The Yogi’s Guide to Self-Forgiveness

Yogic tradition offers three basic remedies for guilt: Avoid it by practicing ethical mindfulness, purify your psyche of the residue of old actions, and practice self-forgiveness.

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Yogic tradition offers three basic remedies for guilt: Avoid it by practicing ethical mindfulness, purify your psyche of the residue of old actions, and practice self-forgiveness.

This advice is basic, though challenging. You avoid guilt by avoiding unethical behavior. Yoga’s great technology for guilt-free living is the practice of the yamas and niyamas, the restraints and observances described in Patanjali‘s eight-limbed yogic path.

Yogis try for two reasons to refrain from deliberately harming others, telling lies, engaging in sexual excess, and taking what belongs to other people. First, for the sake of others, but second, for reasons that are ultimately selfish: When you practice yogic restraints, you spare yourself the inner suffering and guilt that hurting others inevitably creates in the psyche.

See also Path to Happiness: 9 Interpretations of the Yamas + Niyamas

Purify Your Psyche to Rid Yourself of Guilt

In the same way that a cleansing diet gets rid of accumulated physical toxins, yogic purification works on the accumulated karmic traces deposited in the body, the nervous system, and the mind. Many yogic schools believe that past patterns of thought and action—including habits picked up from family and culture—create a hidden template for the present life.

Who you are, what you do, and how you think have a lot to do with this template. Whether or not you believe in past lives, you certainly carry imprints from your childhood, your adolescence, and the culture you grew up in. We’re skewed toward certain behaviors because our past choices have laid down grooves that keep sending us down the same pathways of thought and action. But yoga rejects karmic determinism. Not only is change possible, but many of the practices of yoga— including, especially, Pranayama, mantra repetition, and meditation—are designed specifically to burn away the residues of karmic patterning, including stored patterns of guilt. Yoga’s all-purpose prescription for cleaning up lingering guilt is tapas, or sustained, effortful practice. Tapas literally means “heat,” or “friction.” In the same way that we think of a fever burning away sickness in the body, the heat generated when you do intense pranayama or mantra practice burns away the hidden memories that create toxic guilt.

Along with the inner practice, it’s important to do karma yoga. A person who feels guilt over having taken things that don’t belong to him, for example, could make a point of giving away possessions or making donations to people who need it.

Ask Forgiveness of Yourself

The ultimate guilt-busting strategy is saying, “I’m sorry.” When the guilty feelings are deep and lodged in the past, you may not know what you’re asking forgiveness for. But the person from whom you’re asking forgiveness is always yourself. You might think of this as asking forgiveness from your higher Self, your divine Self, your inner Buddha, or your inner child. What is important is that you direct your request inward.

It often helps to write it down, as a letter to yourself or just as a simple request. Take a piece of paper and write something like this:

Dear Inner Self, Please forgive me for all the ways I have failed to act out of love. For all the harm I may have done either consciously or unconsciously.Asking forgiveness, I know that I am forgiven.

Offer the paper into a fire. Or write it on a leaf, and set the leaf on a running stream or in the ocean. And when you’ve done that, let it go.

See also Yoga for Moms: Letting Go of Mom Guilt