yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you

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I’ve had little to say here of late. My thoughts on yoga are all over the place, which inevitably seem too intertwined with thoughts on life to give them voice here. How to separate and distill? It’s a practice, so I’m here. I could be swimming in the ocean, but I’m here.

One looming theme in my recent intimate conversations is just how far we go, how many tales we tell, how many distractions we seduce to avoid our pain. The (Buddhist?) idea that suffering is what we create when we refuse to face and feel our pain is intensely accurate.

But how do we call the original pain up to be felt when it’s been refused for so long? How do we find (carve?) a safe space to explore the depths of our misery? This question is complicated for trauma survivors, whose emotions and memories have been chopped up and scattered within to protect us from the unfathomable, rendered unconscious but unforgotten in the nonverbal, primitive brain. It’s a difficult question for everyone, traumatized or not.

Our friends, families and communities, wanting to see us happy, may brush off our anguish with it-happened-for-a-reason-esque platitudes or unhelpful analyses. Unfamiliar with their own pain, they may be quick to minimize ours. Health professionals are quick to medicate and pathologize any behavior or emotion presented them. “Grief? I have just the thing for that!” the doctor quips as she scribbles out another prescription. And the happy affects, those must be at acceptable levels, lest you be labeled manic III-bipolar, or whatever diagnosis is trending this year. Even spiritual counselors—helpers of all kinds, really—condescend with false compassion or stone cold silence. I’m given to the latter.

Someone exploring her fear and insecurity may quickly trigger the Helper’s own unexamined vulnerabilities, and suddenly Explorer is scapegoated as weak, emotional, or out-of-control. Heavy. She’s shoved to arm’s length with fake compassion and a weighted stare. I’ve been there, on both sides. Preferred is the awkward rawness of an honest, present silence, which comes sometimes, when the strength is summoned.

Though vulnerability was all the rage on your tedtalks last year, I’ve seen no trickle down, no real time embracing of our pain, to say nothing of our ugliness and evil. It’s always out there. It’s Her. Or them. Very, very few of us have done the work of facing our pain. Without it, real, engaged compassion is impossible.

So. How do we do it? There is this ungodly pull to pretend we are nurturing ourselves when in fact we’re just numbing out. Or distracting ourselves. Or maintaining.

Like many, I excel at maintaining. I watch carefully what keeps me going, what keeps me floating above the morass. As early as my undergrad years I found that if I kept myself extremely busy, so busy I felt like a robot much of the time and dropped into bed of exhaustion each night, I did not feel depressed. I didn’t actually feel much at all, but I didn’t notice that until later.

Years later I’m much more subtle. Yoga soothes me, as does the ocean. And books. If I’m feeling a bit off, or fear I might soon, I’ll drink an afternoon coffee to perk me up. Maybe an innocuous stimulant, but it definitely sweeps me up and away from my pain. I know how often I must schedule time with friends to avoid loneliness. I know how to practice so I feel, and I know how to practice to numb myself. Why would I ever choose the latter? Sometimes it’s the only choice.

The soothing. Most of us know how to self-sooth, whether we call it that or not. Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing. Especially for trauma survivors. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky. I read a comment about a post I’d written on yoga and trauma on a reposter’s fbook page. Someone unbeknownst to me wrote, “That’s probably all these people can manage, anything to just get them through the day.”

This may be true of the newly traumatized and the most dire, but the majority of us eventually come to a place where we are much like everyone else. We just fly into flight, fright, or freeze mode far more quickly than average. Still, you cannot generally pick us in a crowd. We want to engage with life and thrive too. We want more than to just get through the day. Don’t you?

Everyone needs a safe space for this, inside ourselves as well as out, and self-soothing plays a role. But when the nervous system settles, we need to probe a bit and feel our emotions, to face and integrate our terror. It’s a dangerous place, but it has to be done. It is impossible to meaningfully engage in life without accessing our humanity and our emotions and using them to steer our lives. It is just impossible. Those little machinations you have for keeping safe? They are killing you softly. Stop it.

If it seems I am speaking only to trauma survivors, I am not. I speak to everyone for whom this resonates.

And then there’s the problem of everything. Everything quick and shiny and soon. Our culture teaches us that if we feel bad, instead of feeling it, investigating it, going inside it, we should make haste to feel better. This ubiquitous fantasy that when we find the right job, the right diet, the right partner, the right asana, the right teacher, the right shiny green t-shirt, we will be healed. Until then (soon!), a fabulous snack will do.

The prevalent idea that shifting your mood so you feel better for the afternoon (maintaining) is somehow healing your pain is a tease. It does not. Affirmations, slogans, positivity clichés disguised as spiritual wisdom—another coffee or a swim in the Atlantic, whatever your tricks—may work for the short term, but if you’re refusing your pain, the nagging, rotting sense that your world will collapse (your health is failing you, your boss will retaliate, your kid is unsafe, whatever your demon vrittis) will still gyrate underneath, lurching up just when you thought you were clear. This will not go away with a few magic tantric breaths or a weekend workshop.

It is inane. There is no way to heal without walking straight into your pain.

And for $2500, I will tell you how.

Haha. Not really. Til next time. ~Anastasia

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