At the beginning of every class or workshop that I’m teaching, I always start with something like this: “Does anyone have a question or anything they’d like to talk about?”
This is an homage to my teacher, dear friend, and Freedom Yoga pioneer, Erich Schiffmann. When Erich had just turned 20, he was in India studying with TKV Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, who was perhaps the most influential yoga teacher of our time. Krishnamacharya was the teacher of Pattabhi Jois (who founded the Ashtanga system), teacher of BKS Iyengar (who founded the Iyengar system), and, of course, teacher of Desikachar (who founded the Viniyoga system). Erich would ride his bike to Krishnamacharya’s house, salute the guru himself on the front porch, and continue inside for is private lesson with Desikachar. Can you imagine that? It gives me chills just thinking about it.
Their sessions would open with Desikachar apparently engaging in “small talk,” until one day Erich finally realized the lessons would not really begin until he asked a Yoga-related question of Desikachar. Once he did, the teachings opened and flowed directly from what Erich wanted to learn, what he was interested in. The teachings became pertinent to the moment, rather than planned in advance; something that would carry through Erich’s own teachings and become a foundational element for what would later become known as Freedom Yoga.
So, this is how I began all of my classes. I love it because it keeps the tradition of the lineage alive, but more importantly, it creates a fertile ground and organic space for Spirit-led spontaneity to occur. The discussions that result are incredible; rich with gems of learning and insights that none of us could have orchestrated by ourselves.
Yesterday in class, I asked the question, as I always do. These questions don’t revolve around asana specifics – how to put our arms or legs in a yoga pose. We’re interested in talking about how to live the Yoga, which is the whole point of all the Yoga practices, mat and non-mat based. The deeper you go into living the Yoga, the more questions arise, as they should: “What’s really going on? What’s the truth?” After I asked the question, there was some silence, as there often is, as we ponder what’s on our hearts. I thought it might be a day where no one wanted to say anything, because sometimes that happens. Then a student asked,” How do you let go of holding a grudge?”
What a great question.
We hear a lot in the so-called yoga world and a whole lot in the religious world about “just let it go.” Turn the other cheek. Be humble. Forgive. Love. Just be the light. Be the bliss. Send peace to everyone. Yes, all that sounds great, but what are we to do with intense feelings of anger and resentment as they arise? Because they will. Emotions – the ones we like and the ones we don’t like – are the water to our souls; a necessary element to our inner fluidity. They shift in and out, like the weather, and arise to help us take a particular action in a situation. We’re often told that anger is a useless emotions and is just plain wrong to feel – it’s not lady-like, not yoga-like, not Christian-like, or whatever-like. So when anger arises and resentment stirs, the tendency is to think that we’re just not good enough at yoga or good enough at fill-in-the-blank to be able to rise above the so-called “negative emotions” and live in the constancy of bliss and peace.
What I know with my years of boundary work is that anger and resentment are always clear signs that we need to strengthen a boundary somewhere. That means we need to say “no” to something so that we say “yes” to the important something that we value and need to protect. And here’s the big insight for me: if my boundary is weak, then my power is draining away from me. Anger and resentment are signs of disempowerment. If I’m in the space of resentment, churning around about what that one did to me, thinking about all the ways it was wrong and all the ways I want to get back at them…then I have let that person become my higher power. Instead of keeping the focus on myself, my thoughts, my feelings, my behaviors, and my higher power (all of which keeps me empowered), I let my energy seep out to the person that I’m resenting. It becomes an obsession and all focus and power shifts away from me onto the other.
In my view, getting better at yoga means not rising above emotions into some heady idealized platitude, but coming down from the head into the heart…and being willing to stay and listen to what the heart wants to tell us. It means getting our hands dirty in the messiness of being divinely human, of being perfectly imperfect. It means shifting out of thinking and going deep into feeling.
So, how to get from the heady “let it go” to an actual action of letting it go? In other words, how can we get into the space of real forgiveness – not condoning what the other did, necessarily, but releasing the grip that it has over us? The heart is the space where true forgiveness happens…not the head. A little mantra I’ve learned over the years that really helps me is this: “The only way out is through.”We’ve got to come down and feel. That’s the only way through.
What helps me come down from the head and into the heart, into the healing, feeling space, is to immerse myself in anything creative, and not hold back at all. I recently dealt with a situation where I was in the place of resentment, thinking I had been wronged, and the state of victim-hood was eating me alive. I wasn’t sleeping, I was on edge; I felt horrible. Finally, I remembered…ah, creativity. I got out a canvas and some paints and painted exactly what I felt. I let my heart pour what it wanted to say onto the canvas without thinking about it. It wasn’t a pretty painting – it was mostly black with very dark colors – but it was such a satisfying and cathartic painting to make. The heart doesn’t tell itself that if it were a better yogi, it wouldn’t be feeling this or that. The heart is always true. Even if the reaction of the resentment is not logically accurate, it’s real to the heart. After I finished painting, I picked up my guitar, went into my yoga room, and wrote a song called “I’m not over it.” I wasn’t over it, like I thought I was. I couldn’t “head” my way out of it. The only way out was through and the only way to find movement through was to feel.
Honest journaling is another great tool. When I feel jealousy creeping in, resentment starting to swirl, or any other red flag of powerlessness starting to arise, I get my journal. In the safety and privacy of those pages, I pour out all the petty grievances and ways that I’ve been wronged, how “this always happens to me,” and how I am a total victim. I pull no punches of writing down exactly how I feel, as petty and kindergarten-level as it usually is. I don’t edit anything; this is simply an exercise in letting the heart be heard. No one ever sees these entries. This is deep heart work just for me. When I put the grievances (as embarrassing it is to read) on paper – or on a canvas or in a song – they move, they flow, they exit. And once they are given expression in a healthy way, I can then begin to use my executive functions of thinking to look at what’s happened: what was really going on here and what is important for me to learn? I can’t truly get to that place until I feel first. Any attempt to circumvent feeling and try to rationalize the feelings away only result in my being caught in an eddy that keeps me from flowing onward.
This process feels to me like weeding an overgrown garden: getting down on my knees, with my hands in the dirt, feeling the coolness of the earth, pulling up the weeds from the roots, and making space for something new to grow. From there, I can plant the seeds of something different, water it, and watch it sprout and eventually flower into something that is always a beautiful surprise. To me, that’s Yoga; being present to this ever-changing process of presence, in this body, on this planet – and creating the space to really wonder about it all, question it, discuss it, and formulate new questions. That keeps the Yoga real for me. It keeps me in an ongoing state of learning, open to infinite possibilities, grounded in inner guidance, and anchored in courage and self-trust so I can inch more closely into the full expression of the real me.