One of my favorite themes to teach on the yoga mat is to “Stay in Feeling.” This is a tool that serves us both on and off the mat. We often morph into numb creatures as we grow from child to adult. In most cases it happens gradually. We do so out of our survival instinct, and there are definitely times when it serves us in life.
When we are children, we are largely bright, shining balls of emotion. When we’re happy, we laugh and squeal with glee. When we’re sad, we bawl; our lips tremble, and we wail. We don't know anything about censoring our feelings. When we’re frustrated, we stomp, hit, smack and scratch. We don't hold back. I have a toddler right now. I live this reality daily.
Slowly, over time, this changes. First, we learn not to show our frustration so readily. We can’t just go around hitting and smacking things when we don’t like them.
Next, we learn how to hide our disappointment. It doesn’t make anyone feel good at the family holiday celebration for spoiled children to be belligerent about not receiving the latest toy in lieu of another set of pajamas from grandma.
Finally, we learn how to hide our glee. This is usually a teenager thing. In our attempt to assimilate and belong, we often decide that it’s not always the best idea to let everyone know our reactions to situations and events. Make them work for it. Seem unfazed no matter what the scenario.
You got a new car? So? You got a date with the guy of your dreams? So what? You got straight A’s or were accepted into your ideal school? Yawn. Good for you. Maybe it’s a protective measure, maybe it’s insanity — who knows, but it’s a habit most of us develop. Frequently, we manage it by using substances to help us numb. How many people do you know who cultivated their current numbing habits in high school?
Join every single club, organization, sports team and then some so as to be too busy to be seen or felt? Many start this habit of overextending themselves in their early teens.
Drinking at parties or with friends to “take the edge off?" Started when I was 17.
Smoking cigarettes? Most people start in teen years or before.
Other substances? Usually begin in the same era.
The trick is to change when we get older. Now we have the chance to recognize that this habit (of numbing, hiding our emotions, shielding, sheltering) isn’t serving us. Life is about connection.
That’s where yoga comes in. Yes, you can study till the cows come home about this psychological practice outside of asana. And I highly recommend reading Brene Brown’s books, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. But I also recommend getting on the mat. Learn how to feel your breath in your body. Learn how to work poses with awareness, with curiosity and with joy — yes, joy! Even if they're uncomfortable or causing you to quake and sweat.
As I watched my mother slowly exit this physical plane via an autoimmune disease that cruelly left her physically unable to function, but mentally completely astute, I learned a great deal about the importance of feeling. It was tempting to numb the pain (mine and hers), but we opted (most of the time) to feel it instead. That way, when we wanted to feel the joy of still being together, we could.
It was tempting to be angry at the cruel hand of fate and the unfairness of the scenario, and sometimes we were, but we realized that it was healthier to be loving to one another instead and to take every opportunity to be grateful to be able to touch each other, hug each other, kiss one another, hold hands and share time together. It was tempting to deny the severity of the situation in hopes of keeping everyone comfortable and at ease.
But the reality is, that was false. The last thing you need when you're on your deathbed is falsehood. In that space, more than ever before in life, there's no room for denial. Denial creates fear. Denial creates disconnect. Mom needed to be surrounded by people that could hold her hand, while she stared death in the face, and say, “It’s OK. I’m still here. I'll be here until the end. You're not alone. You will never be alone.” This doesn’t work if you’re numb.
If you are living a numb existence, you can't be present in those moments. You must be able to feel. Yes, feel. Both the courage and the fear. Both the love and the anger. Both the beauty and the sorrow. Because in the end, what matters is how greatly we’ve loved. You have to be able to feel to love. There’s just no way around it. The mat is a brilliant place to experiment with feeling. Try it out. You won’t be sorry.