I have this arrow tattoo on my wrist, and it basically sums up why I practice yoga.
I'll get into more detail on that shortly, but first I have a questions for you: Have you ever met a goal or life aspiration and found that it was anticlimactic?
You get the job, or increase fitness, or find the partner you'd hoped for.....it could be anything.....and you're a little shocked to admit that after a fairly short window of elation, you find yourself feeling a bit flat? This is no great surprise. And it certainly doesn't mean the thing itself wasn't worth achieving or aspiring towards. What it does mean, is that we may be approaching our aspirations with the assumption that they will make us feel 'good' in a reliably long-lasting way. If we approach life in this way, then we can feel like we keep meeting goals but we never experience the feelings we yearn for, for more than a little while, which can seem like we either failed, or it wasn't worth the effort. This is a recipe for either pushing ourselves even harder to achieve our desired feelings, or losing energy in a kind of long-term defeat. There's another way to look at these situations though - and it directly relates to why we can benefit from the practice of yoga.
I like to think of it as appreciating the least-worst option. Does this sound morbid? I assure you it's not. Most of the time we focus on our 'best option'. Our goals and our self-care most definitely tend to get caught up in this focus on being our best, and living our best life. And yet, when we focus on our best self, and our best life, it's all-too-easy to feel like we perpetually fall short. Instead, by appreciating that we're choosing our least-worst option, we can assume that while we may not feel enlightened, or joyous, or even remotely good on some days, we can be assured that we would have felt worse, had we not taken the least-worst option.
Yoga is the ultimate least-worst-option.
This week I was teaching a yoga workshop that focused on developing a home yoga practice. We were discussing the ‘why’ of practising, and the importance of being clear on your motivation to practice, rather than simply imposing a planned schedule of yoga sessions on yourself. What I shared with the group as my own primary motivator for turning to the yoga mat regularly, is that while yoga may not make you feel ‘good’ every time you practice, you can trust that - without doubt - it will make you feel better than you otherwise would have. This is a very powerful motivator.
Let’s just take for example that you’re having an incredibly tough day. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmingly anxious about an upcoming hurdle that you don’t know if you can overcome; or you have a recent loss of someone whose very presence made life feel ok; or you’ve been gradually declining into a grey zone of depression and inertia. Or maybe you just lost your car keys and feel mightily pissed off. The gravity of the situation matters less than the central question – have you been practising yoga regularly? If you have, then however you respond to this situation is almost certainly going to leave you feeling better then you otherwise would have. If you turn to the practice of yoga with the anticipation that it will make you feel good, and you finish your practice and head out into your day and find yourself feeling rotten, then the tendency is to say ‘clearly yoga doesn’t work. I can’t trust yoga, I’ll try something else. Maybe a sweet treat will do for my mood what yoga couldn’t’.
If, however, we practice with the assumption that while yoga may not make life glowingly fabulous every time, it will reliably give us the tools to wade through our dilemmas with some degree of grace, then we find it's pretty much always worth getting onto that rectangle of rubber and starting to move and breath mindfully.
To clarify...the question of whether you're practising ‘regularly’ enough is subjective. What constitutes regular for you might be a weekly yoga class, and for another person it’s ten minutes daily. For someone else it might be a yearly one-week visit to an ashram, or a weekend retreat twice a year. How do you know if it’s regular enough for your needs? You know, because you're moving through your days – no matter how exhaustingly hard, or glorious they may be - with less reactivity, emotional turmoil, and numbing behaviours (food, substances, gossip, zoning out, avoiding helpful self-care etc etc - we all have these tendencies) than you otherwise would have. In this way, you can rest assured that you’re practising yoga sufficiently, not so that you feel ‘good’, but so that you feel better than you otherwise would have, if you hadn't gotten on your yoga mat in the first place. For the majority of us, this involves showing up as often as we are able to. Even if it's in small increments of time. Truly - it's astonishing what ten minutes of turning your attention inward to the breath and sensations of the body can do for your physical and mental equilibrium.
In case this is still unclear, here's a story of how this applies in my own life. As mentioned, I have a small tattoo of an arrow on my left wrist. My best mate drew the arrow - but that's another story. The reason I (a woman who never imagined I would get a tattoo) have this mark on my wrist, is because I found a sutra from the Buddhist tradition that has impacted my way of experiencing my yoga practice - and by extension, my life - in a profound way. So, like so many others who have wrist tattoos, I wanted to see this arrow as often as possible to remind me of the message of this sutra.
The story goes that life shoots everyone with the 'first arrow’ ...this is the inevitable pain of life. The constant change and unknown of death, struggle, loss, grief, and disappointment. Everyone goes through these first arrows of life on a regular basis, from the smallest moments (such as missing the bus) to the largest betrayals or disappointments. Life contains many first arrows large and small. We cannot avoid it. HOWEVER...we tend to believe that we can avoid it. Our society tells us that if you just buy this thing, study this idea, try this technique, avoid this action, or mature enough into a responsible adult, then you will live in a state of constant harmony and avoid the first arrow. SO...when we feel the pain of the first arrow, what do we do? We blame ourselves (or others) for the fact that we feel pain, and in this way we shoot ourselves with the ‘second arrow’. We tell ourselves ‘I should know better by now’ or ‘I should have listened to my intuition/the advice of others’... or some variation of ‘I should have been able to avoid this pain. It’s my fault that I feel this way.’ While the first arrow causes the pain, it’s the second arrow that causes the suffering.
Instead of compassionately noticing the first arrow with an inner dialogue something like: ‘ouch, this is a really tough experience, how can I support myself to get through this with as much integrity and inner calm as I can?’ we say, ‘here I am again feeling anxious/depressed. I should be better than this by now. Other people seem to feel better. I’m just doomed feel this way because I can’t make myself better’. A compassionate response is to practice staying with the first arrow. To breathe and explore ways of making yourself even a little more comfortable in the midst of life’s painful first arrows. As Rolf Gates says, by cultivating self-compassion, we are practising the art of allowing ourselves to be ‘learners in this lifetime’.
A regular, steady yoga practice (whatever that means for you) allows you to live with your awareness focused on the first arrow. When we do this, we are FAR less likely to punish, blame, shame, or turn to numbing behaviours when life feels raw or hard. And it will feel raw and hard. You can be sure of that. Because that's just life's inevitable first arrow. We didn't do anything wrong to encounter those rough edges - they're just there as a part of the wholeness of being alive. And since yoga is about union and wholeness in its essence, then anything that allows us to endure, and creatively respond, to life (by helping us avoid the suffering of the second arrow), is guaranteed to make us feel better, even if that doesn't mean we feel good because we got on the yoga mat.
And that, is why yoga makes you feel better, even when it doesn't make you feel good.
Know someone who could benefit from these ideas? Why not share it with them....
I'm a yoga teacher, registered counsellor, social worker and art therapist. I facilitate regular yoga workshops, courses and intensives, specialising in trauma-sensitive yoga for mental health and body-positivity. Find out more at my schedule page here.