Are our yoga practices healing or pacifying?

new glasses
Thanks rad Seattle blog/shop: EYES ON FREMONT, for this pic of an adorable child with new glasses. And now I ask,  What are we really doing with the yoga practices that we choose for ourselves? During my yoga therapy training, we discussed lots of good stuff—Indian Anatomies, ways to think about therapeutic yoga, clients and relationship, models for understanding disease and wellness in our human system…one of the lectures has really stayed with me and left me thinking…

śamana and śodhana

There are times that our system is so out of balance: thoughts are so negative, there is very little conviction that we can be better, or our system is weakened by illness, that our yoga practice can’t go straight for the curative work. We might not be ready. The work of curing or clearing out might be too strong for the out-of-balance state we are in and we aren’t ready for it. In this cases, we need śamana, which means “to pacify”.  With the guidance of our yoga therapist, therapist, spiritual counselor, or other reliable mentor and support person, we take appropriate steps to calm and build strength in the system and to cultivate confidence in the therapeutic relationship and in the tools.   After some time, conditions may be right for śodhana. – The deep cleaning work that transforms or cures a condition. (Of course, curing isn’t always possible.  But even in those tough situations, healing can happen.) My teacher gave the example of getting a splinter in your finger. Śamana might involve putting some salve on the finger. Śodhana would be removing the splinter- a little incision, a needle and some tweezers. śodhana is where we are heading for the deeper, curative work.

I don’t know if you are having the same feeling, but to me, Śamana and śodhana feel like the right and left lenses of a new pair of prescription glasses and I just put them on my face after years of things being a little out of focus. With these glasses on, I’m looking at our yoga culture and seeing that so much of what goes on is śamana. It’s pacification. This pacification is okay and maybe even appropriate… for a while. Pacification can calm our system or deal with the most pressing issues so that we can know that there’s something in the practices that we like, and it feels good in a different way than booze or late night movie and popcorn on the couch feels good. Recognizing that we can feel good with yoga is something, but that’s not the whole enchilada. Self-directing and self-regulating with yoga so that we can feel good enough to jump right back into the craziness of our over-scheduled, over-stimulated lives and deal with it until the next class isn’t the point. (This was soooooo the way I worked yoga for about a decade.)

If we go to a class and we have some stuff come up— the stuff that might be approaching the source of why we need yoga in the first place (difficulty expressing our opinions, can’t say no- hence the over-scheduling, unhealthy lifestyle, unhappy work situation, dysfunctional relationship, illness, strains), and we didn’t get our dose of pacification, then we might leave that class thinking, “That teacher really sucked. I don’t feel good when I leave that class. I’m never going back. “ This is a hard place to be, because if you really are at that place, and you are starting to see or get a sense that there’s stuff that needs to change, pretty soon lots of yoga teachers suck or maybe yoga sucks all together and you give it up so you don’t have to deal. Feeling all the hard stuff that bubbles up is when some śodhana starts going on. Seeing and then dealing with the difficult stuff eventually comes up for many of us yoga folks.

Going at it alone and forging ahead without guidance of a good teacher is tough because Śodhana isn’t always easy going. We humans have a tendency to lean towards things we like and avoid things that we don’t like. We prefer things that are easy. Plus, we are so much of a product of our own unconscious behavior, thoughts, and habits that we can’t even see what’s happening. Hence the need for a good outside reference to help us identify and maybe even offer tools that can support the change we want to make.

In the context of yoga therapy, these concepts have a broader application. Yoga therapists can can come up with appropriate practices and long-term goals with these starting places in mind. Is śodhana more appropriate for this client or is the groundwork there to begin the cleansing healing work of śamana? Either way we work in a direction and with a goal in mind, even if that goal shifts or changes. I can see that having these concepts in my brain will help me to be better at choosing an appropriate place to begin with a student or client.

Sometimes we or our students need the śodhana. We all need tools to deal with the stuff that stresses us out. There may be things that require attention before we can jump into the deeper work.  In this phase, we may make a tiny bit of space in the inside so we can have a different feeling in the body and better insight into what is going on that is causing all the stress. We might be here for a  really long time– recovering, clearing things out and building strength and attention. This effort we make is tapas.  We might need time to cultivate tools like svadhyaya, or self-reflection, so we see what’s going on and how to move forward. Isvarapranidhana, or relinquishing the results and appreciating that we are not in control, is the third leg of the kriya-yoga tripod and an equally important piece. With time and these tools, maybe the śamana, the healing work, can make it’s way in. Eventually, we need to deal with the hard stuff so we can have a chance at deeper peace, joy, and clarity – the good stuff that yoga offers.

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