Sometimes, in the yoga community, it seems that what we are always trying to do is feel good and happy and positive. Smile at all costs!
Of course we all want to feel good, but if we gloss over the moments when we have “negative” emotions, we can miss out on a lot of learning. Loneliness can move us, anger can light a fire towards action, and sadness has its own unique richness. These uncomfortable emotions are an important part of our internal compass, and can teach us a lot about our choices. The most rewarding things in life—building a career, raising kids, having a long-term partnership—must involve some moments of emotional difficulty. If they were easy and sweet all the time, they wouldn’t be nearly as valuable to us. Plus, they’d be a bit boring.
Mindfulness practice doesn’t give you the superpower of instantly turning your dial from stressed out to elated. Rather, yoga and mindfulness can teach you to step back and notice the emotions you are experiencing. When I’m in a bad mood, for example, I don’t scramble in my yoga toolbox for some quick way to make it stop. I pause to ask myself what’s going on. Am I hungry? (It’s usually that I’m hungry). Am I upset about a certain interaction with a friend? Perhaps I need to acknowledge a mistake that I’ve made and apologize. Am I grieving something? Let me grieve. The bad mood teaches me to ask myself what I need, what I have control over, and what I need to let go.
In French, if you are in a certain kind of bad mood, you say, “J’ai faim,” which translates as “I have hunger.” In English, we say “I AM hungry.” The French way describes the state as something that is happening in passing. In English, we talk about it as if we are completely embodying that state of mind. This also happens with other mind states: when we say “I am angry,” we are telling ourselves that we are completely inside of that state, and nothing else exists for us. A simple syntax switch: “I am having some feelings of anger,” implies that anger is one of the many aspects of our complex experience, and that it will eventually pass. Our brains do respond to the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, and it’s amazing what a difference changing our language can make, even if we don’t say anything out loud.
I’ve been practicing this syntax switch, and it has not only made uncomfortable emotions feel more manageable, it also creates enough distance between the emotion and me. I can look at what I’m feeling and ask it questions. It’s much harder to slip into completely embodying the emotion Incredible-Hulk style. This allows me to see myself more clearly and create a path towards appropriate action rather than mindless reaction.
The whole purpose of yoga is not to try to escape the ups and downs of life and maintain a calm sense of equanimity about everything. Rather, the purpose of these practices is to learn tools to have a complete and full experience of our lives—good, bad and ugly. When we learn to apply this work to our everyday lives, we can learn to delight in our ugly moments, and make the complex experience of our lives richer and much more interesting.