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.

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Gina was one of the golden girls of my circle—charming, smart, and seriously cool. As our other friends rode through their mid-20s on roller coasters of elation and despair, Gina maintained an almost daunting level of emotional perspective. She gave birth to a brain-damaged child and cared 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 20 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 strong! 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 that we make when we meet our edge help determine our capacity for that vital and mysterious human quality known as resilience.

The very sound of the word resilience captures its bouncy, rubbery quality. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”; psychiatrist Frederick Flach describes it as “the psychological and biological strengths required to successfully master change [emphasis added].”

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

But there also 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 attentiveness, insight, and choice that lets some people tune in to the hidden energy lurking within a crisis and use it as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Though psychologists can list the qualities that resilient people have in common—insight, empathy, humor, creativity, flexibility, the ability to calm and focus the mind—this deeper resilience transcends personality traits.

Jungian psychologist and Buddhist meditator Polly Young-Eisenstadt discusses 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 the art that yoga is meant to teach us.

For most of us, 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 that we’re receiving karmic punishment—that we “deserve” what is happening to us. 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.

A yogi, on the other hand, knows how to untie the knots that make him identify with his suffering self. (The Bhagavad Gita explicitly states that yoga is the “dissolution of union with pain.”) In fact, our yoga practice is meant to teach us how to untangle these inner knots. Often, you don’t realize how much difference your practice has made until the day that you find yourself dealing with a crisis without going into an absolute meltdown. The kids are screaming or your officemates are panicking, 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 stay present with what’s happening without getting sucked into the fear or the anger.

The great spiritual practitioners all offer the same basic prescriptions for undoing inner knots: Find out who you really are, do the practices that purify your murky mind, and 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 is someone who can turn every circumstance to his advantage. That, it seems to me, is what it means to be resilient.

The Alchemy of Adversity

Laura Derbenwick was 24 and on the verge of entering graduate school in English literature when someone rear-ended her car at a red light on a highway entrance ramp in White Plains, New York. Laura was knocked unconscious. A few days later, she realized that something was seriously wrong with her brain.

She had a hard time concentrating on what people said to her and could not remember which color on the traffic signal means “stop” and which means “go.” She fell down a lot. And 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 the inside. Tests showed that her IQ had dropped 40 points.

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

“For the first year,” Laura recalls, “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 too. And I was in excruciating physical pain.”

When your rational mind has stopped working, you have two choices: You can give in to anger, fear, and depression or you can start to explore the nonrational. Laura had never been religious, but she turned to prayer because she had lost the ability to make rational decisions.

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

Laura found herself living in the 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 using a video to learn yoga 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, and 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 felt as if she could sense palpable connections to other people and the universe. She was living her life from the inside out, discovering a force within her that was actually transforming her sense of self.

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

It’s now five years after her accident, and Laura has written a book for people recovering from brain injuries. The work she did to retrain her brain has paid off; she can now read for up to three hours at a time. She and her boyfriend teach a form of energetic healing. 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 that mind. Like many others in similar circumstances, Laura is convinced that her accident was not really an accident but a nudge from the universe—the catalyzing event of her spiritual awakening.

Three Keys to Resilience

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 fashion, Laura discovered the three basic practices that the yogic sage Patanjali grouped together as kriya yoga, the yoga of transformative action. It was Patanjali’s claim, and has been the experience of countless practitioners, that these three yogic actions—tapas (intense effort or austerity), svadhyaya (self-study or self-inquiry), and Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to the higher reality)—strike at the very root of suffering.

According to Patanjali, we suffer not because bad things happen to us but because we are in thrall to obscuring forces called kleshas. The kleshas—ignorance of who we are, egotism, attachment, aversion, and fear of dying—act as psychospiritual cataracts, cognitive veils that skew our vision. They 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 a made-up self and to avoid anything that gives it 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 expanded heart and joyful freedom of our original consciousness. And the basic methods for cutting through the kleshas are tapas, self-study, and surrender. 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 actually purified her mind. In fact, for a yogi, any effort can be reframed as tapas. My friend Scott kept it together through years of working with a difficult boss by telling himself that he was doing tapas. He figured that each moment of forbearance was helping purify and dissolve his tendencies toward 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 a serious illness or the death of a parent.

Asana practice offers basic training in tapas: You are emotionally strengthened each 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 practice kindness and nonviolence and to tell the truth. But during hard times, tapas often means pure endurance—hanging tight when fear, sadness, and frustration threaten to send us into a tailspin. Doing this kind of tapas, we actually become heirs to the great spiritual practitioners who experienced long periods of difficulty, doubt, and darkness, figures like St. John of the Cross, Ramakrishna, and Bodhidharma—especially if, like them, we also remember to practice self-study and surrender.

Svadhyaya, or “self-study,” is sometimes defined as studying wisdom teachings and chanting mantras. In fact, it’s a much broader practice. Svadhyaya is our direct line to the egoless awareness beyond thoughts and emotions. Self-study might take the form of the classic yogic inquiry “Who am I?” or of witness practice, in which we step back from our thoughts and emotions and identify ourselves with the inner witness rather than with the thinker. Svadhyaya is a way of moving beyond limiting beliefs to identify our basic goodness, the unbreakable beauty of our 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 these 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 recommend svadhyaya 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; he finds that this can translate into compassionate observation of their thoughts and emotions throughout their everyday lives. Lee 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 in to his witnessing self, he has a better chance of discovering what to do.

Ishvara pranidhana is usually translated 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, Ishvara pranidhana is the choice to open up to what is actually going on inside us 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. Surrendering instantly gives us back the energy we have been spending in resisting our lives, in feeling victimized, frustrated, or despairing. It is the most profound form of alignment with reality—and it opens us to love.

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

When I asked Laura Derbenwick what advice she would give to other people recovering from a serious injury, 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 added, “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 psychotherapist Mark Epstein would probably agree. Epstein has said that what makes a person resilient is “accepting the truth of impermanence”—that is, the fact that life is ever-changing and that the self we think we are is actually just a shifting kaleidoscope of temporary thoughts and feelings. The sages of my tradition, Hindu Tantra, would express the same idea in different language. They would say that when our egos let go of their need to control reality, we align ourselves with the intrinsic power at the heart of all phenomena. That’s when solutions arise, spontaneously, to seemingly insoluble problems.

The Resilience Toolkit

Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara pranidhana can be applied in any situation and practiced at any level of spiritual awareness. When your life feels hard, when you feel overwhelmed or victimized or distraught, try asking yourself questions like these: What effort do I need to make now? What (or how) should I surrender? What would the sages tell me to do in this situation? What is the deeper truth beyond these circumstances and emotions?

As you ask these questions, remember that effort, self-study, and surrender are interdependent. Tapas alone is just willfully 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-inquiry, looking into the truth of who we are, our other practices may become ritualized, external observances that fail to transform us inwardly.

Yet yogic self-inquiry can be difficult, demanding great subtlety. Most of us carry layers of emotional baggage that can make it hard to discern the essential Self within so many layers of thoughts and feelings. To successfully peel away the layers around our basic awareness, we may need an array of tools—contemporary psychological practices as well as more traditional techniques from the yogic lineages.

Take the example of Bob Hughes, a Tennessee yoga teacher and psychotherapist who had an incident of sexual abuse as a child. Until he began practicing yoga, he often dealt with his internal discomfort through that disappearing act sometimes called “doing a geographical”: When life got too stressful in one place, he would simply move away.

Hatha yoga helped him change that pattern, shifting his relationship to his body and the ways in which he managed his energy. But then Bob found out that his spiritual teacher was having sex with students. The discovery catapulted him away from his spiritual community, but it also made him realize that he needed to deal with his own charged emotions about sex. Bob spent six months in therapy, doing inquiry into his own psyche, supported by his practice and his family. He says that without the years of yogic discipline and practice, he doubts he would have been able to work so deeply with such difficult memories and emotional issues—but that without the psychological work, he might never have been able to let go of the charged emotions.

Bob has since worked with many yoga students who have been sexually abused, as well as with traumatized war veterans. He learned that certain yoga postures tend to bring up buried emotions, and he often guides students toward staying mindful of these feelings and working with them in therapy. Yet he notes that the postures have a healing power of their own. A student who learns to hold steady in an asana while charged feelings arise has taken a significant step toward resilience. Often, she can carry this lesson with her when she leaves the yoga mat and returns to her daily life.

In addition, yoga often provides people with a powerful experience of inner tranquility. Knowing 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 originally take up yoga. Yet touching that state is just a beginning. It becomes a lasting resource only 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 egoless awareness behind our personalities.

In June 2003, I moved out of the spiritual community in which I’d lived for half of 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 somewhat overwhelming. After 20 years as a monk, I was out of practice at living a 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? Can I really do this?

One morning, I woke up in a sort of primal panic. Sitting for meditation, I felt quivers of anxiety running through my chest and stomach. After a few minutes, I found the inner witness and began focusing on the sensations inside my body, the thoughts beneath my feelings. Behind the fear, I saw a belief that I was alone, without protection, completely vulnerable to the winds of change. Intellectually, I knew that these were old feelings, ghosts left over from childhood. But telling myself they were unreal didn’t 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 faced the fear and 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 tenderness. I felt free, protected, and filled with joy. That moment of letting go had opened the door to the deeper power, the egoless awareness behind my ideas about who I am and what I should be doing.

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

Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is the author of The Heart of Meditation


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