Emme Leaning Against a Tree in the Forest

How Yoga helps to overcome painful life situations

I have been a dedicated student of Yoga for almost 30 years.

In my classes, I often use my own stories to illustrate what it might look like living a yogic lifestyle beyond the practice we do on our mats. 

In other words, how can we learn from the ancient principles of Yoga to live a life guided by our Higher Self?

I am aware this might sounds quite esoteric for some. So what exactly does it mean?

How do we navigate around the obstacles and the sometimes quiet suffering so many of us call our life? 

How do we create a life experience grounded in connectedness and awareness, where our decisions are based on knowledge and wisdom. Where we have clarity and faith in the path, we have taken.

Where our life is the daily practice and yet the best teacher for us to evolve.

As some of you know, I had a wonderful companion during my 40s, my beloved Leo, a majestic, strong, loving, and most loyal Rhodesian Ridgeback. At the end of 2017, he suddenly seemed to have gotten very sick on Christmas Eve. And although we have watched him slow down as a senior dog over his last year, I honestly did not expect him to get so sick so rapidly. After a short but dramatic decline in health, he finally transitioned in January of 2018.

January 4th, 2018, a day I will never forget, a day when my world stopped to exist the way I knew it, marking the beginning of a spiritual pause.

As a Yoga teacher, one might assume I would be very well equipped to deal with a painful life situation. And yes, I firmly believe my extended Yoga practice over the years has allowed me to manage this phase of my life with more awareness and grace.

However, it was not as straightforward as doing some Yoga exercises on my mat when we had to say goodbye to Leo. There was no Pranayama (breathing) technique or Asana I could have practiced all day to take away my tears. Nor did my elaborate shoulder or hamstring stretches or “heart openers” help my aching heart.

When we live through emotionally turbulent times, it is not the yoga exercises that help us stay centered or grounded.

They are one stepping stone on our path to growth during the flow of our life. The Asanas intend to hone our bodies, to discipline them to a place of strength, balance, and grace.

But we need to learn how to apply that physical strength into our life and develop mental strength and emotional resilience.
Without this step, we will not be at peace or trust ourselves to get through challenging situations in our life.

Three things to remember:
  1. Being able to handle difficult situations in life does not come as a result of the yoga exercises we do on our mat.
  2. It does not fall into our lap, in other words, it is not given, it is created by us.
  3. There is not one path valid for each one of us in every situation of our life.

But what we do have are lessons, principles, techniques, and teachings that can help us understand, grow through making different choices of how to handle future situations.

Awareness before learning

Learning before understanding

Understanding before applying

The Heart of Yoga

If we recognize that yoga has so much more to offer than physical exercises — a way of living — we can learn to embrace the Heart of Yoga.

Pema Chödrön, a American Tibetan Buddhist nun was asked in a talk which one essential teaching has influenced her life the most. After a short pause, she answered “Compassion.”

And she added that she realized her most difficult times in life were the ones that taught her the most. How graceful and true.

How can Yoga help us find compassion?

Nowadays, when we google how to overcome difficult situations in our life, most likely Yoga is going to come up as one of the recommended solutions to relieve and help us deal with our pain.

Do some sun salutations and a couple of down dogs followed by camel pose, and Half Lord of the Fishes Pose ending with Shavasana leaving you in blissful peace...and all our sorrows will vanish, as well as your back pain.

And most of them will joyfully suggest a new program, technique, method; the latest app for our iPhones and a 30-day challenge; a weekend workshop to become a yoga teacher (because as a yoga teacher, your life should be pure bliss); as well as the latest yoga mat, yoga pants, yoga watch, and a gazillion gadgets to make us happy and well.

You get the gist.

But unfortunately, all of that did not help with the pain I experienced when my beloved companion died.

I had to resort to the true heart of yoga, and that is to become still and sit with the pain.

When we pause in a moment of pain and become still, we can experience what is without the incessant chatter of our mind or emotions. We can feel the pain and learn not to judge or feel ashamed. The is a space that opens up and in that space we can learn so much about ourselves.

In my case I learned how it felt to lose someone you love, and what it means to grieve. 

I learned that I am not my pain, it is something I experience. And I learned how to move forward from that place of pain that slowly transitioned into appreciation and deep gratitude. 

I learned how courage looks like in real life, not a mental construct on your yoga mat during class.

Courage to sit with the pain, courage to not distract or relieve myself from the pain, but accept them as part of my personal life experience.

I learned how to cherish life, even more, to experience its preciousness with full awareness. That is a direct result of learning conscious awareness during my Yoga practice.

We can apply the essence of these principles by being deliberately present with what is in a challenging moment in time. By consciously practicing to stay aware, we can find resilience and strength to keep moving forward and not stay stuck.

And maybe that is what it means to get closer to our Highest Self.

I hope this article helps create a bridge to yoga elements that are often not taught in yoga classes and help to lighten the path to what ‘yoga off the mat’ indeed looks like.