Why I stuck with yoga even when it got ugly
Recently, a very dear friend and fellow survivor introduced me to Linda Sparrowe, yoga teacher, former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine, and past managing editor of Yoga Journal. She’s a participant on the upcoming panel discussion, “Yoga Continuum: Facing Challenges with Courage and Compassion”, as part of a collaboration between Naropa University and Yoga Journal. She kindly asked me to detail my experience with yoga as therapy. I share her questions and my answers below:
How have yoga and meditation helped you in your own journey through diagnosis, treatment, remission, and even recurrence?
When I began practicing yoga 4 years ago at the age of 39, I had no idea how much of me was broken. At 18, I experienced intimate partner abuse at the hands of my boyfriend, who was also 18. The relationship didn’t last more than 6 months, but my life and outlook on life changed forever.
For 2 decades, I suffered from, without realizing I was suffering from them, depression, alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). My inner world was out of control, but I thought I could compensate by controlling my outer world. My perfectionistic tendencies ran the gamut: I had to look perfect from head to toe; I had to get perfect grades; I had to perform perfectly in my jobs; I had to have a perfectly clean and ordered house; I had to look like I had a perfect life despite the fact I hated myself. I didn’t even understand why I hated myself, which made hating myself that much more intense and burdensome on my mind and spirit. I became obsessed with food and acquired an eating disorder. I feared criticism and didn’t want anyone to think I was stupid. So one degree wasn’t enough. I had to go for advanced degrees and certificates, anything to prove my worth and value. Just being me wasn’t enough.
At 39, I escaped another short-term abusive relationship. I was lost. I wanted to kill myself. Luckily, I had family who loved and supported me. But even that didn’t seem like enough.
Then I discovered yoga two months before my 40th birthday. Within a few weeks of practicing, I overcame my binge eating and bulimia. Within 6 months, I quit drinking and was finally diagnosed with PTSD. For good and bad, my yoga practice opened the pathway to all of the repressed memories and denial I had been trying to bury for years. All the harm inflicted upon me by myself and others surfaced. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I thought I was going crazy, because, for the first time since I was 18, I was facing all of myself head on, and I couldn’t look away. Yoga unveiled my inner being, and my inner being wouldn’t allow me to look away. This process of going inward and seeing myself “naked” was painful, humiliating and shameful. Initially and despite practicing yoga almost daily, I fell even deeper into the pit of darkness and self-hatred.
Fortunately, the side effects of my bottom were short-lived, because yoga helped me find my voice. I wrote and self-published my first book in 2012, “Escaping the Boy: My Life with a Sociopath”, which highlights my last abusive relationship. From there, I created and maintained a blog on which I purged myself of more “stuff” and connected to others in the process. At the end of 2014, I self-published my second book, “Unashamed Voices: True Stories Written by Survivors of Domestic Violence, Rape and Fraud”, which features 38 first-hand accounts of abuse submitted to me by visitors of my blog.
And I feel like that’s only the beginning of my life’s work.
Last year, I completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training, because I not only wanted to deepen my practice and understanding of yoga, but I want to give others the gift yoga gave to me: my life.
I teach yoga twice a week and yoga nidra guided meditation once a week. Over time, I plan to transition away from my corporate job as a web content developer and trainer and into teaching yoga and being a health coach full-time. My deepest heart’s desire is to help as many people as I can escape their pain, shame, and humiliation and awaken as I awakened.
How are yoga and meditation sources of healing, understanding and acceptance?
Yoga taught me acceptance and letting go. At the heart of yoga, I learned:
1. Compassion for all living things. The first I had to master was compassion for myself.
2. Being perfect is unattainable, because nothing is permanent except change, so there is no such thing as a state of being perfect.
3. How others treat me is about them and not me. How I treat myself is what matters, because how I treat myself is how I will treat others. I want to be good to people, not indifferent, mean, or nasty. It’s a daily exercise to elevate my levels of self-love and self-trust.
4. The humiliation, shame, and pain I experienced doesn’t mean I’m weak or unworthy of love; it means I’m human. I’m perfect just because I’m me. Yoga taught me that.
And, what would you put in your own yoga toolkit that you could draw upon as you face aging, illness, or even death?
To never stop. To keep going. It’s never too late to live or take another breath toward a more fulfilling life. Life is the absence of the fear of growing old and dying. Life is love. Death just happens.
Is it possible to explain why yoga? Or, maybe more precisely, what it was about yoga itself that allowed you to trust the process? That allowed you to stick with the pain of investigation and self-inquiry? What can yoga do for us that, for instance, talk therapy can not? How did yoga help you find your voice and feel comfortable and safe sharing it? How did it help you find more compassion, courage and perhaps patience with yourself?
First and foremost, my teachers, their patience, and their spirit of acceptance kept me motivated. I felt safe with them. I didn’t feel judged in their presence, which allowed me to be less critical of myself. Reciprocity of energy and vibration. If I fell out of a posture, my teachers would either encourage me to try again or encourage me to let it go for the night and try again the next night. No need to become frustrated or angry with myself, they’d say. It’s only yoga, and tomorrow is another day. Wow! That was a lot for my perfectionist nature to handle and accept. But my teachers made it effortless for me. I was never made to feel like I failed, like any attempt was a poor attempt, or like I had to attain a certain level of expertise or experience before becoming a yogini. I was permitted to be a yogini the second I walked onto my mat for the first time. Being accepted and respected without the need to prove myself worthy…that’s a powerful motivator.
And because my teachers were so good to me, I wanted to be good to me. I found myself surrounded by acceptance, and peace washed over my hypersensitive nature which was normally agitated and accustomed to being preoccupied with seeking acceptance from others. This unconditional acceptance from my teachers on the outside allowed me to be focused inwardly on my journey into a new frontier of self-discovery, self-acceptance, and self-love. My entire perspective shifted because my teachers showed me so much love and acceptance, and they didn’t even know me outside of the classroom.
Despite how tough my inward journey became at times, I refused to give up on myself. If I gave up on myself, I saw it as giving up on my teachers and all the love and kindness they freely and generously bestowed upon me. If I felt like giving up, I’d grab my mat and head to the studio. I always had my teachers, my breathing, my asana, and the collective energy of the studio to ground me. And for me, an introvert and highly sensitive person to rush to people rather than away from them for energy and motivation, that’s heavy.
Today, I’m more inwardly motivated and look to my personal transformation the past four years as proof that this thing called yoga works…for me. So why give it up? Why stop? I keep learning more and more and getting healthier and healthier. I’ve been 100% medication-free for over three years! No therapist would be able to do that for me, because 1) people on drugs keep therapists in business; and 2) no therapist understands or would believe that medication acts as a band-aid and blocks the user from finding their inner power. Medication couldn’t cure or heal me; medication kept me numb and lifeless. With yoga, I learned that being in motion and being in tune and aware of my body, mind, and spirit is the only path to resurrection, renewal, and an authentic life. Disease and sickness don’t stand a chance against the detoxifying power of perpetual motion, which keeps the mind open and the body successfully moving in the direction of health, homeostasis, and balance.