Can Yoga Help You Forgive Yourself?

“I shouldn’t have worn that seat belt!”

That seat belt broke eleven of his ribs and didn’t keep his head from thwacking off the other guy’s head. That seat belt didn’t stop the brain injury. He and I and everyone we know know that. That’s my dad’s go-to when he gets really mad, or when the conversation has him backed into a corner. Hearing it is soul-crushing. Hearing it is really hearing him say I should have just died, because then it’d be easier for all of you. That seat belt kept him in place.

I know it hurts him when he hurts us—when he says something or does something to me, my mom, his parents, our friends—but the expressions of sympathy and empathy have pretty much gone south with his lack of executive functioning. In the end, it’s not his fault. It’s the brain injury’s.

So my mom and I try to forgive him right and left. We even try to forgive ourselves for the irrational emotions his actions and words can stir up. I get older, and the forgiving gets easier. Maybe the opposite happens for my mom. I’m not sure. But I’ve come to realize that my father rarely, if ever, forgives himself. I’m not really sure he knows how to. In the black and white of his brain, not having worn the seat belt is his only solution for when things get ugly, for when he’s tired of saying he’s sorry for the crap he pulls that puts us in tears or riles us up.

Yet, if we never forgive ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, that’s a whole lot of shit we end up carrying around. It gets heavy, sticky, dark. Just the other day, I got tripped up by one silly action (truly harmless in the big scheme of things), yet I spent an entire day oscillating between forgiving myself and berating myself: How could I? Wasn’t I done with that behavior? Have I learned nothing? My father also doesn’t berate himself. Blessing and a curse, I suppose, that things always come down to a seat belt.

When it comes to my dad, I’ve tried to help him find an unconscious forgiveness in his yoga practice. I believe that yoga—the poses, the strength, and the ease of the breath—do the forgiving for him. Every uttanasana, every devotional warrior, is a chance for him let go. Let go of the crap we unknowingly—and sometimes knowingly—do to ourselves and to others. Forgiveness is release and surrender. So these poses get us real vulnerable, then ask us to let go. We release the muscles, release the junk, and clear a path to forgive, to find some happiness and ease. I like to think that my yoga breaks apart unnecessary emotion the way tennis balls and blocks break apart unnecessary fascia.

I especially think this for my father. I can’t give him the ability to consciously forgive himself, but I can at least lead him through a pretty modified devotional warrior and ask that he let whatever it is pour out from the crown of his head. Maybe it’s a thousand and one I-should-have-never-worn-that-seat-belts. Maybe it’s not. It’s different for all of us.

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