FEAR AND SELF SABOTAGE
In my 20’s, before I dove into the study of yoga, navigating challenges within my close relationships often left me feeling overwhelmed, angry, withdrawn and shitty about myself. Looking back, I can see that the hidden cause of this kind of emotional dog pile was my own fear.
The fear was unconscious. Underneath the surface I was worried that I might do something to upset the people I cared about, which would lead to distance between us. So in moments of inner desperation I’d beat them to the punch. I’d get impatient. Ironically burning the bridges that led to what I was really craving: closeness and shared understanding.
What I didn’t know then but I understand now is that when I would attempt to listen to my loved ones talk about their troubles, panic would begin to fester inside me. Lashing out became the twisted strategy I used to cope with the emotions I couldn’t recognize or handle. It didn’t matter if their troubles had anything to do with me or not. I couldn’t sit with their pain without taking it on.
I was numb to my emotional experience in the present moment. Consequently, my go-to-sub-conscious-reactive-emotions became a recipe for self-sabotage. I was disconnected from any chance of responding with grace. This happened with my mom, with friends and family, with close acquaintances and in romantic partnerships. It was a tangled web, I know.
GETTING SOME HELP
One of the coping skills I learned as a kid was withdrawal. When things got chaotic in my environment I’d get scared, I’d recoil into myself, like a snail recoils into it’s shell. This technique helped me to stay small and safe as a little one but when I got older I wanted to stick up for myself so I learned how to lash out verbally, to be the aggressor. Underneath the withdrawing and lashing out, what I really wanted was connection. Neither one of these strategies was helping me get it.
By the time I was a young adult, relational challenges were conjuring a storm of emotionally charged chatter in my head. My life seemed overwhelming and I had no idea how to shift it, but I knew something had to change. I decided to start with myself. My intuition led me to Forrest Yoga, I went to Yoga teacher training on a hunch.
Forrest Yoga taught me how to check in with what was going on in my inner world while practicing yoga. The intense schedule, the challenging poses and high demands of yoga teacher training created a safe arena to investigate and reflect upon my response to stress.
The greater the capacity for self-reflection the more self-regulation is possible.
Through yoga I’ve learned the difference between the fully conscious choices that are available when I stay in the present moment, right here-right now, and being pulled into an automatic reactionary mental habit that stems from past programming.
Forrest Yoga taught me how to practice healthy self-regulating strategies, they eventually wore down the self-sabotaging strategies that were suffocating my ability to connect with others.
WE ALL HAVE THEM
Be they helpful or destructive, learning and applying coping strategies is part of being human, they help us to tolerate the disruption and agitation going on in our environment. Most people have unconsciously conditioned strategies going on all day.
Yoga has a name for conditioned patterns, it’s called samskaras, they influence the way we perceive and organize our experience. A conditioning from the past, samskaras are like mental, emotional and physical biases within the body and mind.
Unconscious strategies for reacting to distress were formed when we were tiny ones, from birth to four years. That’s when the basic “map of patterns” for how we relate with others was created. Because the patterns were developed so early in life there’s little to no awareness that they’re being played out, hence the term “unconscious”. The greater the intensity of the distress, the more likely we are to get stuck in the grooves of our old patterns.
So what do we do if the stress we’re experiencing is not life threatening but we react to it in ways that causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which further undermine our well being? What if we could experience a sense of space and a bit of time to pause before reacting based on our old conditioning?
It is possible to notice stress as it’s rising. From there it’s possible to take a deep breath and use it to make a little space, from the inside out.
When we’re in touch with what’s real for us in the moment we have a greater chance of responding to what’s occurring in a way that’s in alignment with our integrity and values, instead of reacting based on old conditioning. This takes training and practice. It’s not an overnight done deal. We can practice this skill in the heat of the tough moments (which is hard) and we can also practice it when we’re not triggered (which is easier), as a means for self regulation and preventative well being.
ONE TOOL FOR SELF REGULATION
One simple, yet profound tool that I’ve fallen in love with over the years is what I call a “body scan”. A body scan is about bringing your quality attention inward, it’s about noticing what you’re experiencing and feeling into your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your fingers and toes.
A body scan helps you to drop into the present moment. Essentially you’ll be carving out sacred time and space to feel for what’s going on in your body. It’s all about learning to gift yourself your finest attention in the present moment.
When you practice a body scan you’ll be strengthening your ability to discern the specifics of what you’re sensing and feeling physically, also what thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. The simple act of directing your attention inward while also sensing your breathing is calming to the nervous system. This alone is a gift. An added result is that you may be able to realize, and then articulate, what your needs are.
Why body scan?
- Do it in order to be present with what’s real for you in the moment.
- Do it for preventative mental and physical health.
- Do it to check in with your current state: goodness, discomfort or otherwise. Give it all space to be here!
How to body scan:
- Awareness of breath body: First and foremost notice the rise and fall of your breath.
- Awareness of physical body: Take your awareness through your body. How’s are your muscles, your joints, your digestion feeling? Notice where any congestion, blockages, restriction or tightness is located in your body?
- Awareness of mental body: What are your thoughts? Is your mind clear or dull? Chaotic or calm? Alert or distracted?
- Awareness of emotional body: What emotions are you sensing? Can you name them? Where do you feel them in your body?
** When to do a body scan:
- For preventative measures, at a specific time or place: when you wake up or before you go to bed, or every time you get in your car, during a yoga session, etc.
- For preventative measures but on the go. For example, before you transition from one place to another, like from work to home but you’re still in the car in the driveway.
- In the moment: when you’re feeling overwhelmed and you can step away from the situation to give yourself a time out.
- In the moment: when you’re feeling overwhelmed but you want to stay with what’s occurring. (This is on the fly and challenging but it seriously interrupts old patterns and begins the forming of new ones).
** This list is by no means exhaustive, you may find other options that work better for you. I recommend trying one method at a time and sticking with it several times. Choose what works for you and your style.
Now that you’ve noticed, then you can choose to:
- In general, imagine you can calm your body, your heart and your nervous system with your slow, deep and easy breathing.
- Realize where you’re gripping. Trace the size and the shape of the restricted area with your breath and awareness.
- Imagine you can use your breath to gently create calm space inside your body.
After you’ve attempted to make some space:
- Ask yourself what you need next?
- Listen to what your intuition has to say.
- Name one small action step that you can take in the next moments or the next part of your day that will align you with your deeper values.
Incorporating a body scan into your bag of tools will allow you to:
- Recognize when you’re feeling good and in alignment with your deeper values.
- Learn to shift your internal state when it’s not aligned with your values.
- Strengthen your intuition.
- To hear the voice of your spirit (your deeper values).
NOW BEGINS THE PRACTICE
The term used for a yoga pose is “asana”, it literally means “to sit with”. A yoga pose is an opportunity “to sit with” what is arising from moment to moment with acceptance and patience, steadiness and ease.
Yoga off of the mat means learning “to sit with” the discomforts of daily life and relating: from washing the dishes, driving in traffic or feeding the children to romancing your sweetheart, disagreeing with your neighbor or cleaning up a mistake.
Before I dove into yoga study I knew I needed to expand my capacity to tolerate disruption, agitation and distress. I needed to learn to sit with the discomfort of what I was experiencing, before reacting. Fortunately, at this stage in my life I’ve garnered a little bit more skill and grace. Sometimes — but not always — I’m able to respond to stress in a way I feel good about rather than reacting in a way that leaves me embarrassed about my behavior.
Your automatic reactions during stressful moments might be different than mine, or they may be similar. Either way, being conscious in the present moment, then choosing to respond based on what’s current and in line with your truth and values takes a lifetime of effort to refine, but it can be quickened with intentional practice.
OVER TO YOU
Do you ever feel guilty about the way you’ve handled yourself?
Is it possible that you were reacting from an unconscious pattern that you’re ready to change?
Violation of values invariably produces bad feelings, while fidelity to them eventually makes you feel more authentic and empowered. Samskaras can be rewired. Make a stand for your autonomy and worth by recognizing and naming your individual experience at any given moment.
If you think body scan would be helpful practice for you, when is a good time for you to incorporate it into your routines?