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.

 

Advertisements

Online Teaching and Tight IT Bands

adult apple business business woman

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Three years ago, I made the leap from brick-and-mortar teaching to online teaching. There’s a lot to be said for online teaching: there’s literally no commute, your schedule is more or less your own, and it doesn’t require the same amount of extroverted energy that is often difficult to muster for introverts like me. In a lot of ways, however, online teaching is very similar to brick-and-mortar teaching. I work long hours, I’m often up way too late grading papers, my dreams are usually filled with teaching nightmares where I’ve forgotten my lessons or my computer has crashed, and my stress level usually goes through the roof.  Yoga does help with this last one, although it can be hard to make time for your mat when you have tons of work waiting for you once you’re done.  Oh well.  This is the life of a teacher.  Word to the wise for all you wanna-be teachers: don’t do it unless you really have a passion for it.  Seriously.

One unforeseen consequences of teaching online hit on one my biggest physical challenges: extended sitting time always results in tight IT bands.  Always. This is true for both brick-and-mortar and online teachers. Being a teacher is rough on your body.  Brick-and-mortar teachers spend most of the school day either standing in front of the kids (usually in shoes that, while fashionable, do nothing for your feet) or kneeling by their desks, and then they spend hours sitting while they grade and lesson plan.  Ouch.  My IT bands are always touchy as we get to the end of the school year, which is super annoying, as this is also marathon training season.  Tight IT bands + lots of running = sad yogi.

While foam rollers and massage are an awesome way to tackle IT problems, yoga also provides some relief (although yoga can be painful with tight IT bands).  Here are some of my favs for tight IT bands, which I will be using profusely for the next couple of weeks until my body can unwind itself (ouch).

  • Revolved poses, such as Revolved Triangle or Revolved Side Angle
  • Half Pigeon, Supine Pigeon, and Double Pigeon (the latter is especially helpful for me, but again, ouch.  This pose is also called Firelog Pose.  Why can’t we agree on a single name with some of these poses?  But I digress.)
  • Marichyasana C
  • Frog Pose
  • Legs up the Wall Pose (this relieves a lot of the pressure we put on the IT band)
  • Reclined Spinal Twists
  • Low Lunge

Another thing to keep in mind is that the It band itself isn’t responsible for it’s own tightness.  As a big stabilizer, the IT band is connected to lots of other problems areas, all of which you have to take care of if you want a healthy IT band.  Think about your postures, strengthen your psoas, wear the right shoes…all this “extra” stuff comes into play.  More than anything, avoid sitting for long periods of time.  I’m talking to YOU, online teachers. Get up, shake it off, do a couple of the poses above, and then get on with your day.

The Unforeseen Consequences of Mysore

For those of you who have been wondering, yes, I finished the mysore training.  It was an amazing experience, and although I only got to Navasana and then picked back up at Urdhva Dhanurasana to prep for the closing sequence (my tight feet got me caught up on Marichyasana B and D for several days), it created a routine and a dedication to yoga practice that I’ve never really owned before.  Sure, yoga has always been a draw for me, and I’ve always dreamed of achieving some of the beautiful postures featured in magazines and websites, but mysore provided a real, steady practice, one that starts where I am and lays out a viable path towards where I want to be.  Physically and mentally, it totally rocked. 

However, there was an unforeseen consequence.  I found myself caught up in the opening and closing prayers, dedicating my practice to a higher purpose (sounds cheesy, but totally true).  I was amazed at the progress my body was making, and thus discovered a new sense of gratitude and wonder at the engineering of nature.  My Savasana was quiet and complete, and I felt content, really and truly content.  Little did I know that this new found contentment would be challenged in the days to come, rocked by events that were largely out of my control. 

In short, life has been incredibly tough lately, and the mysore training inadvertently (or maybe advertently…who knows) gave me the fortitude to see it through and make some significant and positive changes.  Yoga really does have the power to change lives, and those changes can go far beyond the physical if we’re willing to let them.  I am grateful for my teachers, for the ability to practice, and for the boldness to stick out when things got rough.

Namaste. 

Image

Mysore: Day 14

This weekend was a big test of my burgeoning Ashtanga skills. 

I’m a mere 14 days into mysore practice and I’ve been slowly building up my repertoire of asanas.  The trick is remembering all the postures in the correct order without having to refer to the handy dandy cheat sheet my studio provides for new students.  While I can usually get by without the sheet, I also have the security of being in a studio with my ever-watchful teacher keeping a close eye on my progress and making small corrections here and there.  In other words, my location has been my security blanket.

However, we spent this weekend camping, which was the perfect opportunity to put my new Ashtanga knowledge to the test.  I laid out my mat in a relatively flat spot at the edge of our camping site and started my Sun Salutations, sans cheat sheet.  It was actually pretty nice to be detached from those small elements of security, and I spent most of my practice in a much more mindful and intentional place.  Was my practice perfect?  Um, no.  But when is it ever perfect? 

I ended each of my two camping Ashtanga sessions feeling satisfied and kinda proud of my mini-accomplishment.  I didn’t even mind the stares from the neighboring campsites.  Interestingly, I saw someone else practice Ashtanga on a public pier very close to our campsite.  I only watched him for a minute or two, but I recognized the sequence right away.  I wanted to cheer for him or go say hi or something, but that would have been awkward.  Plus, maybe he was practicing from a more mindful place that day.  Either that or he had hidden his cheat sheet very carefully. 

Two more weeks of mysore to go…

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.

Asana Saturday: Prasarita Padottanasana

Today is Saturday.  Today we rest.

I’ve only been at it for a whopping five days, but it felt strange to not wake up at the crack of dawn this morning and head off to mysore practice.  In fact, I slept in.  Like, really slept in.  Like, my husband had already been up for two hours by the time I bothered to start stirring.  Okay, it was only 8:00, but for me, that’s huge.  When you live with very young children, anything past 6:30 is a miracle.

Anyway, not having any new postures to learn this morning, I tool some time to reflect on what I’ve learned thus far.  I’ve shortened my stride and taken a toe hold in Trikonasana; I’ve changed the placement of my bottom hand in Parsvakonasana; and (this one threw me off for a couple of days and still feels kinda weird) I’ve stopped grabbing my ankles during the forward folds in the Sun Salutations.  Thus far, no asana has been an enormous, oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-it kind of challenge, but as I’ve mentioned before, following the exact sequence, everyday, in order, and according to the guidance of my teachers has required a paradigm shift for this very independent gal with an ever so slight I-know-what’s-best-for-me kind of attitude.

For example, yesterday, I learned Prasarita Padottanasana, or wide-legged forward fold.  My teacher gave me all four variations, although she warned that most people get mixed up on when you bring the arms up, when to look up, when you place your hands on your hips, and so on.  It doesn’t look at that confusing, but when you’re in the flow of the postures, it can be very easy to forget what comes next, especially when it’s brand new.

The punk in me wants to question why we have to do it this way.  What does it matter whether the arms come up or not?  Or whether you look up before folding forward?  And because I couldn’t help it, I did ask my teacher what the purpose was behind this very specific and mystifying practice.  She agreed that yes, some of these minute details seem arbitrary, but she reminded me that the theory behind the Ashtanga sequence is that every movement helps prepare the body for a more challenging pose (she actually pointed out Supta Kurmasana as the apex of the Primary Series, with everything leading up to and then cooling down from that moment, although I’m sure there’s room for debate there).  When the arms come up, it’s to rotate the shoulders in a certain way.  When we look up, we’re elongating the spine to deepen the forward fold.  So while it may seem tedious to have to memorize these details, there’s a reason to the rhyme.  This isn’t something I have to “deal with,” though; it’s something that will help me move forward in my practice.

See, I don’t always know what’s good for me.  Another paradigm shift.

Here’s a good video for learning the ins and outs of Prasarita Padottanasana:

I think it’s smart to note that modifications can be made to suit your ability level.  As for me, I take a block at its lowest height under my head so I can make contact (can’t quite reach the ground yet).  Do what you gotta do.

Mysore: Day 5

It’s day five of mysore practice, and the little lessons just keep on coming.  Yes, I’ve been given a few more poses (all the wide-legged forward folds today…lots of “where do I put my arms again?” moments), but there are learning opportunities to be had outside of the asanas as well.

I had heard the term “drishti” before, but the concept seems to be emphasized more in Ashtanga than in other yoga practices.  Drishti is simply a gazing point, something on which to fix your attention during an asana.  For example, in Triangle Pose, the drishti is the upper hand; in forward bends, it usually the big toes.  All said, Ashtanga yoga uses nine specific drishtis, all of which correspond to particular poses.

Since learning more about them a mere five days ago, I’ve found that the asana doesn’t feel complete until I’ve fixed my attention on the appropriate drishti.  And more than complete the pose, using a drishti really allows me to hone in on my own practice, as opposed to gawking at the much more accomplished Ashtangis around me.  I think we’ve all been guilty at one time or another or sneaking a peek at our neighbors, either to check out their pose or their yoga attire (I admit it: I dig yoga clothes).  But working towards a drishti allows you to recenter and to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.  Plus, it’s more difficult to be satisfied with your block-supported wide-legged forward fold when the gal next to you is doing the full splits.  Or maybe that’s inspiring?  I don’t know.  Either way, the practice of using drishtis has personalized my practice, helping me to come back to me.

Interested in learning more about drishtis?  Check out this article from Yoga Journal.