The lights were dim. The faint smell of incense lingered in the air. Soft, relaxing music was playing, and the gentle sound of rain could be heard dancing down the windows. It was the perfect setting for a morning yoga class, and I was reveling in the bliss.
Yoga had become my therapy, my medicine, my path towards wholeness. Over the last few years my yoga practice had evolved from a way to relieve my body of the physical pain from several troublesome injuries into the vehicle allowing me to navigate deep inside myself, a place I had vehemently avoided for most of my life until lately.
Often during past practices, thoughts, memories, judgments, comparisons, to-do lists, and any number of things distracted me from being mindful and connected with my body, breath, and the present moment. As a trauma survivor, tuning in to the sensations of my body and feeling my breath was a challenging encounter. But today, my mind was in a state of calm focus, permeated by a warm feeling of connection to my intuition, heart, and the flow of my breath, feeling it emanating smoothly, deeply, and rhythmically. I was truly experiencing a state of contentment.
As a class, we finished the last few asanas (postures) before our final pose, Savasana. Planning to read a passage for our reflection during relaxation, the teacher revisited the theme she had skillfully woven throughout our entire practice: Acceptance.
Based on the teachings from Yoga philosophy, yogis strive to practice an attitude of acceptance, as if everything that happens is what we choose for ourselves. When we can connect with the full range of experiences in life as if it was a gift from the Divine, without getting caught up in our attachments or expectations, it helps us to feel more peaceful and balanced in life and reduces the amount of suffering we experience.
I had personally been exploring the practice of acceptance earnestly for the last few years in recovery, and I was excited for the opportunity to receive the wisdom she had to share.
The teacher prefaced the reading with, “Now I know none of us in here are criminals, addicts, psychos, or murderers... or are even friends with those kinds of people... but try to understand the context in which this was written for the deeper meaning to be revealed...”
The teacher haughtily laughed and tossed her hair from her shoulder, preparing to deliver the passage to us.
Everyone in the class laughed. Except me.
My heart stopped beating. My breath caught in my throat. I felt as if I was suffocating, and everything went black.
I couldn’t move.
I didn’t hear her read the passage. It didn’t matter.
The message I interpreted in that moment was: if you have one or more of these labels, your worthiness is seriously in question here.
Identifying with multiple labels she had listed, I was mortified. The relaxing pose I had been savoring moments before suddenly became torturous.
My heart started racing, my breath shallow and rapid. Thoughts swirled in my mind so fast I couldn’t even make sense of them – What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. How could I have been so stupid to think my past was behind me? I felt physically ill.
What previously was a safe and welcoming community was now threatening. I sensed a stark reminder of my unworthiness creeping in as my stomach, jaw and neck tightened and my hands and feet went numb. I felt unwelcome, unsafe, and scared. I felt judged. I was angry. Hurt. Confused.
I wondered if I could ever come back to this studio. I wondered if something like this would happen at other studios. As yoga practitioners, weren’t we supposed to extend the practice of acceptance to others and not just to the situations in our own lives?
The very purpose of attending yoga class in a community setting was to connect to my innate worth as a human and share that connection with others for continued growth and self-awareness during my recovery. While I used to suffer alone, isolating myself from any means of support and encouragement, I now craved the nurturing atmosphere and inspired hope that filled the yoga space. But that sanctity was just compromised by the judgmental laughter from the teacher and class members.
I felt subject to mockery and ridicule, as if the teacher was implying that “those people” she labeled were in a different category from everyone else, not worthy of the same respect and not allowed the privilege yoga provides for everyone to heal and grow.
Laying there in Savasana, I recognized that my triggering was due to the personal relationship I had with those labels and my intense fear of anyone using them to define me. I began to reflect, watching where my thoughts went and observing the sensations and emotions as they surfaced in my body.
My original addiction was one that people never noticed; in most cases, it was even praised by society. I am a recovering perfectionist, over-achiever, and people-pleaser.
As a young girl (and before I knew anything about being an empath), I realized I could feel and sense things other people didn’t seem to pay attention to. I acutely experienced people’s emotions and energy and sought out ways to help them attain comfort and serenity.
I adopted people-pleasing habits before I understood what was happening. Additionally, living in a household that prided itself on outward appearances and expected things to be done perfectly the first time, I became overly focused on external validation. With years of practice, I was thriving as a top-notch overachieving people-pleaser.
Most of my life, these qualities afforded me many friends, involvement in countless activities, numerous note-worthy achievements, plus praise and high responsibility from bosses and co-workers. But along with these accolades came a never-ending list of things to do and balls to juggle. When people asked me how my life was going, my response, without hesitation, was a resounding, “Busy!”
In my jobs and personal life, I was the person people would come to when they had a life crisis, relationship question, health issue, needed to vent, wanted a laugh and healthy dose of inspiration, or were overcommitted and needed practical help or a project done well. Quite predictably, I would humbly acquiesce to their requests and demands, setting aside any priorities of my own to accommodate theirs. While it brought me joy to be able to give to others, I lived in constant fear of letting someone down and not being perfect. I was training myself to believe that other people’s wants, needs, and feelings were more important than my own.
I had struggled internally with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness since I was a teenager and mistakenly developed the belief that my self-worth was determined by what other people thought of me. I thought that if I accomplished more, helped more, succeeded more, then I would be worth more.
So I searched for outside validation, and that validation affirmed my beliefs, feeding my addiction. The more success I accomplished and praise I received, the more I depended on it. The more I shared compassion, attention, and assistance with others, the less I had left for myself. My boundaries were non-existent.
This was not sustainable, and inevitably my feelings of unworthiness spiraled into a complete lack of self-love and total disconnect from myself. I found more destructive ways to numb out and disengage from my feelings, fears, and needs. After sleepless nights, I used caffeine as a drug to wake up in the mornings, and chronic insomnia led me to self-medicate with alcohol to wind down in the evenings. Tuning out the messages my spirit was gently whispering, I continued down a path of self-destruction. Accompanied by a series of abusive relationships and encounters, plus on-going harassment in my work environment, I disconnected, isolating myself further instead of finding support. I stopped caring completely and fantasized about leaving this painful existence.
Giving so much of myself to others left me feeling depleted, overwhelmed, exhausted, and at times even resentful. The precious time for the self-healing I desperately needed never occurred. Agonizingly aware something wasn’t working in my life, I was clueless how to change it. Instead, I continued blindly driving myself deeper into the addiction of trying to be everything to everyone.
My journey to wholeness and healing was when my yoga practice began its transformation to a life-changing, therapeutic modality. Yoga enabled me to see that like everyone else, I am a work in progress. I don’t have to get it right the first time. I reminded myself that babies crawl before they learn to walk, falling time after time in the process. Why did I think I wasn’t allowed to fall a few times when I was trekking through life? By practicing the ancient art and science of yoga, I learned to accept and implement gradual changes in thought and behavior, facilitating the ability to successfully stand on my own two feet.
I became acutely aware of the self-criticism in my mind as I attempted challenging poses and judged myself harshly for my less-than-perfect execution, noticing how I interpreted the teacher’s praise of another student’s performance as a criticism of my own not being good enough. I came to understand that by telling myself these stories, my mind preferred to keep me trapped in self-sabotage, but having the perspective to recognize that was becoming more natural and offering me an understanding of my thought patterns. Something deep in me yearned to learn more...
Read the rest of my story at www.endpain.com