The other day during class, I noticed my guru has a large, keloid-type scar on his left knee and it got me thinking. Scars, we all have them. Some are superficial, visible to the naked eye like the large scar on my left foot from my moped accident in Greece this past August. Others are hidden deep within us, emotional scars carried around inside.
In my experience, yoga can help heal both types of scars. By moving the body daily in an Ashtanga practice, you can break down adhesions and stiffness to allow for greater strength and flexibility. Yet all this requires effort and often pain. Sometimes people become focused too much on either of these. By focusing too much energy on the effort of breaking down old habits, we often get stuck in a pattern of trying to force something that simply needs time or compassion (physical and/or emotional compassion) to impart visible change. By focusing on this effort, we also run a great risk of injuring ourselves by becoming too focused on the effort and the outcome while not listening to our bodies. Conversely, we can also become too focused on the pain involved in changing, either thinking we NEED to feel pain as proof of change (thus again risking injury), or we can shy away from the pain and thus never make any real progress towards healing these scars.
So, how can we avoid these mistakes and how can we impart change? The first way is to listen to our bodies and our intuition. If pain is improved with stretching (like in yoga or during massage), then the pain is likely something that needs to be worked through. The same analogy can be drawn to “stretching” your comfort zone for emotional pain. On the other hand, if the pain is made worse or unbearable by stretching, back off and practice self-care instead.
To avoid pushing ourselves too far in the direction of effort, we need to practice softness. Yet you can't simply tell your body “relax” and see results. So then what? In my own personal practice, I have been struggling with the physical limitation of mild scoloiosis which is further hindered by emotional scars which have made me closed off in certain areas. All of this culminates in an area of pain and inflexibility in my upper back right around my shoulder blades and makes for challenges folding my body forward and doing any kind of back bending. Unfortunately, these movements constitute almost my entire 1.5hour yoga practice. And although, I have made slow, steady progress toward opening this area up and overcoming some of these physical and emotional scars, there is still much work to be done. So what to do?
First, I need to acknowledge what I am “holding on to” in my body and as well as emotionally. Then, I need to release it. I believe I managed the first part, but I have been struggling with the latter. In the past, I had been putting a lot of effort into “letting go.” Telling my body “relax” and just expecting it to comply and yet often times experiencing the exact opposite effect. Yet today, as I stared at my teacher's scar, I realized, “we all have scars, so stop focusing on them and JUST BREATHE.” This simple act of softening my focus made a HUGE improvement almost instantaneously. So although long term change has yet to be seen, I know I am on the right track. Sometimes the best way to affect change is to simply be receptive to change and then just let it happen.