Shadows and Light
For a modality whose very title, yoga, means "unity," it sure seems to be chock full of opposites. Our hatha yoga poses are made up of the "sun" (ha) and "moon" (tha). Shiva-Shakti, or ying-yang, symbolize the passive and active parts of our natures, and we're in constant interplay between sthira (effort) and sukha (ease) on and off the mat.
Anatomically, we mirror this duality. Did you know there are no muscles that cross the midline of our bodies? We have the spine in back and the connective strip of the Linea alba in front, which when, you think about it, means that we are really two distinct halves fused together at these junctions.
Spiritually as well, we exist as polar aspects of energy, which make up our total prana, or life force. I'll call these collective energies the shadow and the light. Sometimes (in the cases of love and joy) the energies feel lighter, and other times (like with anger and sorrow), much heavier. Still, any of these energies can be used as pure fodder, fuel that either generates actions that are aligned with us or that steer us sharply from our paths.
Since, in another two-sided element of being, our thoughts and actions can either feel more positive (loving) or negative (hurtful), we might make the misstep of placing value judgments on our feelings, deciding that the lighter energies are "good" and that the shadows are "bad." We want to feel happy and free, and because our dark side may have caused us and others suffering, embarrassment, shame and loss, it's all too seductive to try and live only on the light side of ourselves.
I think it's unfortunate that being a student of yoga is sometimes understood to mean one must be only light and happy, all the time, and to never feel angry, insecure, or vengeful. In my opinion, this idealized state is not spiritual perfection but a delusion of grandeur masquerading as spiritual practice. Being as we're human and divine, it's a great day when we realize that we can be both, and have our yoga, too. Because it's not an absence of shadow feelings that makes one enlightened. It's knowing how to alchemize them into conscious, loving actions once they arise that matters.
Unfortunately, many of us aren't there yet. We've even decided that there is "good" karma and "bad" karma. But when you look at karma as a concept, it's judgment-free. It simply means that this or that choice can be more constructive or more destructive to your ultimate goals.
Add to this information the fact that, often, it's not the shadows themselves that are dysfunctional. It's the way we express them that causes problems. If you shy away from discomfort, in your yoga poses or in life (and if you do one, I can nearly guarantee you do the other), it's likely that you haven't practiced with that dark side as much as you need to in order to become strong and resilient enough to bear its intensity.
In other words, if you haven't done this work, you may be prone to reactivity, where some event, inner or outer, connects you to your shadow energy. Before you know it, you've thrown a glass or hurled hurtful words at a loved one. Or perhaps you react inwardly and act destructively toward yourself, as in blowing an important deadline because you're anxious or shutting yourself down out of fear. Picking fights, being disrespectful, participating in family dramas, gossiping, or using drugs or alcohol to cope with discomfort are all ways we let the dark side predominate. We have confused the reactions to our shadows with the shadows themselves, when in fact they are just energies waiting to be harnessed.
It's time to look directly at these energies, without naming or blaming, and use our yogi powers to channel even our blackest moments from the messiness of reaction into the clarity and empowerment of reflection. From there, we can move forward into actions born of wisdom, not wildness.
One way we do this on the mat is, simply put, by no longer resisting the sensations we don't like, but by embracing them, or at least, softening our resistance against them to allow them to co-exist with the ones you are happier to feel. Say you're in a five-minute Pigeon Pose, and somewhere around the three-minute mark, your hips start grumbling, then maybe yelling out loud. You were enjoying your moment of Zen, and had the breath under control, but here comes the old familiar hips-on-fire feeling. To deal with it, you start breathing louder, thinking about the grocery list, pondering your fingernails, and turning your attention to anything but the discomfort. Yet, according to yogic wisdom, this might be a powerful place to explore.
What if, next time you found yourself in a battle of wills with those inner demons, you--well--just surrendered? Soften and widen the breath. Go gentler into that shadowy night. What happens when you stop fighting and start listening to what your dark side has been trying to teach you all along?
When you do this, the monsters inside lose their power to throw you off center, and you'll regain your inherent wholeness. The promise of yoga is unity, and by opening your heart to all of who you are, you will finally, completely, and nearly effortlessly, come home.
The goal yoga may be to become enlightened, or to keep the fires of awareness lit, but we cannot get there without recognizing, and in fact honoring, our darkness. Without developing the sweet embrace of understanding and mothering grace of compassion for all that we are, we will never become whole, but rather just play out our days, quite literally, half-lived.
Here's a variation on a common pose that includes a mudra, or sacred hand position. Get to know it in a way that will remind you, as it reminds me, that wholeness is waiting whenever we widen our idea of yoga to include all its forms.
Core Pose: Seated Spinal Twist with Gyan (or Jnana) Mudra
Gyan Mudra is the "Knowledge Seal," a hand position that helps focus your mind, heart, and spirit in a certain way. Start by uniting the tips of the index fingers and thumbs to symbolize the meeting of the awareness that comes from embracing your lower and higher energies. According to the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna was in Gyan Mudra when he imparted the teachings to Arjuna, urging him to use his humanity to express his divinity.
Come into your easy seat. Make Gyan Mudra with both hands. Inhale and lengthen your spine at center. Exhale and bring the right hand to the left knee or thigh, and weave your left arm behind your back. Depending on your flexibility, your left hand mudra might peek out around the side waist as you see mine doing here.
Take a few breaths here, facing your left side and opening the ribcage. Think of embracing your shadow side, the one you might hide from sight. Illuminate it with your attention and focused breath. Then reverse the pose and reflect on your active, bright, confident side for a few full breaths.
When you're done with both sides, sweep your arms out and up, and when they meet overhead, bring the palms together in prayer, then down to front of your chest. Bow your head to your hands, a symbol of bringing yourself--all of yourself--into union.