I had a sense that the Easter bank holiday weekend could bring upon us the self-consciousness that comes from being thought lazy or making less than healthy choices!
So I wanted to address the concept of “feeling guilty” in last week’s classes.
Experiencing a feeling of guilt from time to time is an important and natural function of human conscience. It serves a role in the development of an ethical sense, discouraging us from harming ourselves and those around us. A modicum of guilt when recognising our overindulgence, or when blurting a damaging, snarky remark, helps us modify such behaviours in the future.
This type of natural guilt is also reparable - you can make amends, ask for forgiveness, and pay your debt. Once the transgression has been addressed, the guilt should dissolve.
However, while natural-guilt may prompt us at times to return to a healthier path, or to keep our criticism of others in check, no amount of remorse will make us perfect, and may well actually create a major obstacle to personal growth if left unaddressed.
Guilt is heavy baggage and we do not want to carry it around.
Allowing guilt and shame to fester and turn toxic within ourselves, leads to an underlying sense of not being a good person, which in turn causes negative self-talk and bad feelings that can, in fact, be out of proportion to the original guilt-causing-offence itself.
Thus it is important to learn how to recognise and deal with our feelings of guilt when they arise, so that they no longer have the power to program us from the inside.
And this is where our yoga practice may come in handy.
There are, as we know, a lot of conflicting and contradictory messages in the Yoga world. More often than not, we associate words like enlightened, skilful, balanced, aligned, mindful, fun, and even sexy with yoga practice. Thanks to social media, and our cameras living in our pockets, there is a trend toward making yoga practice look idyllic. Shots on beaches, with well-behaved babies, pets, romantic partnering, glorious arms and legs and flexible spines, permeate our consciousness on a daily basis.
However, when it comes to our own practice, the reality is that we often feel confused, lopsided, awkward, scattered, struggling, and unattractive in our yogic efforts! Our humble, sweaty attempts at pyjama-clad sun salutes in our cluttered living rooms are a far stretch from the marvelousness that is the picture-perfect yogic lifestyle!
Then, no matter how many times Yoga attempts to remind us that we are there for our own practice, and that non-possessiveness, non-grasping, and non-greediness are yogic virtues, these tendencies arise within us and we compare ourselves to others anyway! And so comes the tidal-wave of “feeling guilty” along with all of its primordial self-hatisms - “I am not good enough, or thin enough, or poised enough, or smart enough”.
So Yoga can be a bit bitter-sweet when it comes to guilt.
Ultimately though, what our yoga practice does do is to ask us to reflect on our actions and behaviours towards ourselves and others, and teaches us the value of “ahimsa” – non-violence.
Ahimsa is the first Yama (the necessary self-discipline that allows us to head toward the fulfilment of our dharma, or life purpose – see last week’s blog!) in the Yoga sutras of Patenjali. Therefore, allowing feelings of guilt to take over and alter our thoughts and behaviours in a harmful way is actually detrimental to our journey on the yogic path.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, world-renowned psychologist, author, and peace maker, teaches in his book “Nonviolent Communication” that guilt and shame are the most internally violent emotions we possess. Often we jump through hoops not to potentially harm another person, but we will so readily “beat ourselves up” with negative self-talk!
Guilt and shame are the inevitable toxins of any belief that equates our worth based on actions rather than our “Being”. Yoga is a practice that helps us understand ourselves as a Being - a divine member of the oneness of all things and valuable simply because we are. Therefore, yoga reminds us that we are human beings, not human “doings.”
And when our Yoga practice is used as a tool to explore our feeling and to help us remember what really matters and who we really are, our guilt and shame can be turned from neurotic over-processing into a means of learning and expansion. By investigating where our guilt is coming from and what kind of guilt we are feeling, it is easier to see how to get rid of it (making amends for something, working through it, or simply letting it go). Eradicating our guilt means that we are practicing internal non-violence; we are able to realise that when embarrassment and guilt no longer serve us, they can be left behind—just as a snake sheds the skin that was limiting its growth.
As human beings we all make mistakes. And sometimes, despite our best intentions, we do things that we know are not good for us or other people - and we feel guilty for it. But Yoga encourages us to develop an exquisitely scrupulous conscience, by holding ourselves to the ethical standards of the yogic path, making it harder to let ourselves get away with insensitive or harmful behaviour.
Our yoga practice therefore teaches us to have a healthy relationship with our personal guilt, so that we do not agonise over guilty feelings. Instead, we are able to use them as signals to change our behaviour and make self-love part of our yoga practice, building ourselves up instead of beating ourselves down.
When we start to do this regularly, the world seems much more bright and beautiful. It becomes much easier to be kinder to the world around us, and magically it feels as if the entire world became kinder, less judgemental, and more compassionate too - because it did.
And as with everything, it started from within.