I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist...
This is one understanding of disorders like PTSD and CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). It will not matter if that individual can reason and they know, for example, that losing their keys and being late for work won't kill them, the body and the primal functions of the brain will respond to that occurrence in a way that resembles being chased by a hungry predator. The brain is wired to this response indefinitely. It can be rewired, but it takes very focused and personal inner work to do so, as well as a conscious understanding of your behavior patterns, from where they come, and how their origins differ from the experiences you have now. It also takes consistency in whatever method you choose and a long period of time to see those changes.
I don't really talk about the specifics of my personal mental health struggles in terms of diagnosis and the medical treatment of them. I have made this choice in the past because of stigma and in my line of work - teaching, writing, and physical/personal health and wellness through yoga and movement instruction, I was afraid that the fact that I had been diagnosed and have received medical treatment for mental health issues would cost me opportunities. I'm not afraid anymore. I have, among a few other things, been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and CPTSD. I have been medicated off and on since my early 20s for these struggles. For the last 2 years, I have chosen to not be medicated and to work primarily with trauma informed movement, yoga, weightlifting, and mindfulness practices as my discipline and medicine. In August 2018, I was diagnosed with a heart condition called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome). It is a dysautonomia and has been correlated with the experience of trauma. I am taking two heart medications for that issue. I feel like I am actually dealing with the results of the trauma that I have experienced in tangible ways that have altered the way I live my life for the better. This does not mean I won't need medication in the future or that I have ever regretted being medicated in the past. I am, however, feeling that the changes I am seeing in my response to stress are more permanent, making the possibility of needing medication in the future less.
But... during a pandemic where everything about my day and ability to earn income has changed without a timeline of when it will end, it has never been more clear to me how important it is to be with my body. These past three weeks have seen me become more of a sensualist, as Bourdain mentions in the opening quote. It has become imperative in order to stay on top of processing how my brain and body are communicating this stress with each other. How do I effectively become the middle man, if I rely on one over the other? Older and easier coping patterns will take over. On some days I feel them creeping closer than on others.
Bourdain is so right. The body is an amusement park. Five plus senses guide us through life. We have emotions and the feelings felt and unfelt that create them. We have the need for the body to be in homeostasis. It is a smorgasbord of sensation. The body is perfectly ok with this. It is our brain that sometimes muddies the situation. We interpret and experience the sensation of the body through the language we use to define it. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to experience what we are experiencing and why. Sometimes the opinions, morals, societal norms or religious doctrine of other individuals cause us to experience shame and guilt in regard to the experiences of our body and the consequent emotions or states of being they create for us that we otherwise would not have, if the only story that dictated our experience was our own. Those same things cause us to try to limit "the flesh" and label the sensations it gives us as faulty. The body is not capable of giving us "bad" information. Its function is to provide us with an initial signal and subsequent feedback loop based upon our brain's interpretation of the initial signal. Think two people about to bungee jump. The first is psyched and ready to suit up and go. They describe the sensation in their stomach as excitement. The second is horrified. They feel forced to take the risk by peer pressure, or fear of looking cowardly. They begin to cry. They describe the feeling in their stomach as a seizing of horror.
These pictures of my face illustrate the spectrum of any given day and the experience of the body. The tiredness we may feel. The peace. The weariness of heart and soul. The hope we may or may not have. If you take the time to look at someone's face, or more importantly, your own, you can see subtleties that you may not be otherwise aware of. The ones that you train yourself to ignore because we've been taught to hide feelings. Who knew selfies could have a therapeutic use?
My body has been lit on all fronts since life as I knew it stopped. All the memes suggesting we should take this time to enjoy family, clean, start creative projects, meditate, are all reliant upon one's ability to separate from the trauma response brought about by an uncertain, high stress situation. Perhaps, for some, their particular configuration of personal privileges (which we all have) provide for them the space where their stress is lesser and they can access the places of the brain that allow them to do these things. For me, all I want to do is move and process through movement the sensations of my body. Otherwise, the sensations would overwhelm me into feeling dangers I am not presently in. Through movement, I am able to slow down and find connection to things that I can control, such as my breath and how I direct the energy of the sensations I feel. The butterflies only become tension if I deny the feelings and hang on to them in some mental compartment which then stores the energy in my body as a knot in my trapezius. My heart palpitations only become an emergency if I don't breathe through them and take a moment to hear their message.
I'm covered in scrapes and bruises. I've been so diligently in my body, experiencing limits and new space I have created, that the effects are beyond average for me. These effects are not abuse, but a learning. Where can I go and how do I utilize the understandings of where I have been? I'm going here willing. Gratefully. For, without this discipline (it is nothing about motivation), I would be utterly lost in this time. My focus for writing is not there. This is the first time I've been able to write a longer piece of anything in a long time. Those higher functions stifled by stress. Yet, that stress is energy. Energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Through movement, I am learning the language of my body and learning to speak back. I am learning to alchemize the energy of my feelings into greater understanding of my experience and capabilities. I am learning to drop the shame and guilt associated with sensual experience and instead approaching it with consciousness open to the fullness it brings to being human.
So, am I ok? I am. I'm not spiraling into the abyss. The changes that may or may not be coming to the way I have to live my life are concerning, but I am not yet laying down to the uncertainty. I may not have a spotless house, a perfectly organized writing space, a book written, tons of craft projects complete with my daughters, the read-alouds I volunteered to record for their school, or even a daily schedule to keep us on track, but I am here and fully present in my body. I'm not storing away the stress. I am not overreacting. I'm forgiving myself. Giving myself the space to breathe and feel what I am feeling. I'm feeding myself and my daughters as well as I can. I am opening to new experiences and new ways of seeing myself through how the truth of it feels in my body.
In two aspects, I contest Bourdain's quote above. The body is a temple where we come to worship at the feet of being human. It is where we experience our own divinity and that of others. I also believe that being a sensualist should not be merely labeled as "bad", but what motivates the sensualism should be understood. Seeking thrills and being hungry for pleasure can be the catalyst for being fully alive, depending upon the approach and from where the desire is led. Perhaps I am understanding myself as a spiritual humanist and sensualist. I believe in a Source and Higher Purpose, but I duly believe we are here derived from Source to experience the spectrum of Truth. The body experience. The human experience as divine.
Which brings me to the questions of duality, but that will have to be another blog post.
So save your predictions
When was the last time you asked your body how you were feeling? I don't mean doing a physical scan to notice aches and pains or other maladies, though that is good information. I mean asking your body how you are feeling. Feelings, those things that precede emotions and become emotions if they are not felt in totality. Would you know your body's answer if you asked? Do you still speak your body's language?
Some holding patterns become do deeply ingrained that you are no longer conscious of them. It takes intense focus to notice they are there. Sometimes it takes someone else's touch or eyes to see them and guide you to feel them again. I noticed that I was holding a very heightened energy around my heart center. A tight and anxious energy. When I deepened my breath and I asked it to relax, I experienced the feeling of fear. My ego did not want to feel the feeling of that release. This told me it was a protective mechanism. My body was storing a wound there and to release it would create a vulnerability.
Since injuring my SI joint and having to take a new approach to my yoga practice, I have been learning how most of us, including myself, walk around outside of our bodies as if we are a big giant brain. Even those of us with physical practices do it. Our bodies become a side note to our goals, an afterthought to our obligations, or at worst, that thing in our way.
This relationship to our bodies is reinforced by our western culture. Yes, people are praised for having a certain type of physique, but are we really allowed to celebrate any body? Are we really allowed to experience the body as art? If I wanted to make a video of me spiraling my hips and ribs to my favorite song while standing in goddess pose, could you celebrate movement with me? Could I let go enough to make such a video? Our bodies often times are either shamed, characterized, made into a commodity (in regards to athleticism or physical disciplines), or over sexualized. You're not this or that enough, therefore you must be ___. "Ooooh, I saw some side boob. Damn, she might want some." (I'm not saying that having a biological physical response to someone's body is a bad thing if that person is an adult. I could write a whole post on this topic alone, and I may someday. It's how you process those sensations that matters.) These aspects of our culture leave most of us unsure of how to safely inhabit our bodies. Then, the microaggressions we meet on the day to day in regards to our bodies can cause us to begin to disassociate so that we are not so sensitive and raw all the time. That person didn't mean anything by that after all. (ex. "Gosh, you're so skinny.") Add to that the acute experiences of trauma that some of us will experience, and there is a whole other level of needing to leave our bodies to survive.
This pattern allowed me to continue to be functional despite a lot of daily physical pain. It was useful in that sense. Yet, when I began to place certain types of aspirations over the effects it was having on my body, I entered dangerous territory. It resulted in my injury.
We often wonder things about our bodies like - Why doesn't sex feel as good to me as everyone else acts like it is? Why do I want to eat the whole box of Little Debbie cakes and not just one? Why in the world does my back hurt like this? Why do I feel overwhelmed every time I am out in public? Most of the time, we can't answer these questions. Even our doctors, often, cannot answer them. But, our bodies can, if we can learn to trust them again and listen.
As I laid there in savasana, I kept trying to get that stuck feeling energy to move out of my heart space. I could feel it engulfing the entire area. The tightness crept into my neck and shoulders. My abdomen felt fluttery. Every time I told myself it was ok to let go and I felt an inkling of release, my ego jumped in and said - NO! When I asked myself why I couldn't let it go, ego told me that I didn't want to feel lonely. What would my identity be if I actually allowed myself to experience the loneliness my body feels? Could I continue along this beautiful path of discovery I am on undaunted? Could I continue my work? Or, would I be paralyzed with the emotion of it? It was that I do not want to be interrupted by whatever it would mean to feel that feeling. I will be doing the work around this topic in my life on my mat and through my means of sharing. It is more uncomfortable and difficult to process the dis-ease that develops in our bodies when we ignore their cues.
In July, I will have completed a certification program in Embodied Healing as credits for my Yoga Alliance certification. I am continuously fascinated by what I am learning and that it was an injury that began to close the door on the body abuse I was inflicting upon myself and provided me with the tools, through what appeared to be a lost practice, to find a depth of practice I had never experienced. My plans are to write, develop workshops, and possibly to begin podcasting and doing videos. If you are interested in seeing some of these things from me, I'd love to know as I am feeling things out.
Do you trust yourself to take your own hand and find the light in the darkness? I didn't. For the better part of the last two years, I was the last person who's judgement I trusted. I looked here and there for advice and methods to get me through the discomfort and self loathing that consumed me. I was so closed off that I wasn't even conscious of the extreme self loathing, and it came forth in behaviors that I couldn't explain.
I felt if the tools I possessed worked, I wouldn't find myself in such a place as I was in - mentally, emotionally, and physically. It seemed if I could find a tried, step by step concrete way, I could do the thing and have the power, as Emerson said. At the very least, I could fake it until I make it. I faked the shit out of it while my soul screeched to be heard.
From these two states, two things will happen. I will become open to the lesson. The lesson I need to move into the next immediate layer of my personal development. Or, I will reach my goal. I will succeed.
If I go by what Mandela says, I've been learning these last few years. For a bit, I was sad about wasted time and energy. My negative self talk overtook dealing with the realization that I had been filling holes with elements that were not my own in avoidance of accepting that I already possessed what I needed. This avoidance created the necessity of the lesson that scrambling for answers provided. I felt empty and scared, looking for validation. To acknowledge that I had the answers was a huge responsibility. First, it was the fact that it was time to apply what I know and to do so with a different sort of discipline than I was using to keep digging. Then, there was my identity. My entire egoic identity has been aligned to needing to pursue healing and truth. Who am I when I start applying it and it works? What do I become then? Our egos, always in search of homeostasis, hate the unknown. It can be a scary place. Will I even like that version of myself?
I did not believe in my ability to be my own best teacher. It felt like if I was, I'd have already drawn the conclusions I needed to be in a better state of being. My self worth has been so low that I based every accomplishment upon whether or not someone else authenticated it for me. What I felt about it was pushed aside until someone could say "good job". I didn't matter to myself. It was only what I could prove myself to be to others. And, the part of this acknowledgment that remains a current struggle is, what does it matter how good I feel I've done, am, or worthy of receiving, if I am experiencing it alone? Obviously, the seeds for understanding the concept have been planted. I haven't found the Miracle Grow. Right now, all the being with myself is feeling boring because I have experienced loneliness my entire life. The thing is... being lonely, being alone, and being with yourself are three different things. They can exist separately. I have never been comfortable being with myself.
I am feeling able to release the guilt I have felt letting go of these prescriptive methods/practices that did not flow for me, and at times felt negating to the truths that were intimate with me. I have not failed. I am learning a more meaningful way to view spiritual practice. I am discovering and honoring the processes that have worked for me for a long time. I am giving credence to the fact that instead of labeling my practice as "not enough," I need to be willing to take my practice deeper, especially if it has supported me. I should trust my knowingness to be the proof that I need. My connection and true passion for a practice is all I need. I don't require a more financially secure and public person's backing to prove to me that their way is the way, unless I want to duplicate them. To be them.
We've all heard it said that there is nothing new under the sun. If truth is truth, then this statement without a doubt is true. In that sense, no understanding of truth is original understanding. None of us are unique in the ability to comprehend and obtain truth. Our individuality comes in our expression of our understanding of truth.
explore these truths to the highest levels possible for them in this life. As memes have made certain ideas cliche, I point out yet another that is meaningful. You can only lead another as far as you have led yourself.
As someone on a spiritual or yogic path, don't glue yourself to one teacher even if your goal is to master a certain branch of yoga, or type of spiritual practice. Be present with multiple teachers so that ultimately, the exploration is your own unclouded by dogma and strong opinions. You are your best teacher. Anyone, any text, or any experience contributing to your learning them becomes a resource. The only way to true understanding is the journey through yourself. Otherwise, you're repeating a script and keeping your contribution to truth small if not hidden all together -- from yourself and the world.
I am not small. You are not small. We are manifestations of supreme energy with the free will to be the conductors of it. Our ability to tap into truth comes with trusting ourselves to know it without external validation. We must see our own capacities and accept responsibility for ourselves.
I am not chasing any more programs that box me in to rote expression. The only practices I need are tools that help me access my own creativity and capability to live and share truth as I understand it. There are many teachers. There is only one set of truths, simple and Divine.
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.
If you want to master anything, you cannot be afraid of effort. ~Dylan Werner (yoga instructor, veteran, world traveler, musician)
Very recently, I have had to come to terms with a part of my shadow that was creating suffering in all its attempts at feeling virtuous. Have you ever taken a step back and asked yourself to what degree are you responsible for your own suffering? It isn't an easy question to ask. It causes our ego to become defensive. We begin to justify our actions and our operating beliefs. However, one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves is to bring into consciousness the patterns that may have at one time preserved us, but in our current configuration are no longer necessary and therefore have become part of our suffering. In doing so, you're highly likely to experience some resistance if not an all out refusal of the mind to let go. It's pretty damn uncomfortable.
In August 2018, while doing my normal Buti Yoga workout (a form that combines strong vinyasa, pliometrics, HIIT, tribal dance, primal movements, and spiral structure technique), I felt what I thought was a pulled muscle. It hurt like all hell, but I let the pain release just enough that I could push on through my workout and finish. By the time I finished my practice, I felt like I must have just strained it and everything would be fine. After analyzing what happened and what I was doing when I felt the pain, I came to the conclusion that a tight piriformis was giving me trouble. The next morning, I woke up unable to move without pain, and I have been in some degree of pain since.
For two years, my normal yoga practice has consisted primarily of Buti Yoga with all of its add-on elements - SCULPT, BANDS, HotCore, and DEEP. I did the recommended schedule of 3 days of practice followed by one day of rest. I adored this practice. I certified in Buti. I audited another certification weekend. I believed, and still believe in its transformative possibilities. After my injury, I tried to push through the pain to keep up my schedule. Initially, there was some improvement, but by early December, sometimes I would give my best effort at lifting my legs and they would barely rise off the ground. I found I was having to clinch in odd places in order to perform the movements because the pain was so intense. This was causing more pain. It was then that I made the hard decision to back off of my chosen yoga form, that I had grown to love so much over the last two years, and do only the restorative version DEEP, and add in the more "traditional" yoga styles that led me to yoga 17 years ago. Even though I am a 200RYT (200 hour registered yoga teacher through Yoga Alliance) and certified in Hatha and Kundalini yogas along with Buti, it was hard for me to accept that I hadn't somehow failed myself. I had only practiced Buti for 2 of the 17 years I have practiced, but it has enriched me in all ways beyond description and made advanced yoga asanas more accessible to me.
It's been a struggle to let go of the blaze it took to keep up that level of commitment to a form of yoga that at times is very high intensity. It gives new meaning to the term "ride the lightning," which normally means being put to death by the electric chair. Instead, this is the scenario where you harness the lightning and use it to become what you thought was an impossibility. I have been an athlete my whole life. I played girls basketball, volleyball, and ran cross country. I have always been active regardless of my weight. Buti helped me reach plains of being that even as a high school student, I would never have dreamed I could access. It was beautiful and addictive.
This all came about during a time (the last five years) when my spiritual and personal path has taken a radical turn. Everything I thought I knew about myself is in question. Upheaval of the belief systems that have kept me afloat since childhood. It was no coincidence that at the same time, I became terrible at asanas (yoga poses) that required any form of balance. I was ungrounded. The driven fixer in me didn't understand why I seemed to be going backward in this area, and began to push for more strength, playing limits, and striving. When I found and experienced the magic of Buti, I trusted that eventually I'd find my feet under me again.
I have not yet. In fact, the only improvement that I have seen in that area has been since I pulled back my practice. This past Sunday, I took a mystic yoga class that was geared toward the root chakra. The teacher created one of the most intriguing sequences I have ever experienced for the muladhara (Sanskrit name of the root chakra). There on my mat, my still small voice from within asked, "Are you all in or does your effort reflect only the trying? It always appears you are in the process, but you are afraid to arrive. What do you fear?" I used my breath to not cry. I decided instead to forgive myself and be with what my body wanted then. In those moments, I understood what had really been happening in my practice. Afterward, the teacher gifted me the beautiful smoky quartz you see me holding in the picture above. Another woman in the class looked at me and told me she had watched me practice and it inspired her. There in my weakness, my strength was recognized. I have been refusing to accept my strength for the pursuit of a body and mind that I think I should have. And yet, I'm too afraid to become the thing I think I have the potential to be because it is completely different than any state of being I have ever known.
I had allowed maximum efforting to become my comfort zone. In the guise of self improvement, I was loathing myself into extreme fatigue and injury. I wasn't giving myself time to celebrate my gains, but constantly pushing. During these last two months of backing off of Buti, I am finally able to actually feel how strong I am! I was keeping myself so weak from overdoing that I couldn't recognize where I was physically. I was ignoring my body's cues in order to make it submit. I was stagnant in the familiar places of pain, discomfort, illness, shame, and anxiety while to the outside it appeared I was doing great things for myself. I didn't fully believe I could ever have another experience of life aside of that list of descriptive words because I had never known it before. As they say, "Seeing is believing." Therefore, it was true that discomfort and dis-ease had become my comfort zone. I had taken it on to heal, but instead of nurturing myself there, I was browbeating myself into submission. I had wondered why I sometimes felt states of panic when I rolled out my mat for practice. I loved my yoga. It made no sense. I had made myself blind by hiding self destruction behind the mask of self care.
Yoga is a journey to the self through the self. ~Bhagavad Gita
All yoga is about coming to know who and what you are, unifying all parts of your being through the breath and practices. It is about coming in to santosha (yoga niyama meaning contentment. It is about fullness right where you are as you also see beyond your limiting beliefs. Even Buti Yoga has as one of its main mantras - Total body love. Today, see yourself where you are and think about what it means to love yourself there.
It’s the things we spend our lives pushing into the periphery as far as we can push (as if we have no peripheral vision) that are ultimately the things we have to face head on to be truly free. Life doesn’t leave anyone without keys no matter how complicated the locks. Experience is the way we learn. It’s the impetus for change. It’s the marker on the tree that lets us know we’ve been on this path before, and asks us if we want to go there again. Bringing these experiences into focus, is the only way to transform them into the keys we need to unlock the parts of our truth that will allow us full and fulfilled expression that is uniquely our own.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University states in a report titled “The Foundations of Lifelong Health Are Built in Early Childhood”: “Experiences are built into our bodies and significant adversity early in life can produce biological “memories” that lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.” This truth we cannot change. We can, however, decide how these “biological memories” affect our lives.
1. The way we experience the present (and through our choices made in the present – the future), is directly influenced by imprints left in our brain by past events.
A simple Google search on the topic of the developing brain will show you that much of the way we live our lives is written into our being by our early childhood experiences. We come into an understanding of the way the world works in that manner. Add too that the trials and triumphs of adolescence and the lessons of the earlier experiences are either amended or reinforced. Even before we were born, as shown by the field of epigenetics, our very DNA has been written with genetic predispositions for certain physical and mental behaviors based upon these same types of experiences had by our ancestors. Yes, the physical and emotional abuse your grandmother experienced before becoming pregnant with your mother could be the cause of your natural propensity toward anxiety as much as the constant bullying by your classmates in school makes you second guess your relevance in your career and creative pursuits.
2. These imprints create our body’s experience of homeostasis and what we don’t unpack, explore, and grow to understand will be destined to be relived as we attempt to create stability and balance in our lives.
Imagine yourself an infant. You give your mother subtle cues that you’re hungry. You squirm, wrinkle your nose, and wave your arms, kicking your chubby legs. If your mother is close by, she instinctively notices these cues and offers you her breast or a bottle. But, if she’s busy in the other room, and the subtle cues go unnoticed, you resort to crying.
In a situation of neglect, you may cry until you are physically wiped out and become quiet, yet still hungry. You grow despondent.
Each time any of these scenarios play out, your baby brain takes note of the result of your efforts so that you can more effectively communicate your needs in the future. If the neglect situation continues, you will eventually stop providing any cues and become what the medical community blanketly terms “failure to thrive”.
This type of trial and error learning is the basic blueprint of how our bodies over eons of time created in us survival mechanisms that allow us to adjust and adapt to some of the harshest situations. Whether we like it or not, these patterns become our body’s calibration of normal and we’ll seek out and attract experiences and situations that give us the sensations of normalcy. Yes, that emotionally abusive stepmother is still cutting you down with her words as you look for everyone you meet to manipulate your emotions for their gain, and you find those who will so you can react. It’s homeostasis rather than stepping out in a complete unknown territory.
3. Our past contains our earliest and most basic perception of the world.
Are you a natural pessimist or an optimist? Our past experiences (and, yes, our genetic predisposition) set us up to believe that the world is either for or against us. Logically, we know that the entire collective world cannot be designed to work against us. Everyone has experiences that can be labeled both good and bad. Sometimes there’s a predominance of one type over the other, but every day we can experience things that can be placed under either of these labels.
However, certain types of events experienced in our past create patterns of response in us that can lend themselves to certain behaviors that really mess with the way we experience the world. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect our brain development and directly impact both mental and physical health. This in turn influences our social-emotional wellbeing, creating an experience of life that feels almost adversarial.
Common ACEs include: bullying, death of a loved one, accidents, chaotic home life, sexual abuse, poverty, illnesses, emotional/physical abuse, separation from a primary caregiver, parental incarceration, and more. Unfortunately, many of these experiences are not as rare as we’d like to think. Our ability to “look on the bright side” is hindered.
4. Our ability to define our own truth is correlated with our ability to transform our narrative of the past.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus when they’d see the Kingdom of God, Jesus answered: “The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”
So many depictions of heaven seem kind of cheesy to me. It’s because heaven is a very individualized state of being. You are Divine and that Higher Kingdom is one you must build for yourself. Only you know what’s best for you.
First, you must become intimate with how and where it all went wrong. We cannot change the past. The past is not now. There is no need to fear it, or try to fix it. Sure, it might bring up some uncomfortable, even sickening vibes. How can we release the charge of those vibes without being willing to face them head on? What if you could rewrite your story? Not erasing painful things, but finding your personal truth among the memories?
5. A house is only as sturdy as it’s foundation.
In working with the imbalances life has created and, honestly, will continue to create in our basic framework (housed energetically in our bodies in our lower triangle of chakras - focused energy centers in our subtle body: 1-2-3), we shore up our foundation.
Our root chakra is associated with our feelings of belonging in a body and on this earth, sense of place, tribe, and/or family. The sacral chakra takes it a step further into interpersonal relationships with friends, kin, and lovers. It’s our beginnings of self-expression and creativity. Then, our solar plexus brings us to the “I”. We become individuals based on the support we found or did not find when coming into being through our first two chakras.
Blocks and imbalances anywhere in the lower triangle comes into our manifestation of reality impacting our presentation and effectiveness in life and our spirituality/wellbeing.
So, just as this filthy, dark past created our experience of the present, dealing with its creation in the now, acknowledging what it left within us, and rewriting the story of what we will allow it to manifest in our future are the keys to becoming free of it.
I cannot positively think away my trauma, the events that make me lie awake at night with guilt… the inner complaints that threaten to make me a whiner. No. I can only make the decision to put it to work for or against my well-being. I decide the narrative it creates in my life. It’s still there in all its glory, but I am the one in charge of the story.
So, when I sit down on my yoga mat, write/journal, bring out my oracle cards, conduct a ritual, or assess my chakras, I’m guiding myself through those dark spaces that if left unconscious will direct my life with their own agenda every damn day. Utter chaos.
No amount of affirmation, positive meme scrolling, gratitude, or loving your neighbor will process the energy of these places.
It’s hard to love the neighbor who sexually abused you, the school mates who relentlessly called you names, or yourself after acting in unconscious and hurtful ways, and to be grateful for the lesson when it keeps interrupting your ability to focus on life now. When it reaches out to you through expressions like night terrors, PTSD, anxiety, social phobias, and more, you can try to forgive and forget all you want. Those dark places will keep surprising you by coming back up.
These events literally wired your brain. It is through loving and accepting all of yourself that you can choose the gift that your darkness brings.
Sometimes, darkness is so scary or alien an idea that we’re confused as to how to go there without getting lost in the despair. That’s when we may need a guide. Someone who has been there before with themselves and others.
They aren’t a therapist, or a psychiatrist. They are a peer, and can share tools to help light the way and dig through the rock to the coal seam. That’s the work I do with clients. The realest of real.
If you’ve ever been totally put off by the “happy hippie” aesthetic, the under explained law of positivity, or even counting your blessings, it could be time to face your shadow.
If you don’t want to go alone, find someone who’s gone before to guide you there. Can you trust anyone who has never gone on the shaded path, but instead chose to “change their mindset” when the shit hits the fan? How will they react to heavy emotion and events? Where did their dark side go?
All this time, I had been avoiding my comfort in the shadows because I didn’t want to be constantly explaining myself to the #blessed crowd.
I made myself palatable as often as I could, and reigned myself in when I wanted to take a conversation into the realm of what is seen as negative talk only because it makes people feel uncomfortable with me and their selves. I didn’t want to be the person people avoid because she’s always talking about the bits that they want to push back into the dusty corners.
Yet, part of facing my own truth is to accept that life has wired me for this work, people need a hand to hold, and I am rather content to offer mine. It doesn’t look like rainbows, pumpkin spice lattes, and tropical paradise, but it is damn beautiful all the same.
Meet Kelli Hansel – The Shadow Guide.
“We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Jesuit Priest, philosopher, and paleontologist)
Our culture is all about changing, subduing, or avoiding our physical bodies. Extreme diets, pharmaceuticals, plastic surgery, consumer culture, social media, obsessions, and even our spiritual practices contribute. What would happen though if we focused on radically being in our body instead of changing, subduing, or avoiding them? What would it mean to live the language of our body?
There are signs all over the place that a great many people aren’t truly inhabiting this human form we’ve been given. Unconscious behavior runs rampant. The abuse of food, drugs, alcohol, sex, and one another both emotionally and physically are just some of the ways this is true. It’s true on the level of faith too. In spiritual communities all over the globe, there’s a lot of encouragement to “transcend the body,” as it is imagined the Buddha and Jesus Christ did, either through meditation, other spiritual practices, or self-sacrifice. Escapism is not the answer to the human struggle. It is the cause.
We find ourselves in the midst of struggle and instead of addressing it on the tangible, human level we choose to escape. At different times of our lives we all are guilty of trying to experience something outside of our human form in various degrees. Sometimes, this trying is a conscious effort. Other times, it is completely unconscious. It isn’t always a bad thing. Everyone needs a vacation from time to time. However, considering death is the only real way to escape the human form, if we don’t allow ourselves to consciously inhabit our bodies we are spending our entire lives avoiding living.
Whether we’re experiencing this active escapism as a result of mental, emotional, or physical trauma doesn’t matter. What matters is that we make ourselves conscious to it so that we can address it. Are you really letting yourself be in your body? Are you opening yourself up to a fully impactful human experience?
Here’s some signs you might be in avoidance mode.
1. You don’t recognize yourself when you look in the mirror.
Every time you look in the mirror you feel like shit. Even when you try to be positive about your physical appearance, you find yourself smoothing wrinkles in your shirt over your midsection. So, you’ve started avoiding mirrors. Now, if you happen to catch a glimpse of yourself you’re shocked that what you see is you. It doesn’t look like you. It doesn’t look like what you imagine when you’re feeling good about who you are and what you’re doing in life.
Our reflection in the looking glass and our reaction to it is a good gauge for whether or not we’re allowing our body to be our home. Feeling alienated by your own body is not conducive to experiencing your personal power, focus, and will – your magick. We gotta own these bodies.
Try some self-care to learn to connect with your body on a deeper level. Ask your body some simple questions and trust the answers that your gut gives you:
2. You overthink everything.
You find it hard to trust your gut. What is intuition anyway? Isn’t part of being human our ability to approach things through logic, problem solving, and complex forms of expression? What if that gut feeling is wrong?
Part of becoming disconnected from the body is that we lose the trust of the feedback it gives us. We unlearn the language it uses to speak to us. As babies and young children, we are very good at communicating with our bodies. Our bodies are how we learn to get around in the world and to obtain all that we need for survival. Add to those basic instincts the ability to reason and discern, and we’re pure force!
Our bodies communicate in the form of sensations. From emotions, to experiencing hot or cold our bodies provide us with endless data to inform our action. What if we began with this feedback, then applied logic, and then assessed whether or not that fits with what we “thought” was true at first – intuition? This is a step by step utilized Break Method, also developed by Bizzie Gold. Using our body and mind for decision making is a game changer. It can save all kinds of anxiety and time second guessing yourself.
3. You ignore physical sensation or overindulge in sensation making activity to feel alive.
You’ve found yourself saying – I feel dead inside. Everything is dull, mundane… unexciting. Even down to knowing when you’re hungry or not. You look up from your computer screen and it’s two hours passed lunchtime and you suddenly realize your ravenous. You couldn’t cry at your grandmother’s funeral even though you were very close. During sex, you find yourself checking out and making to-do lists for the next day, or debating whether or not the giants mentioned in the Old Testament bible were actually aliens. Orgasm is overrated.
In this case, you’ve disconnected so completely from your body, if you don’t recover the connection, it will be a life altering event that finally provides you the impetus to get back in there... if it doesn’t kill you. Your body can make life exciting. What’s in there that you are avoiding? How might you address those things in order to find your way back in?
Or, perhaps you feel alive by being the life of the party. You take all the risks. Excess is your middle name. Indulging makes you feel alive. The hangover after is what feels like death. Moderation feels too boring. Day to day living is not enough to make you feel alive, and it’s only by taking your body to extremes that you get enough sensation to feel present in life. Otherwise, there’s a numbness to it all. A feeling of waiting that is nearly unbearable.
You too are disconnected from the body. Even in exploring the limits of the body you are disconnected and ignoring it. There’s not a balance. It is not sustainable. Therefore, you aren’t getting the totality of experience. You are not present for life, but constantly trying to alter it. How can you impact something for the positive if you aren’t aware of all that it currently is? What too are you avoiding? How might you address those things in order to find your way back in?
5. Your spiritual practice focuses on transcending the body.
Has escapism become a dogma for you under a spiritual guise? Flesh as weakness. Every major religion and most traditional spiritual practices have some form of this thought when taken out of context or to the extreme. Is all your chakra work in the upper triangle? Is your biggest struggle in meditation to ignore the physical sensations in your body? Do you spend hours praying your way out of struggles? Are you honing astral projection, but ignoring the stomach pains after you eat?
The truth is, looking at the chakra system and other psychological schools of thought, that most of our inner work should be around our connection to home/tribe, interpersonal relationships, and our expression of ourselves as an individual. The lower triangle of chakras, if you are familiar with that system. The things that illustrate our human experience. Without roots a tree cannot reach the heavens. Without the ability to ground into our bodies, how do we even know what we are transcending? Maybe the lesson is to – be here now.
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.