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The Yoga of Darkness

By Return Yoga on Monday March 7th, 2016

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By allowing our fears to arise we create an opportunity for healing

Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion. – Carl Jung

I once had a student who started to drift away and began to look sheepishly apologetic when she did come to class. She avoided my eyes and had an invisible wall around her mat. She used to ask questions or chat after class; now she was the first out of the room and gone from the studio by the time I’d left my mat. Eventually, though, we did talk a little. She told me things were busy. She talked about her kids. Then she looked somewhere into the middle distance and said she didn’t know, really; yoga just wasn’t working any more.

Sometimes, she said, all I feel in child’s pose is anger and disappointment.

Alt text hereSometimes we feel anger and disappointment during our practice

Negativity is part of the path

Yoga has a corner market on feel good words. I recently had a massage therapist tell me we were both in the ‘feel good industry’. The promise of ‘enlightenment’ tends to make us think we will be more spiritual, and this somehow means we’ll be a little less freakish about time, our kids, our money. There is truth to this. Yoga can show us how good it feels to be alive.

But yoga will also show us exactly how badly we feel. Usually, when honest emotion starts to come up, students leave. They skip class or decide yoga wasn’t what they wanted. They say ‘it’s not working any longer’. The emotion itself keeps them away; they’re ‘not in the mood’, ‘too busy’, or ‘too depressed to move’. They will – trust me, this is real – feel guilty for feeling so crummy when others are just trying to get their savasana on.

This doesn’t indicate that the yoga isn’t working, but that it IS. The end isn’t this negativity, this disappointment. But negativity is part of the path, and it has to be gone through if you want to understand it, to understand yourself, at all. If you don’t, you’ll be shutting down half of your experience of life, and probably the best strengths you’ll ever find. If you don’t, you’ll continue to skip, overcompensate, repeat, and lull. You’ll segue irritation into nicety, stuff it, and it will erupt later as rage toward an intimate or yourself.

Alt text hereMany students give up on class when honest emotions arise

Yoga is about honesty, not bliss

Most of us have spent the majority of our lives stuffing and repressing our feelings, rationalizing them, avoiding them, or sublimating them into exercise, food, cigarettes, television, shallow relationships. Women are taught not to feel anger because it’s not nice, not feminine (or too feminine and bitchy, emotional, hormonal and out of control). Men are supposed to feel competence, all the time. In our efforts to feel better, many of us start shutting it off, wholesale, in favor of pop psychology or easy spirituality. It’s called spiritual bypass. It’s an attempt to avoid painful feelings, unresolved issues, or truthful developmental needs with such words as ‘Everything happens for a reason’, ‘God’s ways are not our ways’, or ‘Choose happiness’.

There will be a yoga class, someday, online or at your local studio, where your teacher will start singing. She’ll say ‘exhale’ as if there’s something orgasmic about it. She might allude to the goodness of your heart, your hamstrings, or the light inside.

If you are like me, this may make you clench your bandhas like a fist. There may come a day you lower down into child’s pose, “sweet, receptive, safe” child’s pose and feel nothing but boredom, irritability, and dis-ease. You keep lifting your head off the mat, looking at the clock. There may come a day your brain starts swearing at the lovely yoga teacher saying something vapid about love in your newly blossomed chakra.

Alt text hereYoga is about honesty not bliss

Here is the thing. Yoga is not about bliss, but about honesty. Spirituality is not certainty, but the longing of the heart. Enlightenment is not ‘letting go’ of bad feelings, but understanding them, what they’re doing to us, and how they are expressed in the body. Non-harming and forgiveness are not about feeling generous or big enough (bigger than and condescending), but knowing the difficulty of right actions and assuming responsibility for the difficult. Forgiveness often comes directly out of acknowledging how bloody bitter we are. Love is not joy, all the time. Sometimes, love hurts. Love is raw.

Yoga is a love story. Not the fluffy, romanticized love story, but the real one. The kind that leaves you changed.

Emotions are doorways, ways in. The goal is not to exist without shadows, to become so spiritual we no longer feel fat, bored, envious, or impatient. The goal is to swallow hard as we take on willingness to go into the dark.

Alt text hereBeing brave enough to walk through the darkness to get to the light

Passing through the shadows

Because yoga asks you to work with both your body and your mind, the inevitable result is going to be messy. There will be times the body itself will start in on anger, hot and fast, trembly, without the reasoning mind having a clue what is going on. There will be days the boredom or loneliness seem so sharp they may actually wound. There will be five thousand ways your mind will tell you it isn’t worth it, it won’t work, that love is not real.

Yet, yoga has probably already given you a clue to this. You’ve probably already felt how love – whether it be romantic or ethical, compassion, right living, making a solidity of your name – is the only thing that is real. The highest and best in human beings is subtle, mysterious, and tied directly to the shadows. Life is both unbearably cruel and devastatingly sweet, often at the same time.

The shadows will show up. Go there. Apathy, acedia, what Christian mystics called desolation, existentials call despair, moves when we move toward it. It isn’t the passage of time that heals us, but the passing through experiences.

Alt text herePushing through the fears and giving yourself a chance to release

Watching things fall away

There are hundreds of things telling us to ‘get over it’, to ‘think positively’, or to ‘let it go’. Be wary of these as the roadside distractions that they are.

Yoga is the love story where in things fall apart. God moves away, often at the same time he takes away the ground. First goes this, then goes that. Gone are the thrill of the first months of yoga class, the ease of learning something new every time you walked in the door. Gone is the schedule that allowed you class three times a week. Gone is the strength in your shoulders, the ability to keep on a diet. Gone is the confidence of conversion.

And then a small movement in the heart. And then two.

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Words By Return Yoga

Originally posted on returnyoga.com

 

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comments

  • Margaret

    Worth signing up for as we look to yoga for bliss and when faced with our own negativity we feel disconcerted to say the least. It may take a lifetime to find this out but we learn so much and develop on this journey.

  • Shanti

    I don’t do Yoga,but I know about these feelings over flooding me.There are days,when I am peace and other days in the same situation feeling like a scared child isolated with no hope,and in this state I loose my resource to speak to other people,to trust,to help myself…..Even the colours are changing into dark.
    It’s so very good to read this artikel,because around me there are no people with understand what’s going on inside me and they try to tell me the:Hey,you must look at it positive or avoid me.So I stay on my own,where I don’the have to smile,when I feel horrible and tired of it.But it is sad,because if more people do shadow work,they would understand each other and what they need in these hurt able moments.This is what heals so much deeper and faster,then to do it alone.
    I really appreciate this artikel,because it shows me,that I’may not alone.
    Thank you very much.❤

  • trisul

    Yoga is about discovery of the truth, so I agree, it is ultimately about honesty, about discovering the reality of the situation, not an imagined artificial bliss. However, as you work through your emotions, pains, fears, issues and you “pass through the shadows”, you will run into the bliss that was always there. When this become repeatable, sit down, practice, attain that blissful state, the pain is just as real as the bliss, just as honest … but more attractive.

  • Dechen Karl Thurman

    Wonderful and refreshing realistic article that describes the process of yoga. Impartiality is the goal, not positivity. Neutrality feels very good compared to reflexive unexamined suffering, so the hippies and colonialists can be forgiven for their escapism and denial which led to translating Samadhi as “bliss” rather than “objectivity”. Claiming that yoga causes irreversible happiness actually distracts a yogin from recognizing and valuing neutrality. Compared to an unrealistically “happy” state of mind, samadhi can feel like a slap in the face or a bucket of ice water over the head. Thank you this is an important counterpoint to unrealistic expectations consumers can begin to project at a provider.

  • Anne Saloyedoff

    Real emotion and baring it to your fellow yogis in class was not something I expected or was ready for when it happened. Thankfully my teacher was. She covered me with a blanket in Savasanah and let me weep. I will be forever grateful to her for being so compassionate and knowledgeable at what was the beginning of my true yoga journey.

  • Lurelle Godfrey

    This is where i am now in my practice. ..real yoga experience , never thought it was like this, was always looking for the perfect practice….my practice is messy , emotional, hard, painful and fantastic all at the same time. Lol thank you so much for this article , much love xxxx ???

  • Patriot 312

    FINALLY. This is just where I’m at. Been going through some major stuff lately and wondering “where’s the bliss?” I decided that the bliss is in working on myself getting through the darkness. I don’t believe I’ve found a more accurate description at any time or any place before. Thank you!

  • Lisa Pratt

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I so needed to read this article today. The yoga world is a difficult world. I tire of the teachers who (at the forefront) act like everything is rainbows and butterflies and then shame if you feel anything other than bliss. Meanwhile, in the background they are backstabbing with shame. As a teacher and a student of yoga, my goal is to be authentic. I have Complex PTSD and I used disassociation as a way to deal with life until I found an awesome therapist who helped me to sit in the horrible discomfort of my feelings and to find an appreciation of myself and my feelings. The yoga world is largely teaching disassociation and it’s really difficult to see. Thank you for writing this article! Beautiful and perfect!!

  • punkrockyoga

    THANK YOU! I’ve been experiencing that for months now and I’ve never read something so deeply true. Thank you for giving words to what I’m feeling now in my practice.

  • This is so true of the yoga practice. I shared with a friend once that I’m not always enjoying every moment in my yoga class and many times I get confronted with my stuff and am being challenged. But I keep going because I know it helps me deal with my stuff that need dealt with. Yoga is definitely not bliss and is indeed a real love story with all the messy stuff. I really get to see myself with all my strengths and weaknesses which leads me to accept myself fully. Thank you for writing this. Namaste 🙂

  • Bevery Ann Leroux

    Hence, the absolute need for the Perfect Living Master’s guidance and protection…

    (Found this very interesting. It’s the first time i have ever come across anything like this cautionary piece. So many people, today… particularly young people… are focused on intense meditation and yoga, all on their own without proper protection.)
    ________________________________________________

    Personal Experience:
    I remember an elder I met at Unity during my time there. We connected and got together off and on as new friends. She observed me reading so many spiritual books and marked my desire to achieve Realization through spiritual practice… including chanting and meditation. I’d begun to follow a spiritual teacher on a path of Bhakti Yoga.

    This woman interrupted me during one of my blissful sharings and told me: “You are foolish to be playing around with this Energy. You have no idea of the Power you might unleash that you will not be capable of controlling.”

    I had completely forgotten about this instance. Now I realize why Master told me that I was to give up meditation until after I was initiated!

  • Bevery Ann Leroux

    Also, I remember vividly, early in my Spiritual journey, experiencing anxiety and imbalance. I was in a relationship at the time with someone who had gone through this process more than twenty years before. His reassurance really calmed me when he said he had had similar experiences… that it was a ‘normal part of a seeker’s journey and that it would level out in time. Shortly thereafter, I found myself drawn to The Path.

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