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Samskaras and the Shame Spiral in Yoga.

My Journey out of Shame.

Is there any place for shame in Yoga? The short answer to this is, of course, absolutely not! However, it appears that the reality may be somewhat different.

When we care about something and become deeply invested, our “performance” matters to us. We want to do a good job, we want to please. We want to please our community and those who are important to us. What happens if our “performance” falls short of expectations? Depending on your past experiences, shame is a possible outcome. I’ve often heard the phrase, “No expectations”, in Yoga practices, to me this is incongruent with the reality of some teaching in the modern Yogasphere. If there are no expectations, then why are we performing these advanced poses or sequences for the camera, or teaching workshops to offer tips/tricks to achieve these poses?

Alexandria Crow Yoga asked on social media how we feel about the phrase, “You have a beautiful practice.” This inspired me to think about how comments like this (directed at others) led to feelings of shame and unworthiness in my asana practice.

The dictionary definition of shame is: “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.” This definitely encapsulates the feelings I had about my practice for many years. I felt humiliation because I couldn’t “perform” certain yoga poses to their fullest expression despite working hard. I was sure I was doing something wrong, i.e., not working hard enough or being dedicated enough.

This shame spiral is something that my personality type has struggled with regularly in life. Let me put this into some perspective. All through my life; academic, work and family, I have always set myself high standards. To be the best academic student, to be the best in my place of work and to be the best parent/partner I could possibly be. When I care deeply about something, I commit fully. I have managed to succeed academically, professionally and (I think) I’m doing a good job as a parent. I neatly fall into that category of a perfectionist.

My journey and relationship with yoga has been very painfully different. I am every bit as committed, every bit as invested, in my relationship with my yoga practice and teaching as I have been to other stages in my life. The difference is that as I progressed in my yoga journey and moved into teacher training, I was exposed to more “advanced” postures that required hypermobility and a body type that I do not have. This, this coupled with my perfectionist tendencies, was always going to be an issue.

I first encountered real deep shame about my yoga practice when I began my first Yoga Teacher Training in 2014. The awareness that I was unable to “perform” was crushing. Enveloped in shame I would hide at the back of any class, so that others who knew that I was a teacher in training couldn’t see my practice. When attending workshops, I would rarely raise my hand when the inevitable, “How many in here are Yoga Teachers?”, question would arise. Absolutely terrified of judgement. As I began to withdraw from public classes, I continued to practice in private. My practice largely involved drills with the aim of attaining postures like Tittibhansana (Fire Fly), Sirsanasa (Headstand) and Marichyasana C. These were postures that I witnessed teachers and peers teach and perform regularly, postures that (to my mind) as a teacher “I should have been able to perform.” The words circulating in my mind, “You are not good enough. You should not be teaching”. SHAME.

Samskaras are subconscious impressions left by past experiences. They can be positive and negative. They are repeating behaviours or patterns which can serve us or do us harm. Often likened to grooves, like on a vinyl record – repeating over and over again. When we find ourselves stuck in a groove of negative or harming patterns of behaviour. The first step to overcome this is awareness.

When I think of how these Samskaras have affected me, I think of the multiple strands of a spiders web. I was all tangled up, frustrated and held back. I listened to a podcast recently about Overcoming Limiting Beliefs (Being Well by Dr. Rick Hanson & Forrest Hanson), in which limiting beliefs were analogous to the ropes tying Gulliver down in Lilliput. Similar to the spiders web analogy one strand or rope is pretty ineffective, but multiple tiny strands and you’re are stuck – pinned down.

I’m working hard to let go of much of the shame I carry about my asana practice, I’m getting there, but it does still raise its head every now and then. Being aware of my own Samaskaras has allowed me to “do the work” to get to the bottom of why they are there. Once you have this awareness you can begin to step out of the grooves or cut the strands that hold you back.

I know I have a propensity towards self-shame. I know that I set myself high standards. I know that I am a perfectionist. I know that I have tendencies towards negative self-talk. These are my negative samskaras, my unhelpful behaviour patterns. I am working hard to acknowledge and reframe these patterns. This is my work.

I’ve educated myself, understanding more about anatomy and yoga - more importantly about my body and yoga.

It’s my view that the current yoga community needs to be aware of this issue amongst the student and teaching population. It’s becoming more widely known that the focus and obsession with the achievement of non-functional yoga asana is deepening feelings of unworthiness amongst functional bodied yoga practitioners. Just look at your Instagram feed to find teachers posting pictures of postures that only the minority can achieve, setting the expectations that this is what makes a good and committed yoga practitioner/teacher.

Yoga anatomy teachers are now coming to the understanding that most body types aren’t suited to the majority of the shapes that are asked of us on the yoga mat. The fact that only 15% of the population at large have the genetic make-up to perform most yoga poses, where does that leave the remaining 85%? There’s also a broader understanding that strict alignment-based yoga/one size fits all approach is potentially doing more harm than good – physically and mentally.

Let’s unpack this through the lens of yoga teaching. This is important to say, I don’t believe that yoga teachers are intentionally shaming students. Not for one minute. I know that the overwhelming majority of yoga teachers are compassionate, dedicated and well intentioned. I will also admit that when I look back at my very early teaching years, I may have used teaching techniques that may have shamed some who attended my classes. For example, pointing out misalignments from across the room or adjusting the tiniest visible “flaw” in a pose. This is what I thought was required of me as a teacher. It is important to say this because, I am not pointing the finger at anyone – this is an industry wide observation and a reflection on my own very personal experience.

Yoga is based around the philosophy of self-acceptance and becoming more aligned with your own true nature. Over emphasis of asana’s role in achieving these philosophical goals has led to an unhelpful hierarchy of those who can and those who can’t, which I imagine has turned off many who could benefit from this beautiful, philosophically rich practice. We are now in the situation where we have “advanced” and “beginner” versions of yoga poses. Using cue’s like, “use a block if you NEED to.” Or creating a hierarchy with comments like, “… has a beautiful practice.” These comments and observations are, in the main, based on what can be seen externally.

Attaching judgement loaded terms to yoga poses further exacerbates the shame spiral. In reality, if someone steps on a mat for the first time with the right mix of genetics, and from a gymnastics/dancing background, it’s likely they will be able to perform the “advanced” versions of poses very quickly. On the other side of the yoga room, there may be someone who’s been practicing regularly for 20 years and due to their skeletal make up or genetics is unable to perform the “advanced” pose. Who is the more advanced student? And why is the physical performance more valued?

The point I’m making here is that as teachers we often praise (even encourage applause) the student who gets up into the headstand or full back bend leaving those who can’t feeling unworthy and shameful. The crushing feeling of shame when practitioners around you in class can perform and please the teacher in ways you just can’t despite hard work and dedication? It’s not sour grapes, I’m genuinely pleased for a student who’s been working on a handstand and finally achieves it. However, it is not a measure of their dedication to a yoga practice and bears little relation to the wider, deeper work of a yoga practice.

Yoga is an integral part of my life, it’s not just something I do on the mat. Don’t misunderstand me, I do the mat practice – it’s just not achievement based. The work to notice, understand and reprogram your Samskaras takes practice, study and inquiry. The work happens more off the mat than on. That doesn’t make me a lazy practitioner. Ever heard the saying, “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”? I feel that this has been misinterpreted to mean mat practice to encourage a more physically demanding asana practice which suits certain high performance lineages. Being unable to perform some yoga poses in their most “advanced” form deepened the negative samskaras in my mind. It took much further study to understand them.

Only by doing this work was I able to finally see that by pushing myself to perform, to reach what I thought was perfection, was only deepening the negative thought patterns as well as having a real negative impact on my mental health. I needed to change my practice adopt a new approach. Turning away from self-harming practices was the best thing I ever did for my physical and mental health. Finding a new way to practice, a way that embraced my individuality, that complimented my personality had to be the goal.

Dedicated yoga practitioners care deeply about their practice. As teachers we need to be aware of this and how we teach the entire room.

I firmly believe that any good yoga teacher needs to be aware of their blind spots and biases. Often students come to yoga searching. Often looking for answers to past or current experiences/trauma. We have a responsibility to operate with a higher level of self awareness. Yoga Teaching, in it’s true sense and by its very nature is a time-tested methodology to guide the student towards peeling away the layers of the self (small ‘s’) to work towards their true nature, or true Self (capital ‘S’). If we haven’t begun this journey ourselves, how can we ever truly be able to teach Yoga in it’s deepest richest form – we then become teachers of yoga asana, not Yoga.

Coral and I on retreat at YogaRocks, Crete

Last year, I embarked on another 200hr Teacher Training/Life Training with Coral Brown. Coral Brown’s Integrative approach to Teacher Training guides prospective Yoga Teachers through a lens of personal knowledge and discovery. In fact, this BLOG Post was submitted as one of my final assessment pieces. I feel that this is work that should be done in all teacher trainings, rather than just purely ticking boxes to cover the essential pose catalogue or to ensure compliance with Yoga Alliance registration. Yoga teaching has to be more than teaching student’s asana or beautifully choreographed sequences.

The training I’ve done over the past few years has helped me realise, address and begin to shed my relationship with shame. For the first time in years seeing and, more importantly, feeling beauty in myself and yoga practice is the best gift. The work, however, continues …

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