There’s something about physical transformation that fascinates us. We look at before-and-after photos to marvel at what a difference a month, a year, or three years makes. Kids in elementary school stare in amazement at images of the butterfly life cycle, while their parents are busy compiling digital collages marking their children’s growth over the months and years. Follow the hashtag #transformation, and you’ll find an onslaught of people losing weight, gaining weight, flexing muscles, and showing off new hairstyles. Look at #transformationyoga, and you’ll see people moving deeper—sometimes dangerously—into backbends or splits over time.
But aside from all of the changes that are visible and shareable, there are the other forms of transformation that happen entirely out of view. They’re within us. You might look the same, mostly act the same, yet there’s been a profound shift in your inner world. “Sometimes subtle transformations are the most powerful,” says yoga teacher Jennifer Pastiloff, author of On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard. “You find one day that you’re not chanting, ‘I’m a loser’ or ‘I’m a bad person’ 500 times a day. The phrases are no longer tattooed on your mind. Instead, you have moments of quiet where you realize ‘I’m enough and I’m here.’ Your internal wiring is transformed.”
Recovering After Loss
When Pastiloff was eight, her father died suddenly of heart failure, and she says she spent most of her life trying to avoid the pain of losing him: “I didn’t want to feel grief, so I shut it off. I feared change. The word transformation made me panic, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that change doesn’t have to be bad.” Pastiloff says that the last thing she said to her father was “I hate you,” which she then adopted as her inner mantra. “In my mid-30s I had an epiphany: I get to change my mind. I finally dealt with my lifelong depression, went on antidepressants, and signed up for yoga teacher training,” she says. “I chose to keep going instead of shutting down.”
Discover Yourself Through Your Practice
Artist and meditation teacher Shivani Hawkins, founder of Living Sanskrit and the Center for Natural Mind, describes inner transformation as an organic process. “You are woven from nature and your system is constantly trying to repair itself with or without your help,” she says. “It’s your job to support the natural process. Each day you can discover something new or make a small change.”
She says meditation can be a great tool for learning about yourself and what might be stirring within you, but it depends on your approach. “A lot of what passes as meditation training is actually spiritual bypassing,” Hawkins says. “People are taught to ascend to a higher realm. They’re taught their feelings and emotions are inferior to bigger states of consciousness. But sometimes something is awry and we need to do hard work to make it right instead of just jumping to a state where all is one and everything is fine.” For example, a common meditation technique is to try to examine the space between thoughts and feelings, which can be valuable, she says, yet we also need to learn how to engage our thoughts and feelings directly. “If the only way we can endure reality is by turning away from it, we have actually diminished our capacity for presence and awareness,” she says.
Hawkins says she encourages her students to approach meditation with curiosity instead of trying to control the process: “All of the things we run away from hold valuable bits of information. We think anger is bad and grief is too painful. But anything that is going on in your system is potent and revealing something to you. This includes awful sensations, anxiety, grief, and anger. You may experience a primal rage that is telling you that a boundary was crossed or a really deep need or want is not being met. This is amazing information that can guide and inform the changes or new actions you need to take. If you suppress it, you’ll block transformation. One of the most sacred, powerful turning points in life is when you can meet that place of rage or grief with love and a deep desire to understand.”
Pastiloff leads workshops and retreats that focus on two things: listening and telling the truth. “That’s all I do. That’s the work,” she says. “I tell the truth about things that scare me and let go of the shame. I say, ‘I’m afraid and I’m doing it anyway.’”
This doesn’t mean you have to go rush to sit with your grief and deep wounds or overhaul your whole life in a day. Hawkins recommends that you go slow and be gentle on yourself: “Growth is a tangled spiral, not a straight line. Try not to put a time limit on it. You may need to have the same realization 1,000 times over the course of transformation. Most long-standing patterns didn’t develop in a day, and they won’t change in a day, either. Small, incremental changes are much more important, and ultimately longer lasting, than big leaps.”
To help support you in your own process, we asked teachers to share their tough stories of self-discovery and their best advice for how to do the work that will nudge along the transformation that’s already begun forming within you.