Using the lessons of yoga to dig out from feelings of shame

By Sondra Matara

The line at Costco was long, and as I settled in for the wait, I defaulted to the modern day way to mentally check out – I took out my phone. As it lit up with new messages and notifications, I saw one message that made my heart immediately sink into my stomach: I realized I had sent out a glaring mistake in one of my own professional communications. It had gone out to thousands of people, and had clearly been noticed. My sense of embarrassment went through the roof. My chest tightened up, my face grew hot, and I couldn’t focus on the mundane task I was in the middle of. I was immediately the center of my own “shame storm.”

Do these feelings sound familiar to you? Of course they do. There is not one of us who hasn’t experienced some or all of the four types of shame, which include public embarrassment but also personal disappointment, failure, being ignored by loved ones, and even FOMO. Because we have the capacity for empathy, none of us are immune from these destructive feelings that ultimately can affect our sense of self-worth, and leave us feeling isolated and withdrawn.

After the initial sting wore off, I started to think more holistically about the situation. While my circumstances were unique to me, my feelings were not. As the fog in my brain began to clear, a very important thought started to come into focus: this is exactly why I practice yoga. This is the time we need the lessons that we learn over and over again through months and years of practice. I started to see my own personal embarrasment as an opportunity for growth and resilience, and immediately I began to feel the weight lift a tiny bit. Here are a few of my take-aways:

Over-attachment to ego is an easy trap

In yoga, we often say we work to “overcome” the ego. But having some amount of ego is necessary; we need a healthy sense of self-worth and identity to hold boundaries, ask for what we need, and have a sense of personal power. A better way to look at what we work towards is a balanced ego: one that holds your own Self true, but allows space for a more subtle understanding that we are not just the gross form we take on this Earth. 

In our day to day lives, with endless to-do lists, notifications pinging us every 30 seconds, and the axis of work-life responsibilities always changing, it is a slippery slope to tie your self-worth into outcomes in your life. When you are over-attached to ego and something “bad” happens in your life (even or especially if it was your own doing!), it leads us to feeling inadequate. We may move from a place of anger, avoidance of responsibility, and the need to feel “right.” None of these things move us towards the place of connection which is the true essence of yoga (“to yoke” or “to unite”); they only serve to reinforce the same feelings of 

“Ego judges and punishes. Love forgives and heals.”

We confuse our true Self – the most pure essence – with the ego and we get pushed around by the storms of the mind, also known as ‘Maya’. Separating our “story” from our true Selves is the first step on the path to letting go of unhealthy ego attachment. Don’t confuse the cause of your shame for who you are; rather see it for what it is—a feeling that is not serving you. 

Self-compassion is the hardest compassion

One of the meditations I learned early on in my practice, was the practice of metta meditation from the Buddhist tradition (also known as Loving-Kindness meditation). This practice involves sending feelings of love and compassion out to everyone, regardless of whether they are “worthy” of it or not. But to accomplish this, you have to start with yourself. If you can’t love yourself unconditionally, you can’t expect to extend it to others.

We are our own toughest critics. When we experience feelings of inadequacy, our inner monologue is undoubtedly the loudest and most cutting. We talk to ourselves in ways we would never speak to a loved one. When you catch yourself in the middle of one of these self-flagellating sessions, this is a perfect moment to practice metta meditation. Drop the ego, come back to center, and start from the beginning: pure, unconditional love of yourself. Soften and break down the walls you’ve put around your own heart.

Pain and sensation – they’re not the same

I was watching a Tom Myers (renowned anatomist and fhascia researcher) video on youtube recently, and he had this to say about pain:

“Pain is sensation accompanied by the motor intention to withdraw. If you aren’t trying to get away from it, it isn’t pain, it’s just sensation.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that since I heard it. 

I know he was talking about pain from a physical sensation, but the same can be applied to emotional pain. When we learn to recognize and sit with the discomfort and to not immediately back away from it, we can begin to learn and explore the ways in which we can benefit from it. 

I will never forget the day I did my first pigeon pose in a yoga class, almost 15 years ago. I will never forget it because at that point, I found it to be one of the most uniquely uncomfortable physical movements I had ever willingly done. As my teacher saw me grimace, she encouraged me to sit with the discomfort and explore the difference between that feeling and true pain. It was to this day one of the most profound lessons I have ever learned on my mat. 

The feelings of shame are just that – sensations. Instead of moving away and recoiling, it’s okay to sit and explore what they bring up for you. This is just yet another way of ego checking in and giving you an opportunity to come back into balance, back to the core of who you really are. 

Not if – but when

While I hope to never experience those same feelings of shame as I did that day waiting in line at Costco, I know that I will – and you will, too. We are all bound to make mistakes and experience adversity in the perfectly-imperfect ways that all humans do, and these lessons will be waiting for me as reminders next time. It is how we learn and grow from these experiences that really defines the essence of who we truly are.

A few other ways I felt less alone? These excellent examples from pop-culture:

Sondra Matara is the Director of Marketing and Community Builder at 3 OMS Yoga, where she is thrilled to share the practice of yoga with our students in new and creative ways everyday.

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