Owning the Yoga Shadow

dark yoga practice
Photo by Runs With Scissors

When we first start practicing yoga, or find a style we enjoy, initially it can feel like a torrid love affair. Our most beloved instructor, guru, style, or even specific yoga postures reflect our most prized qualities and can become the subject of infatuation. Yet over time, as in life, we may fall out of love with our instructor, the style, or yoga culture as a whole, and question whether yoga is really the practice for us, as expressed in a recent blog. This process is a natural progression, and reflects the same patterns that we bring to our relationship to life off of the mat.

For all that is light in this world, there is a corresponding darkness, as depicted by the Taoist yin-yang symbol. As a microcosm of the macrocosm, each of us embodies both the idealized self (light), and the shadow self (dark). These correspond to our cycles of infatuation and disillusionment, characterizing our relationship to the world around us. As we blogged earlier this week, our default state craves and orients towards feel-good experience (reflecting our idealized self), and shuns those that are triggering or uncomfortable (reflecting our shadow self).

However, Buddhism instructs us not to strive for what makes us feel good, happy, or high on life (though these states are to be celebrated when they naturally arise), but to accept the full spectrum of experience. Suffering arises as a consequence of grasping after what we want (reflecting our idealized self), and avoiding what we don’t want (our shadow). The more that we grasp or avoid, our attempts toward fulfillment are frustrated, for these ultimately strengthen our samskara (ingrained behavioral patterns) and perpetuate suffering. The practice is to honor our innate tendencies in either direction and bring them into balance, recognizing when we are disillusioned or in a state of obsession. When left unconscious, however, these aspects engender suffering.

Case in point. In my years as an intern at Kripalu Center, I was fortunate to attend many yoga workshops. The Kripalu approach is very freedom-based; this vibes well with my shadow, characterized by deep resistance towards authority. In studying intense and alignment-based forms of yoga, resistance arose when program assistants or instructors would inevitably tell me to tuck my ribs in, lengthen my tailbone, or be other than I already was (“Don’t tell me what to do,” I would retaliate internally; “I’m perfect as I am!”). I especially hated Anusara yoga, with its fake rah-rah’s and ridiculous alignment obsession. Yes, this pattern had cropped up elsewhere in life!

When I started getting injuries, I realized that my freedom-based practice felt delicious, but perpetuated my postural (and psychological) imbalances. My favorite classes and poses exaggerated my hypermobility, when my body needed greater strength and stability. Despite intense resistance, I started to attend more Anusara classes, opened myself to receiving postural assists, and integrated postures that my body didn’t naturally gravitate toward. Ultimately, I grew to love the increased freedom in my body resulting from the openness, structure and strength these practices imbued.

In time, my orientation toward relationships followed suit. Where I once viewed committed relationships as a form of bondage, I began to see them as offering great freedom and opportunity for spiritual practice. Indeed, commitment can be conceptualized as a willingness to illuminate and embrace the shadow, while tempering the expectations of the idealized self when both inevitably arise in asana, life, or relationship. This is exquisitely challenging; as anyone who has tried swimming upstream can tell you, the default currents (our samskara) are highly resistant to change. Yet this is the path of the yogi. Unearthing the authentic self occurs when we commit to the fullness of experience, embracing our darkness as well as our light.

Have you experienced your yoga shadow?

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