Running on empty? Maybe you feel safer that way.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” – if only Elizabeth Barrett Browning had been talking about self love when she wrote these famous lines. Alas, all her praise and generosity are directed toward her idealized lover.
We think of it as commendable to see the best in other people; sometimes we find even their imperfections attractive. Self-love, on the other hand, if permitted at all, is supposed to be sober and reasonable. Isn’t it narcissistic to think of adoring myself “freely and purely?” How could it really be ok to passionately love myself “to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach?” Why then do we admire the ability to love others in this way?
Maintaining a focus on the heart chakra without an equal focus on the root, where our own needs are met with deserving reassurance, can indicate a deadly lack of sattva. One of my teachers, Mukunda Tom Stiles explained in a seminar on Structural Yoga Therapy, “If you are practicing well, you finish the day with the same amount of energy that you began it. If that isn’t what you’re experiencing, you need to examine what is going on.”
When a yogi is living in balance, your activities, right down to breathing, build prana. When our activities are out of balance, everything – even giving love – destroys our pranic capacities. Mukunda cautioned us to touch all of our energy centers equally, because more vibration at any one chakra than the others would actually break down life force.
At our Watering Pond Retreat teachers’ retreat last month, participants were invited to receive the renewal they so often offer others. Teachers, caregivers, and “light workers” of many varieties often find themselves seriously exhausted at some point in their career. (See Tired, Uninspired, and Teaching Yoga.) The theme of renewal was an emotional one for many.
Sometimes we’re trapped by our own successful coping mechanisms. Teachers or not, many of us go on pushing ourselves, under deadlines or financial pressure, asking from ourselves what we know is too much while rationalizing that it isn’t. In the end, we don’t feel grateful as we would to someone else who went the extra mile; instead we criticize our weaknesses, our fears, our needs. And then we practice yoga or meditation, trying to quell our disgust with “ego,” hoping to wipe out its existence. It can be difficult to recognize our own contempt for or fear of vulnerability. The way that we give makes us feel invincible, even if only momentarily. At times of increased stress, when we need to rest, we may end up giving more just to get a brief hit of super competence.
I often play the song “Devi Prayer” during shavasana at the end of a practice. (You can hear a bit of it in this month’s playlist.) A soothing voice sings “ma ma lalita devi namastasye namo namaha.” The repeated holding of the syllables ma, ma reaches past our intellectual cool and emotional armoring into our deep longing for all-loving Mothering, for rest and tenderness. In a recent workshop, an exhausted physician lay on the floor and quietly wept, something that happens in almost every class when I play this beautiful prayer.
Inspired by that Universal Need and Universal Presence, give yourself the following passage, adapted from Helen Cixous’ Coming to Writing, which I offered as an invocation for the teachers who gathered at the Renewal Retreat.
Woman for me is she who kills no one in herself, she who gives herself her own lives: woman is always in a certain way Mother for herself and for the other.
There is something of the Mother in you if you love yourself. If you love, you love yourself as well.
This is the woman who belongs to love: the woman who loves all the women inside her.
Plenitude, she who doesn’t watch herself, doesn’t measure herself. She who looks with the look that recognizes, that studies, respects,
doesn’t take, doesn’t claw, but attentively, with gentle relentlessness, contemplates and reads, caresses, bathes,
makes the other gleam. Brings back to light the life that’s been buried, fugitive, made too prudent.
Illuminates it and sings its name.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.