Honor Your Dark Side, Because It’s Not Always Rainbows and Unicorns
Ha-Tha yoga is a practice rooted in polarities, sun and moon, effort and ease, pingala and ida nadis, positive and negative energies, gross and subtle, masculine and feminine, attachment and aversion, and individual self and universal Self. And yet, in our adoption of it, we’ve chosen to emphasize and highlight the most commercially attractive aspects of the practice while the rest remain largely neglected or ignored, leaving many of us bewildered at how to process and integrate anything that arises that doesn’t support the stereotype of a yogi, one who always wears a beatific smile and handles everything with grace and acceptance.
“In neither acknowledging nor championing the value of exploring what some call the “shadow side” of being human through Ha-Tha Yoga, we may be unwittingly contributing to feelings of frustration, fraudulence, and failure in the yoga community.”
As its name and Tantric origins would imply, Ha-Tha yoga is a practice of exploring the full spectrum of human experience and folding it all into an evolutionary spiritual journey to wholeness or yoga, union. But when you look around the industry, we see nearly exclusive emphasis on “Love & Light” and “Good Vibes Only,” which may be because slogans like “Let’s Suffer Together Just The Right Amount To Learn Something” doesn’t have the same ring or appeal to it. And so, many of us tamp down feelings and expressions that don’t fit the image, the “bad vibes” so to speak, which can eventually become a tremendous and stressful burden to bear as we move through the world, fearful of the truth being revealed. And that stress can trigger coping behaviors, like alcohol and substance abuse or disordered eating, that we also strive to hide because, well, we’re yogis and “yogis aren’t supposed to do stuff like that.” For a practice that emphasizes the study and union of polarities, we sure seem to be quite unilateral in our embrace of it. A great question to ask ourselves is, in not truly knowing or acknowledging one’s shadow side and the nature of uncomfortable or unpleasant, how can we ever expect to transmute their essential offerings into wisdom?
Know Thyself – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Every single one of us is susceptible to patterns in behavior and pervasive implicit biases that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Once we identify as yogis, we may try to shape our psyches into alignment with all positive thoughts and feelings all the time as the yoga industry would both suggest and support as the correct action. But it’s essential to recognize that many of our patterns and biases are so deeply rooted in our consciousness that they may be initially imperceptible and require more extraordinary skills, practices, and guidance to uncover and identify them; and ultimately incorporate them into a better understanding of human nature. Let’s be honest, you may not like what you uncover. It may make you uncomfortable and feel embarrassed and ashamed. And because our conditioned consciousness is trained to seek comfort and identity-sustaining experiences, we may feel inclined to resist this type of inquiry and remain in an industry-supported state of ignorance felt as bliss.
Imagine the value of not just intellectually, but also experientially understanding the full spectrum of being human. In connecting with our own regressive patterns and divisive biases, we can expand our capacity for understanding and connecting with each other. In fact, the concept of “other” begins to diminish as we recognize sameness. In practicing patience and compassion with ourselves as we muck through the shadow, we can develop it for our fellow humans who are also experiencing the repercussions of unexplored negative patterns and their source roots.
“In order to gain control of consciousness, we must learn how to moderate the biases built into the machinery of the brain. We allow a whole series of illusions to stand between ourselves and reality…. These distortions are comforting, yet they need to be seen through for the self to be truly liberated…to come ever closer to getting a glimpse of the universal order, and of our part in it.”
Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium
Yogic Paths: Hatha
How Ha-Tha Yoga Can Help
Our brains and psyches are incredibly complex, adaptable, and malleable. And for many, this is an important fact to keep in mind as we explore the deep recesses of patterning and shadow. What we discover isn’t permanent. Unless we give our brains and psyches reason to change, they aren’t likely to. It is here where reason to change may come from an acknowledgement of your current state and a decision to pull things up from your unconscious or subconscious into your consciousness and work with them skillfully without attachment or aversion.
Ha-Tha yoga is the one main branch of Hindu yoga that emphasizes our physical bodies as a powerful tool for knowing thy self and our true nature. We make shapes called asanas with particular physical alignment, we breathe in particular and intentional ways, we visualize and deliberately move energy through our bodies, we purify and detoxify in particular ways, all as a means for cultivating extraordinary awareness, the first step on the journey to yoga. For most of us, our “pre-yoga awareness” isn’t subtle nor powerful enough to observe the vrittis or constant fluctuations of our minds; which includes survival-based patterns of thinking and discernment related to sensory input, thoughts related to ideas, conversations, memories, fantasies and, of course, the shadow that threatens the image of ourselves we project into the world. Ha-Tha yoga provides a holistic opportunity to enhance your awareness and activate change in yourself and in the world.
Asana For Awareness – Slow It Down
Our asana practice can provide an opportunity to train up heightened awareness when we practice in ways that support an illumination of our inner landscape, accessed via awareness of our physical bodies. When we place our bodies in intentional ways (asanas), we can become more subtly aware of our physical selves. When we notice the quality of our breath within that pose (pranayama), we can become more subtly aware of our energetic selves. And then, when we further observe what arises on the field of our consciousness in that moment without trying to edit it (citta vritti), we can become aware of our mental selves and illuminate some of the patterning that may exist deep in our minds. If we practiced asana like this regularly, it makes sense that our capacity for insight and awareness would grow as a result of so much repetition of extraordinary focus and attention.
However, this doesn’t really work as well if we practice yoga as a means of “escaping” for an hour or with the intention to simply “feel good.” When the practice moves too rapidly, there is little opportunity to observe ourselves and we escape into the “flow.” Or, when the emphasis is always to “do what feels good” and to essentially check out into the pleasant sensations, we run the risk of creating attachment (raga) to the pleasantness and there is little opportunity to become familiar with aversion (dvesha). An experiential understanding of both is necessary to eventually move through the world with equanimity. Without a full spectrum of the experience, we may become reliant on the physical practice as a temporary pain killer and find ourselves ill-prepared to handle the shadow as it emerges in ourselves and in the world when that pain killer isn’t enough.
Holding postures with this holistic awareness can be an interesting way to explore our malleable thresholds, both physical and mental. Given that we’re all subject to different life experiences informing our present existence, the amount of time we stay in a pose for it to be beneficial to us isn’t universal. The yoga teacher BKS Iyengar said “The pose begins when you want to leave it.” My chosen interpretation of this is that when the conditioned response of aversion to discomfort arises within us whilst holding a pose, that’s the moment the pose becomes most valuable. That is the moment we can identify, observe, and perhaps, choose to change our patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. This practice on the mat can not only enhance our sense of what we’re capable of in the world but, can also build stamina for tolerating discomfort and unpleasantness off the mat to support our ability to stay with something worthwhile that we may also find deeply uncomfortable.
We’ve all heard the anonymous adage “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Perhaps this is an invitation to consciously accept that we WILL experience painful things in our lives, no matter how many times a week we practice or how good of a person we are. And that this wildly popular practice called Ha-Tha yoga, when practiced in a way that encourages an exploration of polarities, both the “light” and “dark” within us, provides us a powerful opportunity to expand our capacity to work skillfully with pain, to manage our suffering, and to increase our compassion for each other.