Claiming a New Inheritance
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’ve probably come to discover that it doesn’t make your life any less intense. In fact, practicing yoga increases your capacity to be present to what you’re experiencing, and thus you feel more. And since life throws you all kinds of experiences, feeling more doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the vision of peacefulness and balance you may have imagined yoga would create in your life.
But giving yourself permission to feel more does give you the ability to be more connected to the life that you are living, and to the people with whom you share your life—a prospect that is perhaps equally desirable as it is unsettling.
If you’re anything like me, there are people with whom you learned, perhaps many years ago, that it’s not safe to feel what you feel around them—they’ll make fun of you, they’ll ignore you, they’ll lash out at you or in some way hurt you when you’re most vulnerable.
My grandmother was one of these people for me. When I was a young girl we were quite close, as she would baby sit me while my mom slept during the day because she worked nights as a nurse. But as I got older my grandma’s patterns of being emotionally closed, hurtful and manipulative, especially to the women in my family, started to appear. I closed my heart to her. I became polite around her, and guarded.
When she fell and broke her femur at nearly 90 years old, I knew immediately that I needed to fly back east and try to break my defensive pattern with her before she died. After all these years of practicing yoga I felt like I might be able to do this—to stay open and undefended and allow myself to feel what I felt without anything about her, the situation or the past needing to be different.
However, it wasn’t until the last hour that I was there caring for my grandma that I moved past my emotional shut down. I was alone with my grandma during a rare moment when she was calm, conscious and recognized who I was. Aware that this was the last time I would see her, I finally just let go and wept. I didn’t care if she ignored me or snapped at me to stop, I just couldn’t not feel any longer.
To my amazement, she took my hands and pulled me onto her chest. Without saying a word she stroked my hair and patted my back as I cried. I stayed crying on her chest long after she had fallen to sleep.
Never in a million years would I have imagined that my grandma and I would have shared a moment like that, vulnerably meeting each other in the reality of the present moment and the fullness of our emotions without trying to change or control anything.
I’m struck at how hardly any of us know how to do this: how to simply feel what we feel without trying to manage, contain or control the external situation or our internal response. Most of us did not come from families that modeled this, and we certainly don’t live in a culture that fosters it. Like my grandma, we’re doing the best we can.
I completely understood when two of my mentoring clients said this week, “I feel like I can’t breathe!” Trying so desperately to control the triggering external circumstances in their lives and to resist their powerful emotional responses, they were panicking. It was as if they were flailing in an ocean of their own emotion, not able to make it to the surface, and quickly running out of air.
But the point of conscious living isn’t to get to the surface. The point is to be able to relax under the surface of our experience.
The other evening a friend showed me video that he took while snorkeling in Hawaii. I could hear the waves pushing up against the rocks above, but underneath the water…aaaaahhhh…that sense of timelessness, effortlessness and pure presence. Even watching it on a computer my body relaxed.
It’s as if practices like yoga and other body-based modalities that increase our capacity to feel our physical and emotional body are metaphorically about learning how to snorkel: we learn how to exist on that thin plane between worlds. Having spent so much time trying to keep our heads above water, we now find that we have the resources to breathe and to open ourselves to experiencing the marvels and mysteries of what’s below the surface. And not merely as a spectator, but immersed, engaged and fully a part of the experience.
And so I encourage you: practice giving what you’re feeling more space. Start with feeling your physical body in a yoga posture and then what you feel on the emotional level will reveal itself to you. When it does, give yourself permission to feel what you feel.
That doesn’t mean that you have to break out in sobs or scream in a fit of rage right there in class, but that you simply allow the tide of the emotion to move through you, be fluid. Given space, sometimes the feeling recedes naturally. Sometimes, however, it requires a good cry in your pillow when you get home, or some solid punches on a punching bag at the gym. Dare to see that as part of your practice, too.
As you make more space for what you feel whether on your mat or off, know that you are becoming integrated. You are becoming more yourself. And not just that, you are creating a new emotional inheritance for your family.