Mental Distress: Yoga's Role in Healing Dissonance.
For many of us, summer holidays represent long days at the beach. For me, they represent long days of reading (as well as splashes in the ocean for good measure). All this time spent reading, however, has highlighted my own mental health challenges in some surprising ways, and reinforced how valuable yoga can be in assisting with recovery from distress.
So far this summer I've been re-reading Stephen Cope's Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, and Geneen Roth's Women Food and God, as well as discovering Matthew Sanford's remarkable tale of his traumatic collision with paraplegia and subsequent recovery through yoga, in his memoir Waking. I've then continued reading about the body's role in trauma recovery with Stephen Levine's In An Unspoken Voice, and am now half way through Yuval Noah Harari's astonishing, epic (and often overwhelming) Sapiens.
As I read through such a breadth of history, memoir, philosophy, and research, my mind - and mood - swings between elation (at the experience of learning and absorbing so much valuable insight from enriching practitioners and scholars), and the bereft doom of an existential dilemma (as I try to grapple with a rate of reading that often out-paces my capacity to integrate what I'm taking in).
In Sapiens, Harari comments that this swinging - or cognitive dissonance as it's also known - is in fact an essential aspect of the evolution of human culture. While we might wish to have everything neatly tied up in ordered theories and succinct truths, in fact we are all constantly re-calibrating ourselves as we try to balance incongruent human dilemmas. As Harari states, this dissonance is "often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset" (p.184). In other words, we must each learn to settle into the fact that we - and the world around us - are rife with contradictory messages, impulses and tendencies. I am at once ensconced in a delighted enjoyment of reading, and simultaneously wish I hadn't read any of the things that challenge - and therefore require change - regarding my preconceived ideas about the world, about healing, about yoga or about myself.
We all do this in our own ways. We love being with our children and simultaneously long for solitude. We relish a hedonistic dinner of wine and desserts with friends whilst simultaneously holding the value of pursuing ultimate health. We value the cultivation of peace and serenity whilst harbouring a simmering resentment towards someone who did us wrong years ago.
Thankfully yoga has a few things to say about this state of contradictory affairs.
Since the word yoga means to 'yoke', or to experience union of opposites, this state of cognitive dissonance is the ideal ground from which to practice yoga. By noticing that these emotional opposites are floating around within us - and influencing our moods and actions in various constructive or destructive ways - we are in a position to make choices about how we might respond to our experiences, rather than react, thereby cultivating wisdom and unified inner experiences.
If I am unaware of the specifics of this dissonance within me, It is likely to show up in a vaguely confusing way in the form of depressed-mood, irritation, or anxiety. If, however, I am practicing the yogic method of witness mind - which observes each contradictory emotion or impulse as it arises - I can see clearly what is causing this dissonance, and thereby choose whether to take a break from reading, or continue on with the understanding that it is slightly stressful on my system, or perhaps try something entirely new in response.
However I choose to act in accordance with what I witness, yoga offers another essential tool in living with this inevitable dissonance - it also gives me tools to sit with the emotional contradictions with compassionate acceptance. Rather than believing I've done something wrong by feeling dissonant, I can soften to the inevitability of this fluctuation, and in doing so, relieve a great deal of my suffering. Though the dissonance itself remains, I am no longer at war with myself for feeling it.
So, while I continue to read an integrate (and occasionally freak out about what I'm learning) you can be sure that I will also continue to get on my yoga mat and allow this practice - which draws my focus towards the language of movement and sensation, rather than words - to support me in my response to language overload.