Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

Bouncing Back: Yoga to Improve Emotional Health

When crises arise, some people flourish while others flounder. Here’s how your practice can help you build resilience

Gina was one of the golden girls of my circle-charming, smart, and seriously cool. As our other friends rode their mid-twenties on a roller-coaster between elation and despair, Gina maintained an almost daunting level of emotional perspective. She gave birth to a brain-damaged child, and cared for him for him without losing either her detachment or her sense of humor. She went through cancer surgery with her usual rueful grace.

Then her husband fell in love with another woman, and Gina fell apart. It was as if all the accumulated losses of twenty years had finally caught up with her. She cried for hours. She raged at her husband and at her life. And through it all, her friends kept saying, “But she was always so resilient! What happened?”

What happened, of course, was that Gina had hit her edge. She met the place in herself where her strength and flexibility gave out.

Like Gina, most of us will hit that edge sooner or later. It is always a crucial moment, because the choices we make when we meet our edge will determine our capacity for that most vital and mysterious of human qualities, resilience.

The very word ‘resilience’ has a bouncy, rubbery quality. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”; psychiatrist Fredrick Flach describes it as “the physical and psychological skills required to successfully master change.”

Resilience lets an artist like Frank McCourt turn the pain of a difficult childhood into compassionate literature. Resilience carries a Nelson Mandela through his years of prison without letting him lose heart, and shows an injured yogini how to align her body so that her own prana can heal the pinch in her groin. Resilience is basic. Without resilience, none of us would survive the accumulated losses, transitions, and heartbreaks that thread their way through even the most privileged human life.

But there exists a deep, secret and subtle kind of resilience that I like to call the skill of stepping beyond your edge. This kind of resilience has less to do with survival than with self-transformation. It’s the combination of insight, choice and attentiveness that lets some people tune into the hidden energy lurking within a crisis, and to use it as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Though psychologists can list the qualities that resilient people have in common-traits like insight, empathy, humor, creativity, flexibility, and the ability to calm and focus the mind-this deeper resilience transcends personality traits. When the chips are down and we hit the wall, this deeper level of resilience has to do with the way we understand reality.

Jungian psychologist and Buddhist meditator Polly Young-Eisenstadt puts the matter elegantly in a book called The Resilient Spirit. She points out that we become truly resilient when we commit ourselves to dealing with pain-which is inevitable and unavoidable in human life-without getting caught in suffering-the state in which our fear of pain and our desire to avoid it close us off to the possibilities inherent in every situation. This, of course, is that art that yoga is meant to teach us.

For most people, pain and suffering are so intertwined that we find it impossible to separate them. When things go wrong, we may feel like victims, or assume we’re receiving karmic punishment; that we ‘deserve’ it. We may express our feelings or stuff them, but few of us know how to process the pain of loss or failure without getting hooked by our suffering, trying to use it to crawl back into the lap of some handy mom, or steeling ourselves to tough it out.

A yogi, on the other hand, knows how to disentangle the knots that make her identify with her suffering self. (In the Bhagavad-Gita, yoga is actually defined as the ‘severance of union with suffering.’) In fact, yoga practice-inner practice– is meant to teach us how to untie these inner knots. Often we don’t realize how much difference our practice has made until the day we find ourselves dealing with a crisis without going into absolute meltdown. The kids are screaming, or your office-mates have panicked, and yes, there’s a little bit of fear and irritation in your mind too, but there’s also a witnessing awareness, an inner compassionate presence that lets you be present with what’s happening without getting sucked into the fear or anger.

The great practitioners offer the same basic prescriptions for inner knot cutting: learn who you really are, do the practices that purify your murky mind, discover how to work with everything that happens to you. Then difficulties become your teachers, and pain and loss become occasions for profound and positive transformation. As my teacher, Swami Muktananda, once said, a yogi turns everything to his advantage. That, it seems to me, is what it means to be resilient.

Laura Derbenwick was 24 and on the verge of entering graduate school in English literature when someone sideswiped her car on a Pennsylvania highway. Laura got knocked unconscious. A few days later, she realized that something had gone seriously wrong with her brain. She had a hard time concentrating on what people said, and couldn’t remember which color on the traffic signal means ‘Stop’ and which means ‘Go’. She fell down a lot. Worst of all, when she tried to focus on printed words, the room would start to swim and her head would feel as if it were exploding from inside. Tests showed that her IQ had dropped 40 points.

Laura’s life had taken a 180-degree turn. Graduate school was now impossible. She had been an extrovert; now being with people exhausted her. Worse, she could no longer think coherently. “Brain injuries are mysterious,” the doctors told her. “We can’t guarantee recovery.”

“For the first year, I kept trying to deny that there was anything wrong with me, trying to grab back the life that I’d had. The most difficult part was doing all the careful, painstaking work on retraining my brain, and knowing that there was no guarantee that I’d get better. I finally accepted the fact that I’d never be an English teacher. But every other avenue I tried seemed to be a closed door. And I was in excruciating physical pain.”

When your mind has stopped working, you have two choices. You can give into your depression, anger and helplessness, or you can start to explore the non-rational. Laura had never been religious. She fell back on prayer because she had lost her ability to make rational decisions. Trying to figure out which brand of shampoo to buy would leave her stumped for hours.

” I started praying about everything. Should I have turkey for dinner? Should I move back to my folk’s house or try to live alone? Am I supposed to stay where I am or go to Seattle? I felt silly praying about all these things, but it was the only thing that worked.”

Laura found herself living in that world of uncanny synchronicities that so many people experience during spiritual awakenings. She’d ask for signs, and they’d arrive. Little miracles happened. She discovered she could make bold moves by praying for guidance and then following it. Unable to run or do weight training, she began doing yoga with a Yoga Journal practice video, and found that it improved her balance. She painted-large abstract canvases. “Painting helped me express the intense anger I’d feel when I’d have a setback. I couldn’t let myself get angry because any strong emotion just made my headaches so much worse. So I’d paint my feelings. Again, it was a non-rational process. But the anger would dissolve and change.”

As Laura surrendered to being ‘damaged’, she started to sense a deeper purpose behind her troubles. Her consciousness was, quite literally, expanding. She could feel palpable connections to other people and the universe. She was living her life from the inside out.

“I had a vulnerability and a compassion I’d never had before, so I was able to meet people in the place where they were, and actually be of help to them in different situations. On the outside, my life looked really horrible. But at the same time I was finding that sharing my story helped other people embrace their own hardships, to move forward and see meaning in their lives.”

Five years after her accident, Laura is finishing a book for people recovering from brain injury. She can read for up to 3 hours at a time now. She and her boyfriend are Reiki masters. Her IQ has returned to normal, but the experience of ‘losing’ her rational mind changed her forever. She learned how to rely on something deeper than the mind. Laura is convinced, like many others before her, that her accident was not really an accident, but a nudge from the universe, the catalyzing event of her spiritual awakening.

Laura’s story is a classic example of the alchemical power of adversity. Deep understanding came to her spontaneously, as a series of insights. In a natural way, Laura discovered the practices that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras call kriya yoga, the three yogic actions that strike at the very cause of suffering. Inside these practices are many of the clues we need for real resilience.

According to the Yoga Sutras, we suffer not because bad things happen to us, but because we are in thrall to the obscuring forces called kleshas. The kleshas-ignorance of who we are, egotism, attachment, aversion and fear of dying-are energetic cataracts, veils that skew our vision. The kleshas make us imagine that we’re separate from others and the universe. They delude us into identifying ourselves with our bodies and personalities, trying to pleasure our made up self and to avoid anything that gives pain. They keep us in perpetual fear of annihilation.

The best reason to do yogic practice is to overcome the kleshas, since without them we naturally experience the joyful freedom of our original consciousness, our own expanded heart. And the basic method for getting through the kleshas is found in three practices or attitudes that Patanjali described in as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as tapas (intense effort or austerity) swadyaya (self-study or self-inquiry), and ishwarapranidhan (surrender to the higher reality). Tapas, self-study, and surrender are profound and multi-layered practices. They are also the secret of true resilience.

Tapas literally means heat-the inner heat created as we undergo discipline or hardship for the sake of change. When we understand tapas, any hardship can be seen as a purifying fire, removing veils from our awareness. Laura’s intense, painstaking effort to rehabilitate her brain was a tapas that literally purified her mind. In fact, for a yogi, any effort can be reframed as tapas. My friend Rick gets himself through traffic jams by telling himself that he’s doing an exercise in tapas, set by the universe. He figures that each moment of patient waiting is helping purify and dissolve his tendencies towards impatience and anger. Understanding the concept of tapas as purification has taken many a worldly yogi through challenging situations-situations that can be as mundane as surviving a 14 hour plane ride or as primal as the death of a parent or a serious illness.

Asana practice offer basic training in tapas-you are emotionally strengthened every time you make the physical effort to stay in a pose while your legs burn. Meditation and mindfulness practice teach us to sit through boredom, mental restlessness, and emotional upheavals. Another form of tapas is the effort we make to tell the truth, practice kindness and non-violence. But during hard times, tapas often means pure endurance-hanging tight when fear, sadness, and frustration threaten to send us into a tailspin. Doing tapas, we actually become heirs to the great spiritual practitioners like John of the Cross, Ramakrishna and Bodhidharma–especially if, like them, we also remember to practice self-study and surrender.

Swadyaya-self study– is sometimes defined as chanting mantras and studying wisdom teachings. In fact, it’s a much broader practice. Swadyaya is our direct line to the ego-less awareness beyond thoughts and emotions. Self-study might take the form of the classical yogic inquiry “Who am I?” or of witness practice, in which you step back from your thoughts and emotions and identify yourself with the witness-observer rather than with the thinker. Swadyaya is a way of moving beyond limiting beliefs to identify your basic goodness, the unbreakable beauty of your inner heart. For Laura, the process of self-study began when she stopped mourning her lost skills and began trying to discover who she was beyond her skills and talents. It was self-inquiry that showed her that her life’s purpose might be very different than what she had supposed.

Many students are introduced to self-inquiry by therapists who are themselves spiritual practitioners, and who use swadyaya to help clients stop identifying with their suffering. Michael Lee, who teaches a method of yoga therapy called Phoenix Rising, shows clients how to move through buried emotional states by staying mindful in their asana practice, and finds that this can translate into compassionate observation of their own thoughts and emotions. He himself relies on mindfulness practice as his own best tool for moving through tough situations, having discovered that the moment he steps back from a problem and tunes into his witness-observing self, he has a better chance of discovering what to do about it.

Ishwarapranidhan usually translates as surrender or devotion to God, a practice that is at the core of every spiritual path. But another name for God is Reality-the life-energy that flows through every circumstance and makes things happen the way they do. Much of our suffering comes from the simple refusal to accept that reality. So, moment to moment, ishwarapranidhan is our choice to open up to what is actually going on inside and around us. It’s the attitude of deep acceptance that lets us experience the inevitable hardships and disappointments of life without resistance, without constantly wishing that things were different. Surrender instantly gives us back the energy that we have been spending in resisting our life, in feeling victimized, or frustrated, or despairing. It is the most profound form of alignment, and it opens us to love.

In physical terms, you practice surrender when you consciously relax into full awareness of the part of your body that hurts, rather than resisting discomfort. Surrender can also mean, in the language of the 12-Step movement, ‘turning over’ your situation to the higher power, with the understanding that there are things that your personal will does not have power to change on your own.

When I asked Laura Derbenwick what advice she would give to other people in her situation, she said, ‘The most important thing would be to give up your attachment to getting better-which is really, really difficult. At the same time, you have to continue to believe that it is possible that you will.” She went on to say, “Every brain injured person I’ve met who was willing to completely embrace their situation has either recovered completely, or experienced such inner expansion that it stopped mattering to them that they are physically sick or damaged.”

Buddhist psychotherapists like Mark Epstein and John Welwood would agree. Epstein says that what makes a person resilient is “accepting the truth of impermanence”-that is, the fact that life is ever-changing, and that the ‘me’ we take so seriously is actually a shifting kaleidoscope of temporary thoughts and feelings, without true content. The sages of my tradition, the tradition of the Hindu tantra, would put the same idea in different language. They would say that when the ego lets go of its need to control reality, we align ourselves with the intrinsic auspiciousness, the love at the heart of all phenomena. That’s when solutions arise, spontaneously, to seemingly insoluble problems.

The fact is that these three practices apply in any situation, and at any level of spiritual awareness. When things feel hard, or when you feel overwhelmed or victimized or distraught, try asking yourself these questions: What tapas do I need to do now? What (or how) should I surrender? What is the deeper truth beyond these circumstances and emotions? (Or, you might ask the Vedantic or Buddhist question, “Who knows that I’m feeling stressed, or tired, or miserable?” or “What would the sages tell me to do in this situation?”)

As you ask these questions, remember that tapas, self-study and surrender are interdependent. Tapas alone is just toughing it out. Surrender without austerity and effort can lead to passivity, or fantasies of collapsing into the lap of an omnipotent cosmic parent. And unless we keep practicing self- awareness, inquiring into the truth of ourselves in each moment, turning towards our own heart, learning the difference between who we are and who we think we are, all other practice is simply external. Since for many of us, flexibility is limited by our backpack of emotional baggage, that self-inquiry often needs to be multi-layered.

Bob Hughes, a Tennessee yoga teacher and psychotherapist, had a childhood history of sexual abuse. Until he began practicing yoga he dealt with his internal discomfort through that slide-away movement sometimes called ‘doing a geographical.’ When life got too stressful in one place, he would move away.

Hatha yoga helped him change that pattern. Then he found out that his spiritual teacher was having sex with students. The discovery catapulted him away from his spiritual community, but also made him realize that he needed to deal with his own ‘charge’ about the issue, the intense emotional reactions that came from having buried his past history. Bob spent six months in seclusion, doing inquiry into his own psyche, aided by a therapist and supported by his practice and his family. He says that without the years of yogic discipline and practice he doubts that he would have been able to work so deeply with his own emotional issues, but that without the psychological work he would not have been able to let go of the charged emotions.

Not surprisingly, Bob has worked with many yoga students on their sexual abuse issues, as well as with wounded veterans. He notes that certain postures tend to bring up buried emotions. He will often guide a student to stay mindful of his or her feelings and report them to a therapist. Yet he also sees how the postures themselves, and the inner connection they create, have a healing power of their own.

“One woman had a terribly abusive husband. She told me that for over a year, while trying to find the courage to leave him, she would lie in shavasana and do a prayer, ‘May there be peace in the heavens,” inhaling and exhaling and listening to the tapes from our classes. The tapes helped her touch that place of tranquility. In the end, she was able to move out and take her child.”

Contact with an inner state of tranquility-the experience that such a state exists and that they can get there-has given countless yoga students the support to move through difficult times. It’s one of the first gifts of yoga practice, and it’s often the reason we take up yoga in the first place. Yet, touching that state is only a beginning. It becomes a true resource when we learn how to turn back to it again and again, when we learn how to act from that place. Resilience is not just a set of skills. It ultimately comes from our contact with the clear core of ego-less awareness behind the personality.

In June of 2003, I moved out of the spiritual community where I’d lived for half my adult life to begin living and teaching independently. The leave-taking was friendly, and the connection to my teacher remained strong. From the beginning, the process felt like an adventure.

It was also overwhelming. After twenty years as a monk, I was out of practice with worldly life, naive about countless situations that any normal adult in 21st century America would have mastered years ago. Profound and basic questions kept arising: Who am I, really? Can I REALLY do this?

One morning, I woke up in a sort of primal panic. Sitting for meditation, I could feel quivers of anxiety running through my chest and stomach. After a few minutes, I found the witness-space and began focusing inside the sensations in my body, the thoughts beneath my feelings. Behind the fear was a belief that I was alone, without protection, completely vulnerable to the winds of change. Intellectually, I could see that this was old ‘stuff,’ but telling myself I was deluded didn’t seem to make the feelings less intense. So I did what practice trains you to do. I breathed out, slowly releasing into the space at the end of the exhalation. Then I said to myself, “Suppose there IS no external support? Suppose that’s the truth?”

With that thought, it was as if a floor dropped out from underneath me. I was, suddenly, groundless. Empty. There was no ‘me’ in the usual sense. Instead, there was just a pulsating presence, and an astonishing feeling of love. I felt free, protected, and filled with joy. That moment of letting go had opened the door to the deeper power, the ego-less awareness behind my ideas about who I am and what I should be doing.

I’ve come to see that any real resilience we possess has to come from that energy and presence. Our other resources come and go. But when we touch that pure presence, the pure ego-less space of the heart, we are unbreakable. With that connection, which is the deepest gift of yoga, we can deal with just about anything.