(Dear Reader, The inspiration for this blog came from co-teaching a New Year’s Day class with Anna Ottolino. Anna and I wished to convey that our yoga practice should aid us in growing and evolving. That we should greet, rather than gloss over negative emotions such as anger and frustration–that such sentiments are excellent teachers when we move through them rather than avoid them. While putting together our class plans, we reflected on the roles people play and how it’s familiar to “stuff” emotions. Suggestion #4 (below) came from the book Anna shared during our January 1st class. I hope you enjoy my very candid blog! If this resonates with you, please share with others.)
By Julia Jonson (she/her)
As a child, I remember my mom telling me to “act like a lady.” I know she meant well each time she called me “young lady” before correcting my so-called “unladylike” behaviors such as being overly inquisitive, having strong opinions, or using humor to gain attention. As I grew into a young woman, societal norms taught me that my intensity was akin to “acting like a bitch.” When I entered the world of work as a television newscast producer, I experienced the double standard of “direct and assertive” labels my male colleagues received vs. my “she’s not nice” designation as I objected or spoke my mind.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve embodied civility, good manners and quietude about my accomplishments. Yet, there’s far more to me than merely niceness and humility. There’s ambition, courage, passion and fierceness; and there are countless times when I’ve suppressed these qualities to appear friendly or to appease others. All too often, I’ve defaulted to deference and, in the process, downplayed my abilities. Cultural expectations assigned to my gender identity remind me that if I object or voice my opinion, I’m no longer a “lady.” Please don’t mistake this for a feminist rant, rather a call to all of us to openly accept that we are complex beings who cannot be put in a box; it’s better to be authentic than play a role laid out for us by someone else. We must listen to our inner voices beckoning us to be genuine so that we don’t constrain or destroy ourselves.
There is a harmful misconception pervasive in the Western yoga world that negativity is unspiritual. There’s often an air of “good vibes only,” or using statements like “it’s all good,” even when it’s not all good. The term “spiritual bypassing” means pretending that everything is okay when it’s not. Coined by psychotherapist John Welwood, spiritual bypassing is using “spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks.” This flawed, avoidance thinking may cause yoga students to think that they can only come to class if their “energy is good.” The mistaken idea that one would be better off leaving their fervor and egos at the proverbial door often leads to “stuffing” emotions before entering the very place to help in processing them. In other words, your toxicity is welcome in a yoga class and something to be worked on, not buried.
Here are five practices that help me to manage challenging emotions and live authentically in a world filled with expectations and labels.
- Acceptance – I don’t like that there is a double-standard for women, and it’s been harmful to my mental health to internalize calls to be ladylike or to think my behavior isn’t “nice” when I’m assertive. However, I can accept that such norms exist, acknowledge my thoughts about them, and consciously choose to act in a way that is authentically me. I can do this without internalizing someone else’s standards. Taking it a step further, experiencing shame or frustration around this societal norm is natural. No one likes negative emotions such as humiliation, sadness, rage or resentment, yet avoiding them makes things far worse. Accepting that we are complex beings with a range of convictions is the first step in addressing issues instead of suppressing them. Research shows that burying negative emotions lead to anxiety attacks, headaches, weight gain, and other health issues.
- Action – The hallmark of a yoga practice is taking action. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Yoga is skill in action.” In a yoga asana class, this is the experience of awareness of the physical body’s actions. We can take action in our daily lives by shining light on areas where we need to make changes. Refusing to make waves, continually striving to keep the peace and people-pleasing has left me exhausted, angry and has even spurned migraine headaches and panic attacks. I’ve found two phrases to be good medicine and I am putting them into practice. They are “I can’t do that,” and “no.” I’m even aware that saying these statements might surprise others or make them mad, especially since I’ve been in the habit of saying “yes” for so long. However, in the long run, adopting the understanding that I can’t do it all is better for my mental and physical health.
- Practice – It’s much healthier to openly state limitations instead of bottling up emotions and possibly committing to something too much. I practice yogic techniques in the same way; I can practice telling others how I feel, even though it wasn’t a skill I learned growing up. Habits are ingrained and difficult to change, but it’s possible. The more I voice my genuine thoughts and acknowledge my limitations, the better I’ll become at these things. Hitting the mat becomes like a rehearsal. When I feel some discomfort in a posture, I can breathe consciously and train my body and mind to stay a little longer. Dealing with pain during yoga makes it easier when I’m facing ugly situations in life.
- Expression – In her book The Gift, 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, Edith Eger writes, “If you’re not actively, consciously, intentionally releasing it (anger), you’re holding onto it. And that’s not going to do you any good. Neither is venting anger. That’s when you blow your top. It might feel cathartic in the moment, but others foot the bill. And it can become addictive. You’re not really releasing anything. You’re just perpetuating a cycle–a harmful one. The best thing to do with anger is to learn to channel it, and then dissolve it.” Clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt says that “suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs. We know that it can affect blood pressure, memory, and self-esteem.” Eger suggests driving into the woods and screaming where no one can hear you as a means of channeling anger. In our home, we go outside together for a brisk when we are angry, and we also allow ourselves to talk it out until it dissipates. After all, you can’t enjoy positive emotions as much without learning how to ride out the negative ones.
- Prayer – While the struggle may indeed be real, I’m continually reminding myself that there is nothing noble in the struggle. Asking for help with a contrite heart from my Higher Power has helped me more than words could ever express. Having faith in something that is much more significant than me is comforting when burdens seem too big to bear. I’ve heard atheists and agnostics use kismet, fate and karma to describe their connection to faith. Regardless, saying my prayers multiple times each day helps me stay true to my values and connect to my true self.
Just as I am a product of my upbringing and society, my mom was a product of her mom’s attitudes about ladylike behavior. Life can be complicated, and our actions and beliefs can be hard to make sense of at times. Yet, acting overly idealistic or optimistic in the name of what’s socially acceptable is unhealthy. My hope for the new year is simple – for my authenticity and actions to be in alignment more often.
About the Author: Julia Jonson