This post is difficult to share. My yoga practice and healthcare journey are a significant part of my heart and soul. As much as I hear that my yoga/physical/dietary/spiritual practice is an inspiration and motivation for others (for which I am immensely grateful), I hear comments in the negative. I am often told I am too skinny. That I need to be more lenient with my diet. That I go too hard or do too much. Those comments wouldn't bother me if it didn't give me pause to consider if there is truth there. However, the fact that I will question myself and re-examine my approach to these things doesn't mean that the path I am on is the wrong one and that the comments about my body or my discipline are warranted without there being compassion attached to them. And, honestly, unless you want to confront me about my weight because you're concerned I am not healthy and you want to offer me help or hear me out, you have no business commenting on the size of my body. Unless you are willing to hear about why I am so disciplined and what I see in my patterns in regards to my physical practice, including the risks I'm willing to take to achieve certain goals (including why those are goals I want to reach), there's no need for you to comment there either. So, I do welcome compassionate observation, relaying of experiences, advice, and research sharing in regards to this post. However, comments about my body or practice without compassion and only judgment are not necessary.
My current and slower, more deliberate practice. I'm finally feeling stronger again. I am working on not repeating old patterns in different ways.
I was going all out. I was going to push to the point of dripping sweat, shaking muscles, the feeling of my entire body turning to jello. That, in and of itself can be a great workout goal, but for me, it was a way to punish the anxiety beast. It didn't matter that I was already tired. I hadn't slept well for days. Waking up nightly with adrenaline rushes was common. It didn't matter that my body ached or that I was sore from my Buti Yoga practice the day before. Chronic polyarthropathy means my body always hurts to some degree. To find my capacity for strength and endurance in middle age would obviously be to do the work regardless. I had even asked about fatigue and working with shaking muscles and was advised that both were goals to achieve when strength building from both yoga teachers, trainers, and online yoga groups. They weren't wrong. Pushing was not giving in or up. It was refusing to let my rebellious body get beyond my ability to control.
I rolled out my mat. I was already out of breath. My heart was pounding. I had the cliche overwhelming sense of dread that those of us who live with anxiety either choose to give in to or actively ignore. I was practicing a familiar sequence. I was practicing in my living room. What the hell was wrong with me? I was having a panic attack. It felt like I was turning inside out. I didn't understand. Yoga is my passion. It saves my life. I tell my yoga clients all the time that if they are not with the breath that they are not doing yoga. It was hard to breathe. I ignored my own advice and went on with it anyway. Yoga couldn't be the trigger. Yoga was the tool.
I decided that what I was feeling was related to something I wasn't conscious of and I just needed to move. I completed the practice. My legs didn't want to lift, but I made them go. Every time I felt I was about to reach my limit, I pushed harder. Mind over matter. If I didn't land a movement on beat or my balance was off on one side, I fought the urge to go back and repeat. I tell my yoga classes that our bodies are different every time we get on our mats. I took this advice, working on meeting myself there. Except was I?
but it didn't burn off the fog in my brain (another symptom I have grown accustomed to with Hashimoto's). My muscles ached more and I couldn't initiate movements without wincing and stiffness. Normal aging? I had been told. I looked forward to bedtime. I was glad to know I had worked hard.
If you follow me on social media, I've recently posted about being injured and having to come to terms with changing my practice from high intensity intervals mixed with yoga to a more "traditional" vinyasa practice that is little to no impact. My injury was with my SI joint and piriformis, but has been nagging as many muscles around them began to spasm to compensate for moving through the pain without pause. I don't know if I'll be able to return to the strenuous schedule of training I kept before, or if I will desire it. With functional strength movement, pelvic floor and core training, and bodyweight movements, I am adding the slower is stronger approach to my practice. Floating and flying. What I am doing now is equally as challenging, but in a different and more grounded way.
I've learned a lot since the original injury this past August about the ungrounded and unconscious patterns that brought me to injury. About a month ago, I realized that those panic attacks I had started having before my sacred practice was my body's way of resisting the abuse I was inflicting upon it. I have been angry at my body. I sometimes still am. Self love is not known to me. As glorious, cherished, and sacred as my yoga practice is, I had begun to use it as a way to work against my body instead of with it. I was a bully. A dictator. I had allowed self loathing to masquerade as self care.
I gave in to fears that I conjured to sidestep the real work that I needed to be doing which was embodiment and learning to love myself. I had begun to fear gaining weight because I had developed an association between that and my thyroid hormones being sup par. I was angry that I can't sleep at night without pain, so I sleep propped on a loveseat where my cats and street lights keep me awake. I was/am scared that one day I'll wake up and this body that I currently have... this strong and useful body... will be gone and I'll once again feel like I inhabit an alien body that looks nothing like the me inside of it. I've worked hard to bring my body to represent the temple in its physical expression. Always more work to do. I have vowed to be as healthy as I can. This, I often feel is akin to holding water in cupped hands.
In this fear, I held myself to standards that were not sustainable. Rest has become lazy and unproductive. I used the fact that I had a lower income to criticize myself for all the things I've failed to accomplish because of this mission I've had to heal myself and help anyone who asks. I let fear of rejection keep me small. The unknown controlled by my experiences of lack. I hated chronic illness. I hated my self sabotage. I am ashamed. I am embarrassed. As long as I could "succeed" at reaching my yoga goals, I could feel ok about something. There was no compassion in this scenario - only loathing.
I have trained myself to override intuition and bodily cues in favor of a prescribed plan that I didn't develop for myself, but adopted from another's idea of fitness and health. A rigid formula, an overly analyzed schematic. I took literally the instructor's cues to "push, push," "dig deep," and "keep up." I had become a slave to the idea that I cannot trust myself or my body. That where I am is not enough. In ignoring my body's signals and in my own self disgust, I have gained another opportunity to learn. I'm not a quitter when I am passionate. I want to break these harmful cycles/patterns. I want true healing, or at least contentment rather than an identity as someone on the healing path. I am being diligent to opening my eyes to the shadow side of me, and to use it to transform to truth. To acknowledge that I created this scenario for myself in order that I remove my own blinders. My basketball coach always said, "You have to make Hansel mad to get her to play ball." Do I step forward in freedom? I am stepping back to yoga.
It's a marked and steady decline from my youth. It would take me an entire essay to explain to outsiders how living here is so unlike the urban American experience that it is as if you're from an entirely different country. Cultural norms, stereotypes, and etiquette are difficult to translate. It's a place that the developed world over still finds it politically correct to publicly and openly insult without most people thinking less of you for doing so. I've experienced it often firsthand, even from people I thought respected me. It may be worse from within our own state where whole swaths say, "We're not THAT Kentucky," when referring to the eastern part of the state.
This place, more so the landscape, is my home. It is the substance of my blood. It's a place you should experience with a guide. Not just any guide. Not a romanticized reframing narrative of how its quaint, enduring beauty has been falsely portrayed. Not the resiliency narrative of a people perpetually oppressed and misunderstood as if they were the butt crack of society. The scapegoats. While both hold merit and are important pieces of the story, they are glorifying oversimplifications. It's far more complicated and nuanced. In not taking the time to convey or discern the big picture, many efforts of revival here shoot off their own toes, spin wheels, and self sabotage.
As much as this place is a part of me and what I want to keep in my life, there is a significant aspect of me that feels stifled, put down, and silenced. Working on my own groundedness, I have realized that the place I call home has never fit outside of a few mossy rocks and rolling mountain streams. That part of me wants to go. I imagine some sort of balance where my permanent dwelling is here or another part of Appalachia and I travel for my work. I have both worlds in that scenario. I have my landscape. The microcosm that created my body and foundations, while at the same time finding a wider interpersonal community where I can contribute through sharing embodiment workshops, yoga, and my writing. I can share with people who are interested in my perspective and experience, while I learn from them and their offerings.
I have some beautiful opportunities to share some aspects of who I am here. Those chances keep me from feeling devastated. Yet, overall, I often feel a waste. I feel as if I am an odd peg with a chipped corner and one side swollen from getting wet. I belong to the set, but I don't fit well in the hole. The only time I don't feel awkward here is when I am teaching a yoga class. As soon as I end with "Sat Nam," the awkwardness floods back in. I have stopped being in public here aside from errands, school events for my children, teaching yoga, and wherever I can escape into the woods.
There are ghosts here to dodge. Eyes that have shared with you behind a screen like a confessional, but won't look at you in the grocery store. Ducking behind displays on aisle end-caps to avoid small talk that is only cordial. Empty store fronts of inaccessible, unsustainable opportunity. A community you love so much it breaks your heart, but has only so many tiny spaces where you can squeeze in for a moment if you can behave not pushing too many wrong buttons. I've pushed those buttons, and like a mouse in a scientific experiment, received the electric jolt to associate with the behavior. I use the word "afraid" a lot. I'm adverse to small town drama because it is no longer worth the consequences. I'm happy to risk when my heart is passionately led. Other than my personal work in my little room and teaching yoga privately and at my local library, I haven't felt passion in a very long time. I have not felt the space for it. I have not had what I need to add fuel to what burns in me. The burning turns to sadness unexpressed and dies there uncomfortable to breathe.
I don't know my answer. I want to trust that the opportunity comes where I find that balanced place I mentioned before to feed my soul. I know that it is becoming harder for me to accept as when I visit away from here, even conversation in the checkout lines feels so much warmer and genuine. There are more spaces for me than I have the ability to fill. Here, I find myself more insular and reclusive than is healthy for me, and I don't have much impetus to change that in the current configuration of home.
Maybe... just maybe... I haven't been home yet.
Some of the writing I am about to do is going to be not only uncomfortable for me, but it could be uncomfortable for those who choose to spend some time reading it. Where I find myself in my spiritual journey (awakening) is refinement. Layer by layer my inconsistencies, untrue beliefs, and outdated operatus modi are being revealed to me in order that I do the work to shed them. Sometimes the shedding happens immediately upon a no longer useful pattern or outright contradiction coming into consciousness. Most of the time, the process is slow as these things become deeply ingrained into our body's pursuit of homeostasis, however it has come to expect that familiarity to feel. What I reveal might be embarrassing to me. It might provoke comments that will trigger me, and I will have to pause to harness the opportunity choose to see truth instead of reacting.
For a long time, I have tried to spiritually bypass working through some of these layers. A really good description of the effort that takes was written for Psychology Today by Ingrid Clayton Ph.D. "The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are feeling." I wanted to fix myself desperately. I have felt guilty and ashamed of my path, and I continue work on shedding that layer as I will mention again later.
Then, there is the segment of our spiritual culture that will refute my work also through spiritual bypass. As facing our darkness, owning it, and accepting it, can feel the opposite of the bliss that should come with discovering spiritual truth, many disown this process. That which we don't give our attention to, in theory, will fade away. It's the method of ignoring or shaming the "negative" in favor of identifying with or being identified as "positive." As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, "All that glitters is not gold." Psychoanalyst Carl Jung adding, "What you resist, persists." If we are all mirrors for one another, that which we readily identify as a hang up in another, is likely something to be unburdened within our self. I find I get really prickly at the "accentuate the positive" and "I have no time for negative people in my life" memes. My insides react as if I am being personally attacked. That reveals to me that I am still hoping for approval from the wider spiritual movement as someone who has a relevant voice, but I know that my very nature sets me up to be rejected by many of those who do have the capacity to "choose happiness." I won't be palatable with my darkness. I will be told I should smile more as I have been told again and again. My smiles are a currency greater than gold.
She meant no ill, but the part of my ego that felt I had accomplished something important by posting the video in spite of being self conscious, and sharing the truth of this uncomfortable self concern, didn't want to hear that it could be seen as simply a contradiction to what I already understand is truth. Like the Green Day song, "I'm a walking contradiction, and I don't have the right." Consciousness outgrows habits and old systems of belief, but those old ways hang on for as long as they can. What struck me more was the question of whether I should only share the ways that my consciousness is growing and not reveal the truth that ego and shadow fight back to win. I questioned the relevance of sharing my journey at all. Do I only seem like someone milking struggle? Identified with struggle?
If so, I am beyond embarrassed. I don't want to be so pretentious as to think that is my contribution to life. I graduated with the same GPA as many in my high school class who are now doctors and lawyers. Currently, I would be homeless in a month if I made any kind of slip up. I have a Master's Degree in Education, a Bachelor's Degree in English and Creative Writing, and a slue of certifications. What good am I aside from motherhood? How important is the contribution of a writer, yogi, and someone fully immersed in a spiritual path if there's nothing monetary to show for it? In a society where you are measured by your financial worth and achievements, where do I fit and what is my excuse? I am not a monk or a nun being supported by my service to Source. Again, judging myself based upon the perceived judgment of others.
Then, I had a conversation with a yogi I follow on Instagram and am greatly inspired by. Their posts are their practice and snippets of their daily life. They told me that through my posts (we don't know each other personally) they "see that life is challenging and I'm sorry. It can't be easy. Your strength and perseverance are a model for everyone." How could someone like me be a model? They were trying to encourage me and tell me that I am seen, but I was taken back to the question of the first conversation - Do I appear as someone seeking sympathy or highlighting struggle over perseverance/strength? How is my struggle any different than anyone else's? I began to tell myself I am not exceptional in any way and I should be ashamed to accept such a compliment. I'm not doing anything more than any other human. I wrote back a long message of embarrassment saying I hope I don't seem pretentious, whiny, or a complainer, or at worst deemed a "negative" person. I was worried by not seeming "good at" practicing spirituality even though I claim it as my nature. What is that again but and identified ego? Honestly, I admire this person in such a way that part of me feels embarrassed and judges myself as weak despite their use of the word "strength."
The last conversation was with a young teen who follows me on Instagram. Ultimately, this conversation is why I am choosing to continue to accept myself where I am and share as much as I can of all parts of the journey. She asked if it ever gets easier to openly write about hardships and struggles. I answered both yes and no. I have gotten used to vulnerability and I am drawn to do it regardless of fear. Yet, part of me still worries that I will be wrongly seen and judged because it has happened before. I don't want to be accused of tainting the vibe, or become that "negative" person no one has time for in their life. I know I shouldn't care, and in the end, I don't because I choose to go ahead and share. I can discuss very difficult things without being depressed or hopeless. We don't respond to difficulty in a uniform way. I have some level of desensitization to many things I discuss which gives me the space I need to analyze it effectively. In fact, telling the tale gives me the means to separate emotions from truth and apply logic and intuition to things that have happened or are happening. I could tell the story to a live auditorium of people and be fine. When this young woman responded that what I said was helpful, I felt a renewed responsibility to keep being open.
Those who can relate, find comfort, be inspired, learn from, challenge, or guide me from what I choose to write about are worth continuing in the shadow of a landscape that unveils the tendency in me to see my healing process as stages of failure instead of growth. With work, I will accept that a spiritual path is a legitimate path.
When I get down, I go to tattoo therapy. Here's what I worked on last night. Tattoo by the amazing apprentice tattooer Mikie Burke.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.