for sensing feelings in the body. It forced me to notice I’m not that willing to look at how I feel. I try to soften into it, but I hit a wall. Okay, I don’t even hit it. I see it, sense it, fear it, and get up and do something else, or switch to an easier book.

This realization was blown open for me after the retreat when I saw someone I’d missed. I was in a nasty mood and not pleasant at all. It took a few minutes of being laughed at before I realized my mood was protecting me from feelings of joy. I’d missed that joker, but refused to admit it to myself. Or feel it.

Lordy. I’d rather be pissy than risk the vulnerability of joy. What is going on? I’m aware of my anger, my sadness, my moods. But these aren’t true. They’re defenses, disassociated from the real feeling, teasing me away from seeing what’s really going on underneath. I’m 200 times more aware of your true emotions (if you give me 3 minutes) than my own.

There’s a wall. I’m afraid to know what’s truly going on behind it. But also not even sure how. I want to know. Desperately. But the part of me that doesn’t is still stronger.

Do we all feel this way? Is this why we are all so addicted to anything, everything, but best of all distraction? We run to our addictions the moment a fragment of truth floats into consciousness and the chocolate, the drink, the yoga or the news feed presses it back down. And, or, we indulge in, maybe advertise, sentimental, disassociated emotions. We are soothed, a little, until next time. I can only speak for myself.

There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing to fix.

You hear this a lot around mediation and yoga circles. But give me a break. Maybe it’s a reaction to the self-help culture, but really, there is something to fix. My defenses are hard, and I can really be an asshole if I want to protect myself. And sometimes when I don’t. I hurt people. I’m also pretty good at shutting down heartfelt joy and desire, as somehow unconsciously I believe I don’t deserve them, or will be punished for them, or can’t have them. And I don’t mean once in awhile. I mean as a way of life.

These seem like things worth shifting.

But, true, this doesn’t happen through positive affirmations or raw chocolate wheatgrass shots or whatever is on the market now. How does it happen? That’s the thing. There’s no prescription for everyone. You really have to figure it out for yourself—with a lot of help from the loving people who arrive when you get cracking. This is a cliche, but it’s true. You’ll still meet a lot of assholes, make no mistake, and the loving ones will be assholes, too, because who isn’t at times? And because they’re going to show you the things you don’t want to see. But these people will help you. At least, that’s my experience.

And the breath.

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

Cartoon by Daryl Seitchik

The True Self?

What does that mean, really? This term is thrown around along with “spirit” and “soul” in popular culture but there is no cultural consensus as to what they mean. Psychologists don’t agree. Philosophers don’t agree. Certain systems define them well, but once removed from the system, it’s not at all clear, especially if a yogi is bumping up against a Freudian.

Eastern traditions are psychologically very different than Western. In the West, there’s this search for the “True Self” and the ego is seen as mitigating that. The closer and more related the ego is to the Self, the healthier the person. (This might be a largely Jungian notion. I don’t know. I’m writing from the top of my head. Maybe I just made it up). Eastern traditions generally aim to obliterate the ego and the Self, in hope of returning the Self/soul to an ultimate sacred emptiness. Or oneness, if that sits better for you.

When these systems are constantly conflated, as they are in modern yoga vernacular, it’s confusing. What are we doing here?

It does touch something for most people, this sense of a more authentic life. At least, most people interested in yoga. Maybe because our culture is all about distraction and ego, about defining ourselves by what we consume instead of who we are, and we sense there’s more and yearn for it. Many people get a small, if unconscious, glimmer of this in a yoga session. This is why I think so many people do yoga. And because, like acupuncture, yoga can work on the energy system of the body, settling and healing our body-minds.

This yearning has inspired Western Yoga teachers (and maybe Indian, too, I don’t know) to misappropriate yogic teachings to serve the Self. I picked up a book the other day by a popular yoga writer. I set it down after about 20 minutes because I wasn’t comfortable with the thesis (or the barmy writing): The Yoga Scriptures were meant to guide us to our True Selves. I’m sorry, but that’s just not true. The goal of the Sutras, and other writings, is transcending and releasing the Self, not about finding it. I don’t mind using yoga scriptures toward contemporary means and ends, just be honest about what you’re doing.

Not that the founders of modern yoga were. Both Vivekananda and Krishnamacharya manipulated, even invented, scriptures for their own purposes. The former created “The Science of Yoga” and the latter further popularized the classical Yoga Sutras as a Hatha yoga text. It wasn’t. Krishnamacharya also claimed that his practices were codified in the ancient “Yoga Kurunta.” While there is a ~19th C text called the Kapālakuruṇṭakahaṭhābhyāsapaddhati that may have influenced Krishnamacharya, it is quite different than Krishnmacharya’s yoga and features only static asana.


Feeling. The True Self. Yoga. Meditation. The mind-body. What’s my point? I don’t know. There’s no prescription. While I named yoga as a distraction and addiction, it’s not just. It also helps me into places I’ve habitually closed off from myself. So does meditation. It’s pretty easy to discern how I’m practicing, but it takes a close eye.

Can’t we just have fun?

Yeah. Have fun. Feel good. Definitely. Most of my students, maybe you reading this, do yoga because it feels good. It’s the one part of the day they can relax. That is perfect. Sometimes I envy that relationship to yoga.

It’s about the time you realize there might be something more to it (and trust that there is), definitely if you enter a teacher training (and not because of its depth), you realize it’s not all happytime love and light—though there will plenty around you who will insist otherwise. That’s when the real fun begins.

Yoga doesn’t inherently make you a better or more peaceful person. It can help you be more self-aware. But so can a lot of things.

Thank you, Daryl Seitchik, for letting me use your work. I love it all. I chopped it in half without permission, but I believe you’ll like that. The original:


7 Responses to “yoga & the true self?”

  1. Good piece of writing. This is the type of self-evaluation and self-reflection which the Western Yoga World desperately needs. Not beating up one’s self but critical analysis and discernment.

  2. Kristine McCaddon says:

    Well said, I loved the article

  3. Anastasia says:

    Thank you!

  4. (0v0) says:

    So good to read this.

    Your inflection is changing somehow. Feels good on the receiving end.

    Did I tell you in Scotland about the vengeance of repressed joy when it came to my body? Not sure. Hope so.

    Yoga and the Quest for the True Self really pissed me off. Probably it still would. ;)

    So, I will follow up on this Gendlin reference you offer. Thank you.

    XOXOXOXO as ever

  5. Anastasia says:

    Thanks, Owl. Just back from a weekend away.

    Yes, I remember. Lovely chats those were.

    Wasn’t that title I picked up, but another by that particular self. A little shocking, what passes for yoga history. But maybe all history is this creatively interpreted? Well, this was created outside the ivory walls so maybe not. If peer review still exists within them. (Thinking of that Reinhart and Rogoff econ disaster.)

    Found Gendlin in Carol Horton’s Yoga PhD. I looked up a number of references from the Integrating the Body/Mind chapter. Gendlin comes out of UChicago. Basic but so difficult.


  6. Carol Horton says:

    Should have guessed that you and AJ are connected! Makes complete sense :)

    Anyway, I have been thinking about this post and wanting to respond since I read it because so much of what you describe reminds me of myself. I will share my experiences with some of the issues you raise in case it’s helpful.

    I can’t pinpoint precisely when I developed an awareness of the sort of emotional wall that you describe, but at some point some years ago I did. It was most definitely connected with my yoga practice.

    I remember a conversation about emotional reactivity that I had with a close friend back in college (well before I started doing yoga), and telling her with all sincerity that “I’m just not a very emotional person.” Nothing could be further from the truth. But, at the time, I believed it, as I had become so adept at walling off my feelings that it certainly seemed true at the time. I had no deeper insight.

    Later, I became aware of just what you describe: being blocked off not only from threatening feelings, but from any feelings of joy that might arise. Any such intense feeling felt destabilizing, like some important dam I had inside myself could break in a frightening way.

    Which it could, and periodically did. I used to have regular mini-meltdown depressions, just being overwhelmed with sadness for several hours at a time. I’d drop everything, hole myself up, and be overwhelmed. Then it would pass. I’d pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going.

    The same thing would happen periodically with anger. I’d BLOW UP over something small – the proverbial straw than finally broke the camel’s back.

    Gradually, I realized that I had a huge, dammed up reservoir of unprocessed grief and other negative emotions from my childhood and teen years. All this stuff had been stuffed, never seen the light of day, never been processed. I could feel it like a huge dark pond beyond that wall.

    I set out on a conscious project of gradually draining down that reservoir through yoga and therapy. I found this to be a great combination. I did the Forrest Yoga techniques for really honing in on spots in the body that felt blocked, loosening up the energy. Practicing at home regularly so that I had the space for whatever sort of emotional release needed to occur.

    And then I had a very good therapist who was open to and fascinated by what I had to report. Being able to process verbally and in-depth with an interested, smart, supportive person that I genuinely liked was very important for me.

    Now, I would say that I’ve made huge progress, although I don’t believe that these sorts of basic issues ever completely go away. But it’s gotten to the point where that can feel more like a gift than a burden. I have a lot of empathy. If life had been more smooth, I don’t think this would be the case to the same degree.

    I also notice all the time that my emotions are more fluid and spontaneous than they’ve ever been – by a magnitude of many, many times over. I’ll listen to a news report on NPR and be moved to tears for a few seconds, then look out at the blue sky and feel genuine joy.

    It’s a strange way to live, but I find it pretty magical, and I like that.

  7. Anastasia says:

    Thanks for this lovely comment, Carol. My reply might well turn into its own post! More soon.

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