Self-study vs Therapy

IMG_3720As established in my previous post, there are many similarities between the yogic practice of svadhyaya and the Western practice of therapy. 

However there are a couple significant aspects which set them apart. The Yogis realized there are essentially two major challenges to therapy, the first being the fact that causality is an “infinite regress” – that is, if we get overly concerned with trying to determine where our patterns come from, we can unconsciously get lost in what is essentially a bottomless process.

For this reason, the Yogis realized it is essential to keep our focus largely on perceiving patterns themselves rather than excessive focus on where they come from, which can easily shift from awareness to affixing blame.

The second major challenge with therapy is, the deeper we go into our challenges and issues, the easier it is to unconsciously trigger old patterns or even “re-wound” ourselves – that is, instead of stepping beyond our past, we can unwittingly get caught up in it. 

For these reasons combined, the Yogis realized, in order for self-study to be effective, we need two additional processes to compliment and support it: the first is checking our personal experiences with the wisdom of those who have gone before us, a process the Yogis referred to as “scriptural study,” and the second is cultivating awareness of our thoughts so we can see we are unconsciously falling into old patterns, a skill achieved through meditation. 

One of the major challenges with self-analysis is the tendency to unconsciously shift from observation to “dwelling” or ruminating – obviously processes that not only don’t contribute to stepping out of our patterns but in fact tend to deepen them.

Therapists who work with those suffering from trauma are especially aware of this issue, supporting their clients in staying mindful and in knowing it is always okay to “step back” when we fall into re-wounding or the dissociation that can take place when diving too deeply into past suffering.

Through our practice of yoga, including self-study, we are building awareness of the constant dialogue of our minds. The more we develop this skill and tendency, the better we get at seeing when we move from objective reflection on the past into brooding or lamenting or blaming. We are building our capacity to redirect our minds – again, during meditation or asana practice simply toward our given focus (towards Muladhara chakra for example) but over time this skill translates to the ability throughout our days to pull our minds away from unhealthy focus toward more constructive ones. 

 In the case of self-study, this gives us greater power not only to see when we fall into critical thoughts (of ourselves or others) but to purposefully redirect our minds toward thoughts that are more healthful, shifting for example from blame or shame to compassion and commitment to forward movement. 

Your thoughts? Comments? I love to hear what you are thinking and experiencing. 

Source 

Journaling, Self-study & How They Helped Me Break The Chains of Addiction

  My children, dog and husband don’t often listen to my suggestions, so I am delighted to hear that some of the yogis that joined yesterday’s chakra realignment class have started journaling! Not just because it’s quite a novel and pleasant feeling to have someone pay attention but because it indicates a willingness on your part to take this journey of self discovery to a deeper level. 

As I mentioned, you will get wonderful benefits from simply attending the classes or starting a home practice of chakra balancing, as my beautiful friend and co-teacher Victoria suggests over on her blog. However by journaling, you are consciously investing yourself more in the process of svadhyaya, or self study: the fourth niyama in the 8 limbs of yoga

In Sanskrit, sva means “self’ and adhyaya means “inquiry” or “examination”. Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies. I should know about this one: as someone in long term recovery from substance abuse, I am wired to sniff out dangerous territory. More about that later. 

The better we know ourselves, the better we are able to choose circumstances that are most harmonious and productive for us, including lifestyle, social interactions, ways of learning and growing. Ultimately, this allows us to not only experience more joy but also to find ways of contributing to the world that fit our disposition and therefore are more powerful and beneficial to all.

In addition, greater self-knowledge also helps us be more aware of our “less-than-ideal” patterns, whether part of our inherent nature or from past conditioning. The more aware we are of our challenges and issues, the more mindful we can be when they arise, allowing us to guide them in healthful directions rather than falling into unconscious patterns, such as fear and anger, which tend to prevent us from thinking clearly. 

Here’s a personal story: svadhyaya (and professional help, ultimately) helped me to recognise a very dangerous pattern of self-medicating with alcohol when I found that I was feeling unsafe emotionally. It was a coping mechanism that had gone haywire – serving me (to a point) when I was a teenager, struggling to come to terms with being raped, refusing to go to therapy and unable to make sense of anything in my world. 

What started as a desperate clutching at anything to numb the pain ended up as a full-blown addiction. That’s a story for another day, but the practice of yoga and svadhyaya shone a light on all these patterns and is one of the main reasons I am where I am today, free from the terrifying chains of addiction.

Understood this way, what might at first seem a “self-centered” practice, ultimately becomes a bridge, not only to ourselves but also to others – that is, through greater awareness of our own issues, we can reduce the likelihood of falling into them during our interactions while also increasing our compassion, realizing even those who have very different issues are at heart wrestling with the same basic challenging process of self-awareness. 

At this point, you are probably noticing many parallels between self-study and therapy, and there are many. However, there are a few significant aspects which set them apart. 

I will be exploring these in my next post, so for now would love to hear any comments on how you are finding this process of self-study, any comments or thoughts. 

Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n Roll. Kind of.

Okay, not quite. But ‘rape, wine and guitar lessons’ doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as glibly.

Anyone who takes their interest in yoga beyond the mat and into the texts written on the subject will come across Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which refers to the ‘eightfold path’, also known as ‘ashtanga‘ which literally means ‘eight limbs’ (ashta = eight, anga = limb in Sanskrit). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life: ‘they serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health and help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature’ (I quote shamelessly from Yoga Journal’s http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158).

The limbs make sense to me in a way that a lot of other ‘moral truths’ or ‘rules’ don’t. Not every limb or even every part of every limb resonates entirely with me but as a whole I find them a very helpful guide to living a ‘good’ life.  They work for me on many levels.  The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Stick with me if your eyes are starting to glaze over – I’m getting to the point).

Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. Incidentally, I don’t say grace but I do give thanks to all sentient beings who were involved in preparing the food that I am about to consume. It blows my mind every time I do it. 

Breaking it down further: the five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (non-covetousness) and the five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (heat/spiritual austerities), svadhyaya (study of the sacred scriptures and of the self) and isvara pranidhana (surrender to God or a higher being as you know it).

Now svadyaya is where the rape, wine and guitar lessons fit in. Svadhyaya or self-inquiry ‘encompasses all learning, reflection and experience which is said to result in a greater understanding of our own fundamental nature. Self-study is perhaps the most crucial of the niyamas because at some point we must all reconcile to the fact that although higher consciousness is within everyone’s grasp, no guru, priest or other person can do the work for us’. Or, in  my case, no psychologist, marriage therapist, trauma counsellor, friend, parent, sibling or social worker.

I’ve never kept it a secret that I was raped when I was 14. Ten days after my 14th birthday, to be precise, in my own bed, in  my own house with my parents and sister sleeping soundly in their own rooms. It goes without saying that it was a terrifying and traumatic event in my life and affected each and every one of us in all sorts of ways. We all went through our own processes of dealing with it and the fall-0ut that ensued, and as I found myself heading towards my mid-thirties, I remember feeling quite good about how well I’d handled it and assimilated the experience into the rich tapestry of my life. Ha! How I smile fondly at my younger self when I think back on that now. As it turns out, it took me having my own two children and deepening my 20-odd years of precious yoga practice before I really started seeing things the way they actually were, and that what I thought was me finally coming out of the wilderness was actually me just starting to enter a dark and very convoluted path through a very dense forest with lots of scary beasts lurking around every ominous corner.

They say that the teacher appears when the student is ready. I give thanks on a daily basis – (literally, every night when I write in my gratitude journal) – that a kick-butt band of phenomenal teachers appeared at the very moment that my walls truly started crumbling and my eyes started opening to what a catastrophe my emotional life had actually become.

The last number of years have been a massive, massive growth curve for me. With the help of these incredible people and the svadhyaya that I speak of above, I came to see how what had been a coping mechanism for years (drinking wine to make the bad times bearable and the good times better) had gone completely haywire and was starting to badly affect not just me but some of the people closest to me. I came to admit for the first time how utterly horrific, sad, heartbreakingly awful the rape was. How it had affected our whole family. How a mask that I had learnt to put on as a confused and hormonal teenager became a permanent feature that eventually I didn’t even realise that I could take it off if I wanted to. I had no idea how to.

The Yoga Sutra says that as we progress on our path of self-study ‘we develop a connection to the universal Divine laws and the spiritual masters who revealed them. It is not only meant for those dedicated to matters of the spirit however but has great practical meaning for anyone who recognize there is room for improvement in our lives’ – and frankly, who doesn’t! ‘Svadhyaya represents an ongoing process through which we can assess where we are at a given moment. It is like attuning our inner navigator and finding meaningful answers to questions: Where am I now, and where am I going? What is my direction, and what are my aspirations? What are my responsibilities? What are my priorities?’

We often find ourselves on cruise control, acting habitually and being so swept up in the momentum of our daily lives that we don’t take the time to check where we are or where we are headed. It’s  not been painless to stop and take stock of all that I was doing that was entirely automatic and unintentional and downright destructive at times, but it’s been worth it and it can surely only continue to be worth any discomfort or work. I’m told that that uncomfortable space is exactly where transformation happens. The mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. To take the forest analogy a bit further (bear with me, I know it’s tenuous): I am not out of it yet but it’s no longer a tunnel at the end of the light that I see, rather the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s hard to look away from that gorgeous light because it’s finally straight ahead rather than winking at me from around yet another corner. I feel like I’m walking into the light. It’s warm, it’s safe, it’s beautiful and it’s so welcome in my life.

Oh, the guitar lessons (aka rock ‘n roll): in the process of embracing the bruised 14 year old who is and always will be very much a part of me, I’ve dusted off my old guitar and started to take lessons again – after almost 30 years, at the ripe old age of 40. My teacher is an uber-cool musical whizz-kid who is young enough to be my child, but we seem to get on well and share a love for all things jazz and blues so it’s surely a matter of time before I’m carving out a career as a rock chick.

On second thoughts, I’ll stick to teaching yoga.

For more about the eightfold path and to see where a lot of this post stems from, visit http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158.