July 22, 2016

Why Yoga & Ayurveda Couldn’t Save Me.

woman sun sunscreen face skin protection

For as long as I can remember I felt unsafe. From the outside, my life appeared to be quite secure, but I didn’t feel secure and I was terrified of death.

When I was about five years old I looked to my father for some reassurance about my future demise. He simply told me that people die.

It was an unsatisfactory answer, to say the least.

This was the extent of my spiritual education until my late 20s, when I began looking in earnest for some solution to my feelings of insecurity and unhappiness. I didn’t know what I was looking for—or even what was available—but I was looking for something.

I fell into yoga because it was offered at my health club. The style taught there dangled a bliss-filled carrot that promised to free me from my life as it was.

I was told that if I worked hard for many years to perfect my body and my mind, I could become enlightened. Now that I knew what I was working toward, I had a place to focus my efforts.

Looking back from my current perspective on some of the things that I did—and that I believed—I marvel at how entangled I got. At the time, though, this awakening thing was a deadly serious business of escape.

And I needed every edge I could get.

When a yoga teacher friend introduced me to Ayurveda (the Indian system of diet and lifestyle often paired with yoga and based on the premise of living in harmony with the laws of nature and one’s constitutional type) I was totally on board. I was sure I had finally found my salvation. All I had to do was follow the program, and I would be assured perfect health, happiness and spiritual illumination.

Since this happiness and illumination apparently hinged on first achieving flawlessly good health, there was a constitutionally appropriate diet to be adhered to and a recommended daily routine as follows:

Wake up early (ideally before sunrise).

Splash my face with cold water and rinse out my mouth.

Massage my eyelids and do eye exercises.

Drink a glass of water.

Produce a bowel movement.

Even if I wasn’t ready, I was supposed to sit on the toilet for a few minutes to develop the habit. If I was one of the lucky ones who could achieve this properly timed evacuation, I was to follow it by washing the anal orifice with warm water.

The instructions continued:

Clean my teeth and scrape my tongue.

Gargle with sesame oil and swish it around my mouth.

Massage my gums.

Insert three to five drops of ghee or sesame oil into each nostril.

Give myself a full-body oil massage.

Follow this by a bath or shower (and clean all the oil out of the shower so I don’t slip the next time I get in).

Do some light exercise. Do some deep breathing. Meditate.

And finally, eat breakfast and get on with my day.

There was a recommended routine for evening, too. Take a meditative walk alone. Ideally eat dinner while the sun is still up. Before bed do some spiritual reading and drink a cup of hot milk. Rub oil on the soles of my feet. And, lastly, meditate for a few minutes.

It was a daunting program that was simply undoable unless I devoted most of my time to it.

I already had an almost-full-time job and now I had to take on another one. Instead of achieving the health and happiness I was promised, I felt stressed out because I was unable to do everything.

The fate of my eternal soul apparently hinged on getting this right—and I was failing in a big way.

I went from being strong, energetic and fairly high-functioning (even if I did feel unhappy, spiritually lost and had regular panic attacks) to being a totally wigged-out mess just trying to make it through the day. I was now anxious all the time, sleeping poorly and becoming sensitive to noises and foods that had never bothered me before. I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown.

The worst part was that my bowels weren’t getting with the program. If I did everything that was recommended, I was supposed to be rewarded with a timely morning movement. Instead, because of my inability to follow all of the instructions, my colon kept to its own schedule.

A correctly timed evacuation seemed to be such a cornerstone of the Ayurvedic system as I understood it, a measurable sign that I was moving in the right direction. But instead, I seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. So, in addition to the many other spiritual pursuits that I had tried and ended up failing at I could now add this one.

I would never reach enlightenment, because I couldn’t make a proper poop.

I wish I could say that I came to my senses fairly quickly, but it took years to unwind the beliefs that had caused me to go to such extremes.

A big step was to stop running towards something else and fully acknowledge that I felt unsafe. We all have our core beliefs about ourselves, such as not being safe, being wrong or not being lovable. These beliefs manifest throughout our lives in myriad ways.

For me, believing I wasn’t safe showed up as a daily fear of death, a need for the body to be perfectly healthy, a sensitivity to noise and little compulsions that were meant to influence the outcome of various activities.

That is just the short list.

As I have explored all my stories about how I’m not safe—stories that have expressed in both the mind and the body—I have felt increasingly settled in the present moment, however it is showing up. There has been a relaxing of the near-constant need to fix myself, and much more ease with whatever is happening physically. I’m even less sensitive to noise.

This exploration has also ended my quest for enlightenment. No longer is it something far away that will eventually save me from this moment. It is this moment, but I couldn’t see that through all my stories and fears and attempts to run away.

There is an okay-ness now about experiences that, in the past, would have felt awful. This continues to surprise me, because I spent almost 50 years engaging with life in a different way.

I still care for my body. I continue to follow a few Ayurvedic recommendations that make sense for me. I scrape my tongue in the morning, oil my feet at bedtime, and loosely follow the dietary guidelines that have become so second-nature that I don’t even have to think about them.

I continue to explore my beliefs daily, letting go of more and more that I see was simply a misunderstanding. As these misunderstandings vanish, I also see that I am fundamentally safe.

In this seeing, life seems to get better and better, no matter how it shows up.


Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Editor: Toby Israel


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