Tapas: Letting Go, Feeling & Healing

When I’m in class and it becomes apparent that I am about to do a high lunge, my heart sinks. My brain flies into action. My muscles burn and begin to shake, my breath shortens, and a certain unidentifiable emotion becomes entirely overwhelming.

As mentioned last week, my mind has been giving me an extreme negative reaction to physical activity. However, since my last post, my yoga practice has been able to further uncover and decode these feelings.

I noticed that I never feel this way in my home practice because I never choose asanas that may evoke such a feeling or hold postures long enough to feel that muscle burn. And, until now, in class I have been ignoring whatever emotion I may be experiencing, and I have just told myself to come out of the triggering pose. The recovery and relief from the overwhelming emotion and panic experienced just seconds before is almost immediate, so of course I took that as the solution.

“Yoga is not a work out.” I told myself. “You shouldn’t and don’t have to participate in that.”

And for awhile, it worked. I avoided all physical activity that resembled a workout. I opted out of physically strenuous asana, truly believing that working out was somehow the “bad guy”. It wasnt until yesterday, after reading an article on tapas, the third niyama, that I began to see the situation from a new perspective.

In Sanskrit, tapas literally means to burn. It refers to the way yoga can make our physical bodies stronger, more flexible, spacious, and open. It’s also about discipline, consistency, hard work, and challenging yourself.

Yoga is not meant to be a workout, no. But it is meant to stretch AND strengthen the muscles, is it not?  I was on edge as I read the part of the tapas article that discussed bringing heat into the body. While it spoke of heat so highly– calling it a “fire of transformation”– I was experiencing a completely different mental reaction to heat. The moment my muscles tighten and burn, I begin to panic. Something’s not right. I shouldn’t feel like my world is ending multiple times every class as we almost unavoidably make our way through warrior one, plank, or chair pose.

Suddenly it became clear that I’m not doing as well as I had thought. Somewhere along my journey with exercise and my body, I had decided to cut out working out  all together rather than deal with the issues that working out was causing. I had thought that in order to get rid of my issues, i needed to just “let it [working out] go”. And maybe for a time that was true, but really what I need for the long term is to heal my relationship with working out. Letting go of my old work out habits has caused tremendous recovery. But recovery isn’t linear. There’s still a whole lot left to this journey. And I realize now that at some point my commitment to letting go became a way to flee my emotions rather than feel them. Leave it to my yoga mat– the place that stirs up feelings and teaches us to sit with them– to show me where I need to continue to do work.

So after this realization I had to ask myself: what am I not letting myself feel?

Fear. It has to be fear. That overwhelming thing that builds up inside of me has no other name. It’s like watching a black storm cloud roll in from my toes to my knees, my thighs to my hips, and like the self-preserver it is, my brain’s immediate reaction is to send my body into panic. If it can somehow distract me from this black cloud, all will be okay. If it can somehow get me to stop the storm from rolling up into my heart and settling there, all will be well. The fear rises slowly from the ground up, but when I feel it heavy and thick in my gut and my spine… I give up. My breath shortens, and I switch from my conscious brain to my lizard brain. The panic attacks save me from having to truly feel this fear. And then all I have to do is recover myself from the panic attack. Take a child’s pose and breathe for awhile. All is forgotten. All is well.

I’m not really letting anything go anymore. I’m avoiding and blocking out fear.

But tapas teaches us to let it out rather than to let it go. Going through this process allows the feelings to be burned away because you are able to accept them and deal with them before you let them go. But I guess I’ve put up this wall in order to “protect myself” from those painful first steps.

What walls have you put up in your life? When you recognize them, what do you do? Do you keep searching for clarity, digging deeper to find the root cause? Or do you try to ignore them, allowing them to grow bigger and thicker, unable to be burned away?

As I challenged myself and let tapas’ transformative fire do its work on me, I found that this particular wall of mine comes from my body love journey. Last semester, I caught myself participating in destructive behavior and it was really scary. I was pacing back and forth from safety to the edge of a cliff, a walk I have traced most of my life, but this time I was getting too close to the step that would cause me to fall. What’s over that edge? A diagnosable eating disorder.

Luckily, about the same time I was teetering the edge, the body positive movement came into my life. I started listening to a podcast about intuitive eating, weight inclusive wellness, and eating disorder recovery. I recognized too many of the harmful behaviors in myself. My own disordered eating, a restriction/binge cycle, and a use of exercise to “purge” all came to light, and I made a move to step away from the edge. I think this negative reaction I have to working out now is caused by a fear of falling back into destructive habits.

What followed my initial discovery of the Food Psych podcast was months of limbo. I wanted to learn everything I could about normal eating and health at every size, but I was struggling with the way it seemed to conflict with my interests in clean eating and gut science, as well as with my involvement in an intensely athletic performing art. I wanted to be a “normal eater”, to rid myself of anxiety around food, to stop using work outs as a means by which to punish myself. But I couldn’t reconcile what these “recovered” people were saying with the healthy lifestyle I wanted to live.

Overtime, I learned what it meant to truly let “all foods fit”. I learned how to make food choices from a place of self care, not self control. I learned how to start taking the diet mentality out of my life, how to combat diet culture in day to day living.

But today my yoga mat taught me that while I’ve made huge strides in normal eating, I’ve largely neglected my healing process with working out. I still hold on to a lot of fear and hurt in this area of my life, emotions I have been avoiding rather than “burning” away.

Today, I am grateful for my mat and the self awareness it brings. I am grateful for our third niyama, tapas, the fire of transformation. Although it is fire we are dealing with, and so we may be burned, without this fire transformation is simply not possible, on or off the mat. I am grateful for this reminder to challenge myself– to use my days to continue learning and healing! And oh my, I am grateful that yoga is so. much. more than asana.

Happy rainmaking, loves.

xx Radiance

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