What To Do When Yoga & Meditation Don't Work

Written by Jamie Greenwood

We’ve all been there, right? Smack in the middle of yoga class, doing your best version of a downward dog, when a stream of stress floods your brain:

  • Crap, did I sent that last email to my boss?
  • God, why doesn’t my butt look like hers!
  • I really shouldn’t have polished off that pan of gluten-free brownies.
  • That’s is, I’m starting a cleanse on Monday.
  • This class is not working! I’m getting fro-yo on my way home.

You notice the same thoughts coming up in your morning meditation and you begin to wonder, “Why isn’t this yoga and meditation thing working!” You then get barraged with the thoughts like, I must not be doing this right, If only I came to class 5 times a week, I just need to be more disciplined. Suddenly your zen is swooped out the window and you're left wondering why you try at all.

We often look to yoga and mediation for answers and hope that in some way, whether it’s to fix our back or quiet the constant toxic chatter in our minds, it will heal us. And when we don’t get “healed” we get pissed.

Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron explains that the purpose of yoga and meditation isn’t to make us feel better. We need to not look at it as a process of self-improvement, but rather a practice of self-acceptance. Yoga and meditation are opportunities to take ourselves exactly as we are, complete with wandering, stressed-out thoughts, sore backs and all.

When we look to meditation and yoga to give us answers or heal us on the spot we put an incredible amount of pressure on ourselves, which burdens our flow and flattens the lightness we seek.

Yoga and meditation only begin “to work” when we let go of the need to improve ourselves and rather give permission to BE, in whatever form we are in and from that vantage point, watch any changes that arise.

Easier said that done, I know. We live in a doer society. We value accomplishment and makin' stuff happen. We think if we aren't moving forward at all times, we are falling behind. We get giddy to check items off our never ending to do list and so to BE, to sit and BE for a moment and not hold ourselves to a high standard in yoga or strive for perfection in floating above our meditation cushion feels awkward, unknown and scary.

So, where to start?

With the breath. I know you’ve heard it before, but that’s really it.

When you get uppity and angry in yoga, notice it. No need to fix it, feel guilty about it, or shove it back down into the messy place it came from. Your emotion is coming up for a reason. It wants to be cleared. Breathe into the feeling and say, “Hey Anger, I see you. What is it you need to say?”

In acknowledging your feelings, they have greater space to soften. When your monkey mind goes haywire in meditation, rather than screaming your mantra louder in hopes of drowning out the chatter, acknowledge it with a little, “Hey there thoughts, funny to find you here again,” and let them be as they are.

In our forever frenzy to do more, be better, change, shift and grow, it’s very disconcerting when our valiant efforts on the mat aren’t rewarded with a quiet mind, eternal bliss, and sunshine pouring out of you know where.

Know this: There is nothing to fix, change, get right, work harder at, or perfect. Your yoga and meditation practices are working, it just doesn’t feel like it with all the expectations you’ve wrapped around them. Release the expectations and the need to perpetually improve.

Do a little experiment next time you’re in class. When your brain rattles off everything you shouldn’t have eaten today or compares you to the super-bendy girl in the front, or worries about your big meeting tomorrow, rather than get wrapped up in believing you suck or you shouldn’t be thinking these things in the first place, just look.

You are not your thoughts, but rather a spectator of them; a gentle, almost parental viewer who, without attachment, tenderly watches them act out their play. Sit with what arrives. Welcome what bubbles up with love and an inquisitive, non-judgmental eye. Notice if you feel lighter, more at peace, and perhaps easeful. Notice if you find the calm you seek not in the improving but in the space of accepting.

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