Shame in Yoga

by Jen Whinnen

I attended a class awhile back where the teacher was talking about addiction in relation to the gunas. In yoga there are three states of being, or “gunas”: sattva, rajas, and tamas.  Sattva is purity, rajas is dim and tamas is dark. His hypothesis was that in order for someone to become addicted to something it has to be an acquired thing, that in our most sattvik state, we do not indulge in behaviors that make our souls dim or dark. Only when we are in a rajasik or tamasik state do we do things that are bad for us.

He then went on to say “I mean you only have to look at kids to know what is good for you. It’s not that hard. Kids, well kids are pure right? They will always tell you if something is good or bad for you. You give a kid scotch and what do you think they will do? They will wrinkle their noses and spit it out, right?”

Ah yes, the eternal “purity of children” speech. How many yoga classes have I been in where the teacher uses the impulsiveness of children as an example of our “true and blissful” state or, better yet, the lack of impulse control as an example of what we “should” do? Postulating that children intrinsically know good from bad/right from wrong because they are pure of heart is a trite idea. Believing that the only reason we adults make harmful choices  is because we had the audacity to grow up, to become tainted by our environment, time, experiences is, at it’s most banal, absurdly simplistic. At it’s most egregious, it is emotionally damaging and manipulative.

First of all, no matter how adorable and fun kids are, they do not have that “pure” filter people fantasize about. Leave a bunch of kids to fend for themselves for a period of time and I promise you it will be way more Lord of the Flies then Never, Never Land. Being a kid is not simple.  It’s hard.  Every day is an organizational mess. It’s a constant struggle of learning new tools, impulse control, of being dependent upon, yet wanting to be independent of those who protect them.  Their emotional lives make the Real Housewives look like a Zen masters.  They spend all their time trying to understand the world around them and learn new things all the while being frustrated by the constant stream of “no’s” and “don’t do that’s” and “be careful’s.”  Sure, they appreciate the small things, they play with abandon, think the world is their oyster, but not because they are more spiritually realized than adults.  They do so because someone has their backs.  A happy, healthy child is not an abandoned or neglected one.  A happy, healthy child has someone watching over him, taking care of his needs, helping him navigate the world.

And this is not to say “Hey what about us grown-ups? Let’s give a shout out to the real hero here!” but merely to say that childhood is not an end unto itself. It is not something we are supposed to sustain or better yet, aspire to. Childhood is necessarily transient. It’s a tipping off point. The place where we get the tools we will use to go into the world and either support or destroy it.

Second of all, when someone says “be more childlike” most often they aren’t fantasizing about the perfection of childhood, but rather cloaking sanctimoniousness.  Telling an alcoholic that “a kid will tell you that stuff is crap” separates those without suffering as “good” people who know better, from those who suffer as “bad” people who don’t. Even a little kid knows that stuff isn’t good for you. Why don’t you?

Suffering does not mean someone is good or bad, or lazy or stupid. It means he suffers. When we condemn pain as so simplistic that even a child could do better, what we are really saying is “be like me” or “do things my way.” There is no progress in that.  It only creates shame.

But, shame is powerful.  It’s the Alpha Male of the emotional manipulation pack. Shame makes people feel dirty, worthless and awful.  They will do anything to avoid having it bear down on them. It creates fear. And fear begets obedience. People will follow the rules of the shamer implicitly.  The shamer, full of conviction and authority, has power to either validate or invalidate everyone around him.

The only problem is, no matter how much power shame wields, it doesn’t support authentic healing. Blind obedience out of fear of recrimination isn’t the same thing as someone saying “I do not want this in my life anymore. I choose a different path.”

It’s hard to see human suffering.  It makes us uncomfortable.  It’s confusing and often disorienting. We’re confronted with our own limitations and our own lack of suffering. We’re intensely grateful not to be suffering, maybe even feel a little guilty that we’re not suffering. This may make us desperate to do something to make the uncomfortable situation go away. It’s so much harder to say “This pain you are carrying is terrible. This pain is confusing. But, this pain is not you. It’s not your punishment. It’s not your fate. Let’s sit together and see if this faith, this practice, this place, this medication, etc. can help in some way alleviate your suffering.”  So instead we offer up easy answers wrapped up in greeting card slogans.

Sadly, the remedies to suffering often aren’t very easy. Simple in nature maybe, but in practice? Not so much. Barring fundamental injustices like lack of clean water, food, shelter, clothing and medical care, most causes of suffering are complexly human. They are a combination of life experiences, physical limitations, economic restrictions, genetics, etc. The remedies are going to be as varied as the people suffering.  The “correct” action is not just one thing, but a collection of tools and supplies tailored to meet the person’s needs.

It’s like a house.  A newer house is going to need different attention then an older one.  If you want to strip and repaint the interior of a new home, you just get the supplies and do it. But, in an old home you have to take precautions. You have to seal off the room, wear specially designed protective gear and be meticulous about clean up after.  In the end both homes get a new coat of paint but how they get it is very different.

Rather than glorify one state of being, i.e. childhood, as something we need to sustain, or tell each other that we aren’t “doing it right” because the cure we found that worked so well for us isn’t producing the same results for someone else, why not create for grown-ups what we strive to do for our kids: safe, nurturing environments where we are free to explore, question and be ourselves.

When we encourage each other and remain open to different ideas, we create environments where the healing goes from a promise to a possibility. And it’s that possibility of being that lays the foundation for genuine, authentic change. It’s that possibility that eases suffering. It may not always be the right fit, but it’s active and participatory. It allows you to affect your own being, to remain flexible and interested in your own life.

So, you take care of your house. Choose tools, materials and contractors that prop you up and make you the strongest, healthiest and most structurally sound person you can be within the framework you’ve got.

this post was taken from Jen’s personal blog “The Inner Child” on 11/1/10. To read more, click here: