Yoga, Self-Acceptance, and Negging

“Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance.” — Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa

Back when I was teaching yoga regularly, I liked to frame my classes around the concept of santosha. In Sanskrit, santosha means “contentment.” It has to do with an acceptance of where you are (and who you are) rather than a focus on where (or who) you want to be. Rather than berating yourself for not being able to to touch your toes or carrying more weight than you’d like, santosha urges yoga practitioners to approach their practice from the exact spot where they find themselves. This approach encourages self-love and discourages comparison, which, as we know, is the thief of joy.

Santosha goes beyond yogic ability. Being able to love the body you’re in means accepting its limitations, including its “flaws.” I’m using quotes here, because sometimes our “flaws” are really just unique features that don’t align with cultural beauty standards. These “flaws” are often things that we can’t change, such as the color and smoothness of our skin, the texture of our hair, the natural shape of our bodies, or any other hereditary trait. Chastizing yourself for these “flaws” is totally unnecessary. Give yourself a hug and try to love even the things you don’t necessarily like about your appearance. However, chastising others for these “flaws” can be abusive, which brings me to negging.

Negging is a type of emotional abuse and manipulation in which the abuser gives a backhanded compliment that is meant to devalue and undermine the confidence of their victim. It encourages the victim to seek the abuser’s approval and admiration, thus giving him more control. You can read all about it here. There’s a whole dark corner of the internet dedicated to teaching men how to successfully neg women. It’s insidious and disgusting, and unfortunately, it works.

We’re hardwired to seek people’s approval, especially if we’re interested in them socially or romantically. Negging can throw even the most confident person off-balance, making them question their sense of self. My abusive ex was a pro at negging, but he didn’t use it right away. He waited until I was already interested, until I was hooked, to start crushing my self-esteem.

Early in our relationship, he found a picture of me online. I had just received my Master’s degree, and I was decked out in my graduation regalia. I had completed a challenging series of courses, successfully defended my thesis, and was ready to take on the world. At least, that’s what I saw in that picture.

“You have zero self-confidence in this picture,” he said. “You’re not a very confident person.”

That one comment knocked me for a loop, as I had always seen myself as confident. But here was this person, who I trusted and was coming to love, telling me that I don’t appear confident to the outside world. Of course, this comment came with promises to help me with my confidence, and since I wanted to improve my standing in his eyes, I listened.

The negging increased from there:

“One of the first things I noticed about you was your runny nose.”

“I’m glad it’s my job to point out the food that gets stuck in your crooked teeth.”

“Those crows feet and grey hairs are really charming on a woman your age.”

“You carry a lot of stress in your ankles, which is why they’re always swollen. I can fix that for you.”

“I love that you’re trying to be environmentally conscientious. You remind me of one of my ex-girlfriends. She was my favorite.”

“I usually prefer strong women, but I somehow fell in love with you.”

“That new makeup looks nice. I can hardly notice your acne.”

Each of these “compliments” were designed to knock me down and make me grateful for his attention. And for a long time, they worked. I wanted to look, act, and sound like the woman that he wanted me to be, because I thought that woman was a better version of myself. I went to great lengths to mold myself into the woman I thought he wanted, and yet the backhanded compliments never really stopped. Actually, they increased as I started to pull away from him, and they continue even now in his harassing messages to me.

It took a long time (and a lot of therapy) to rid my self-concept of his criticisms. Yoga and running helped, as they allowed me to be grateful for the body that I have, a body that works pretty damn well despite its “flaws.” While I don’t necessarily like everything about myself, I now know that my abuser’s negging did not constitute truth, and that his need to tear me down likely says more about his insecurities than my own.

 

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A confession and a return

It’s been six years since my last post.

So much has happened in those six years, more than I can possibly cover in a blog post. I’m sure the details will trickle out as I return to the blogging format, but it’s enough for now to say that this time period was one of both death and rebirth, and that I’ve come through the crucible as a more complete person.

My retreat from blogging was also a retreat from yoga. Yoga had become increasingly difficult. I couldn’t be still. I couldn’t sit quietly with my own thoughts. I couldn’t face the realities of my life and the choices that had brought me there. So while I still taught yoga weekly, my personal practice waned. I was no longer living the yogic lifestyle that I was espousing in this blog. In fact, I was doing my best just trying to survive.

So here’s the confession, and it’s a big one: from 2009 to 2014, I was in an abusive relationship. His manipulation was subtle at first. He went from making comments about my appearance, to making suggestions about the media I consumed, to making demands about the way I talk. He alienated me from my friends and eventually cut off contact with my family. He engaged in every crazy-making, narcissitic, gaslighting behavior in the books, and then he started with the physical abuse.

I stayed because the physical abuse “wasn’t that bad.” I stayed because of the children. I stayed because I had backed this horse, and damn it, I was going to see this thing through to the end. I stayed because I wasn’t a “quitter.” I stayed because I was embarrassed. I stayed because he convinced me that I was the crazy one. I stayed because he had demeaned me to the point where I felt unlovable. I stayed because I didn’t know where else to go. I stayed because I had kept the abuse a secret. I stayed because I was afraid.

And then I couldn’t stay anymore. He was arrested for a charge unrelated to his abuse, but it was wake-up moment for me. I could ignore or rationalize or wish away the daily misdeeds I suffered at his hands, but I couldn’t ignore the mugshot. I packed his things, changed the locks, and never looked back. Once I was free, it was shockingly clear how damaging and insidious his behavior was, but I couldn’t sense the degree of abuse when I was in it.

So why am I speaking out now? Maybe because there has been a shift in our culture, and men like him are finally facing consequences. Maybe it’s because I’m far enough removed that I can actually talk about these things without shaking uncontrollably for hours. Maybe it’s because I feel like my story could help someone who is in a similar situation and is struggling to get out. Whatever the reason, my voice has finally returned, and I’m ready to talk about it.

I grapple with outing my abuser. I have personally experienced the limits of the #metoo movement. Powerful men in high places are toppling, but for those of us who live normal, quiet lives, very little has actually changed. I have moved far, far away, but I must still occassionally co-parent with my abuser. He has skipped child support payments with no consequences. He has continually engaged in child abuse and neglect, but he still has access to my child. He has harrassed me via email with no repercussions. For the police and the courts, none of these things is “enough” to warrant taking action, and so my abuser gets to continue these behaviors. In fact, he flaunts them. He does this because for the rest of us, #metoo doesn’t matter. Not yet, anyway.

But let’s make this clear: my abuser deserves to be outed. He has a pattern of abuse stretching back 25 years, and has left women and children shattered in his wake. He is also a massage therapist, and his clients deserve to know who they are (literally) exposing themselves to. So what’s stopping me from outing him? Perhaps fear. Perhaps embarrassment. Perhaps doubt. His cruel voice still pops up in my head from time to time, telling me that I’m not good enough, that I’m crazy, that I brought the abuse on myself.

I’m working through these things, and maybe one day soon, I’ll be ready to name my abuser and expose his behavior. For now, it’s enough to have a voice. It’s enough to return to the mat and do my best to find repose in the asanas.

Namaste.

Mysore: Day 10

Hmm… the WordPress Monster seems to have gobbled up my two latest posts.  Ah well.  Such is the Internet. 

Ashtanga practice seems to get some flack from some of the more free spirited yogis out there as being too structured, too hardcore, too unforgiving.  Afterall, Ashtanga practice works with a very prescribed, very carefully formulated sequences of poses, and from what I understand, purists rarely (if ever) deviate from the sequence.  As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a rhyme and reason for the order of the asanas, as each pose appropriately prepares the body for the next one in line.  We do tend to move relatively quickly through the poses (five to ten breaths max for each pose with brisk vinyasas between some asanas), but it’s silly to say that there’s no room for modifications or realignment or teacher intervention.  In fact, mysore practice is built for teacher intervention and allows time for one on one instruction in what would otherwise be an individual endeavor. 

So yes, Ashtanga does require dedication to a tradition and a willingness to forego some of the creativity you might find in other vinyasa flow practices (although the studio I practice at does offer a “Mixed Series Improv” class that draws from both the primary and secondary series in a playful and exploratory way… maybe this is a no-no for hardcore Ashtangis).  However, after 10 days of mysore practice, I’m finding solace and constancy in the primary series sequence.  Every morning I come to mat, and there it is, unchanging, welcoming, reliable.  And as I become more comfortable and proficient, the flow of poses becomes meditative, and I can lose myself in the increasingly connected line between my breath and my movements on the mat. 

You see, despite my dedication to my practice, my growing interest in Eastern philosophy, and my desire for a simple existence, a part of me is afflicted by anger.  A whole lot of anger, if I’m being honest.  And I own this anger.  It comes from within me, aimed at things and people I can’t control, and it’s destructive.  I know that while Pema Chodron and Thich Naht Hahn would suggest I confront it, sit with it, and acknowledge it for what it is, I often find myself turning away from it, as going down that road of anger is often disturbing and frustrating.  It creeps up on me when I least expect it, and instead of looking it in the eyes, I often turn away, hoping it will lose interest and die down.  More often than not, it forces my attention, and I find myself in the grips of anger until the familiar train of bitter thoughts runs it course.  Only then can I return to my regularly scheduled life. 

There is one time, however, that I face my anger, and that is when I’m engaged in meditative physical activity.  To me running, biking, and swimming are meditative.  When I’m cruising the roads, exploring new trails, and moving methodically through the water, my breath and body are working as one, leaving my mind free to confront my demons.  When I exercise I come from a place of power, and my anger stands little chance when I’m barreling down a windy road or charging up a rocky hill.  And when I’m in the lap pool, my body completely supported by water and the harmonious movement of my limbs, my mind can careful pull apart the strands of anger.  I do my best thinking in the pool, and I’ve worked through more issues while counting laps than in any therapy session. 

Ashtanga has proven to have a similar effect.  My body is learning how and when to move, leaving me free to tackle my inner knots.  While vinyasa practice is using my breath and the force of gravity to gently transform my body, my mind is working to release the tension that I’m hesitant to face off the mat.  

The patriarch and originator of modern Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, sagely said, “Do your practice and all is coming.”  He’s not just talking about physical growth here, people.  Ashtanga means “eight-limbed,” with each of the first seven limbs working towards the eighth, Samadhi (union with the divine).  One of the Niyamas (personal observances) is Svadhyaya, or self study.  When we engage in our practice, we have the opportunity to study all of the aspects of ourselves, including the inner landscape of our emotions. 

My anger is there.  I see it everyday, but nowhere is it clearer, more innocuous, and more manageable than on the mat.

Working Towards Lotus: A Mini-Revelation

Yep, still trying to achieve Lotus.  While I’ve had some serious headway in other parts of my practice (my headstands are literally taking off, and I’m discovering flexibility that I’ve never even dreamed of experiecing before), Padmasana remains a distant dream.  Being an endurance athlete, with triathlon being my drug of choice, I’m pretty sure that I am hindered by tightness that builds up in my hips, knees, and feet from pounding those long miles on the run and bike.  Yoga has helped keep me strong and healthy as I prep for triathlons, but I can’t say that triathlon’s repetitive motions do much for my yoga practice.

Since I’m not willing to give up triathlon at this point, I’ve had to find other avenues towards flexibility.  For a long time, I believed that my biggest hindrance was tightness in my knees and feet.  However, I found a video yesterday that was something of a revelation.

Patrick Reynolds argues that the key to achieving Lotus lies almost exclusively in flexibility in the hip joints.  While this may be a “duh” statement for most of you, I hadn’t put together that my tight hips has led to my Lotuslessness.  While I’ve looked to my feet in the past, I’m now working on Wide Legged Forward Bends and other such hip openers.

This moment of insight makes me wonder what else I’ve missed.  Of course, this is a huge question and doesn’t simply pertain to yoga.  When it comes to seeing the forest or seeing the trees, I’m usually a big picture kind of girl, favoring wide vistas to individual pines, oaks, and birches.  Yet it seems when it came to Padmasana, I got caught up on the details; I wanted to work on my feet and knees when I should have seen how open hips lead not only to Lotus, but to a wide variety of other poses as well.

So maybe the truth of the matter is I’m not as “big picture” as I’ve always thought.  Maybe I’ve become hung up on trivialities (getting into certain poses, working on specific projects, worrying about momentary emotions) rather than seeing the big pay offs, such as finding repose in daily practice, or leading the kind of life that makes me happy, regardless of what others may think.  And maybe there is no pay off; there’s just life.  We can choose to sweat the small stuff, or we can live the big picture.

I’ll continue to work towards Lotus, but with the big picture in mind: playfulness, contentment, acceptance, and love, not just for those around me, but for myself.

Dreaming of Hanuman

My dreams are usually pretty vivid.  When I wake up, I can normally recount the dream, complete with sensory details and emotions.  I’m a fairly lucid dreamer as well; I know when I’m dreaming, I can sometimes change the course of the dream with a bit of effort, and I can wake myself up if things aren’t going well (like if some crazy beast monster is chasing me).

However, last night’s dream was neither vivid nor lucid.  I can only remember one thing, and I was fully convinced that I was not dreaming.  This was my dream: I was able to achieve full Hanumanasana on both sides, no sweat. 

Photo courtesy Yoga Journal

This is crazy talk for a couple of reasons. First, as a triathlete, I am constantly at battle with my hips, which are more often than not tighter than the hips of an 80 year old woman. It takes serious coaxing and patience to get my hips to cooperate during yoga. However, yoga has been the only thing capable of keep my hips healthy, and aside from a tight IT band every now and then, I can attribute yoga to keeping me relatively injury free. 

Secondly, in my dream, I was fully convinced that my ability to do Hanumanasana was real, that I had been doing it for years, and that it was the easiest pose in the entire world.  Au contraire.  I have never been able to get anywhere close to full Hanumanasana.  In fact, I can’t remember a time in my life where I was even relatively flexible.  I was kicked out of gymnastics as a kid for being too tall and too rigid. 

So, if physically achieving Hanumanasana is nothing but a goal right now, why was my dream mind so convinced that I’m capable of it?  Not to get all psychoanalytical on you, but what is the message of this dream?

I have a couple of theories.  First, Hanumanasana requires intense openness, and a willingness to put aside the impossible.  To echo the story of Hanuman, it is literally a leap of faith.  Perhaps it is time to reestablish a beginner’s mind, to look past what I think is possible and attempt to achieve things I’ve never even considered before.  Maybe the dream is a subtle message to myself to try a little openness. 

Secondly, Hanuman is representative of devotion, as his unwavering devotion to Rama gave him the power to do great things in the name of his beloved.  Maybe it’s time to reassess my loyalties, to honor those who deserve it and fix my attention on loved ones who need my help. 

I suppose if I take the dream literally, it could be telling me to work on my bendiness and make Hanumanasana a featured part of my daily practice.  While this could be a good thing (my hips could use the work for sure), I’m leaning towards a more symbolic interpretation.  I’ve always been more of a Ganesha girl myself, but there’s plenty to learn from Hanuman.

Coming back

A whole lot can happen in the matter of a couple of months.Yogically, I feel I’ve made some real progress.  I’ve established a solid home routine that I actually make time for, which is helping me out in all other aspects of life.  My work towards full lotus is…slow.  However, it’s not stagnant.  I can do half lotus on both sides in relative comfort now, but the whole shebang still eludes me.  I’m confidant I’ll get there someday soon.  I’ve taken an inversions workshop, and I’m loving headstands more than a normal person should.  New perspectives, and all.  I’ve learned more about chakras and mantras, and I’ve incorporated them into my practice.  All in all, yoga has been very good to me.

There’s always a reason why bloggers take a break from blogging, and for me, it had nothing to do with a waning passion for the topic of my blog.  In fact, if anything else, yoga has become more instrumental to my daily life.  Maybe I had to take a break because so much of what I was experiencing was, well, not yogic.  There was a lot of pain, a lot of adversity, a lot of crap.  And while I know these moments of doubt and hardship are the perfect moments for practice, my yoga just wasn’t string enough to deal with it all.  So I retreated.  Hastily.

But in the past few months, my practice has strengthened and so have I.  I’m ready to be back.  I’m ready to try to add something to my little corner of the blogosphere, and maybe help people find their own healing practice.  I’m done retreating.  It’s good to be back.

 

Doing more with less

Perhaps it’s the economy, or maybe it’s backlash from our culture’s over the top materialism, but minimalism has been strangely hip for the past couple of years. Ironically, there is a plethora of websites dedicated to all things minimalist (which again, smells subtly of irony), and there are more minislism blogs than you can shake a stick at. One blog even has a list if the top ten minislist blogs of 2011. Needless to say, minimalism is cool, which makes it decidedly uncool to people who profess to be cool, or to those who were minimalist before the boom.

Now, I cannot rightfully claim to be a minimalist in any sense of the word, but after a month of moving, reorganizing, and downsizing, I see the appeal. It’s the same reason I’m drawn to yoga: when it all comes down to it, you really don’t need special clothes or fancy equipment (although stretchy pants and a mat are definite bonuses). All you need is time, dedication, and a little knowledge of the asanas (or a solid yoga DVD). In my other athletic life, I compete in triathlons, which are all equipment, all the time. Yoga provides a solace of simplicity unavailable in other activities and lifestyles, which leads a girl to wonder how much “stuff” we really need.

Which leads me to the point of this post. I normally don’t do the whole resolution thing, but as we spent the last months of 2011 hauling junk from one house to the next, I think a resolution is in order. So here it goes: for each day of 2012, I am going to throw away or donate one non-trash item. This resolution is not a massive overhaul (I’m not going minimalist overnight or anything) which makes it all the more likely that I will succeed. It’s also an immediately noticeable resolution; each day, something is going out the door, making space for more positive energy in the house. Finally, this resolution just feels right: it feels simple, and freeing, and yogic. While others may be striving for more, I will be striving to be happier with less.

Here’s to a simpler, happier 2012.