The most important conversation you will have on any given day…is the one that you have with yourself.
…I can’t reach my toes? Really? No c’mon, I can go a little further. That’s so weird. When was the last time I actually bent over to try and touch my toes..
…I’m flipping out right now. Not only can I cannot touch my toes, I also can’t raise my leg like that. Holy…pain. Wow, Corrie, you honestly suck at this. This is really blowing my whole cover as an athlete and ‘fitness’ person. WTF. I’m like a pseudo-athlete. Actually, anyone watching me right now must think I look totally ridiculous. I’m sure they’re wondering why I am even here…
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar to you? Where did you experience them? And in what context? I remember having these thoughts during my first yoga class. I was seriously wigged out. I had always identified with being an athlete. Martial artist. Agile. Strong. Someone out of shape and weak were definitely not associations I had come to link to my persona. And yet there I was in my first yoga class, a fish out of water. I couldn’t access half of the poses being demonstrated (although my competitive nature sure made me try), and the ones I could…well…I think it would be amusing to see what ‘asanas’, or poses, I was actually creating in retrospect. They definitely didn’t look anything like what the petite, limby, yet super-strong teacher was doing. Who was this person?
Needless to say, I left class totally defeated and frustrated, which would be followed by the muscle aches the next day to add insult to injury. I had physically beaten myself up, but it didn’t stop there.. the mental pummeling I gave myself, I know now, was far worse.
After nursing my ego a bit, I went back to class. Again, cue the competitive personality. Time and time again I suffered both in class, and off the mat when reviewing and judging my performance in my head. The beauty of the body is that, while it’s not the most holistic approach to progress, sheer consistency in any practice will do a whole lot of good. I began to gain enough traction in my practice that the physical changes were manifesting surely but slowly. I felt dignified enough to roll out my mat in class next to the other ‘regulars’. I assessed that I was doing…good enough.
It wasn’t until a few months into my practice that I felt I had dominated enough of the postures to relax a little more in class, or—as I would learn later—to ease into the present moment. It was then that I began to start actually listening to the yoga teacher, and not just trying to imitate the bizarre geometric shapes she was creating with her body. I remember feeling tickled that she dropped little gems of wisdom every so often during the class. Sometimes they resonated; other times they just rolled right over me, like the relentless sweat dripping off my body. One day, however, she said something that would change everything.
“Observe your inner dialogue; observe how you are speaking to yourself. What are you saying right now? What kinds of things are you telling yourself…about yourself? Are they things you would say to a loved one, to a friend, to support or encourage them? Just observe and listen. How do these things make you feel?”
Huh??? My inner dialogue. Well yeah, I guess there’s some chatter. Listen to myself? …Ok. Let’s see what I’m saying.
WHOA. Holy Hell. I am…MEAN?
Hellooo self-awareness. This was the first time I began to objectively hear the things I was telling myself. I was harsh! And yet, anyone who knows me would probably say the opposite about me: that I am sweet, loving, kind, and encouraging, ESPECIALLY with my word choice. What a contradiction! Literally! This was a really important moment for me, not only in my practice, but in my life. Sounds big? That’s because it was.
Yoga class was the first place I became familiar with that voice inside my head. And let me tell you, it was not a comfortable experience. Remember the thoughts I shared up above? Yeah. It was like that, 95% of the time. Self-criticism, but not of the constructive kind. Tearing myself down, punishing, bad, punishing, bad. Deep breath. Ok, this is not good. I had enough psych 101 lessons stored in my hippocampus to know that this kind of consistent, negative chatter was not innocuous, but was actually destructive overtime and could even manifest in, more immediately, self-sabotage and, down the line, serious health issues. It was just hard for me to come to grips with the fact that I was the one perpetrating that negativity and cruelty. Why did I talk to myself like that? What was the source of all of this?
I became really intrigued with listening to the things that came up during class when I faced a challenge I was unable to overcome right away: a difficult stretch, a balance pose which I couldn’t stay in, not controlling my breath; these were all examples of things that could lead me down a rabbit hole of cruel self-talk. As I became more and more curious about my instinctive reactions and hasty self-abuse in yoga, I began to notice the same patterns outside of class, in other ‘ego-threatening’ situations. Makes sense. 20 some odd years of these patterns were sure to turn up threads weaved throughout the tapestry of my life.
I’m won’t say that simply listening and observing was the antidote to the biting words I so easily delivered to my firing neurons. However, it was the start of a journey—which, I am convinced is one with no final destination—towards learning how to be kind to myself. Observing the conversation I have with myself in yoga, in those pockets of quiet and introspection during my practice, has allowed me space over the years to begin substituting some of the words. It’s not a process that’s quick or easy—old habits die hard, and those neuron-pathways are pretty hard-wired after two decades of life, but alas, yoga has no interest in time and other trivial human inventions and excuses.
My ‘yoga’ soon became less and less about showing up to get better at the postures and inherently compete with my fellow yogi pals, and more and more about seeing how I was showing up for myself on the mat. I have memories of giggling out loud when I caught myself saying “it’s ok babe, you slept bad last night, it’s enough that you’re here right now”. Did I just call myself babe? Big grin. Yeah it was weird, and kind of corny at first, and I didn’t even really believe what I was telling myself. But that’s the magic of our brain! If you keep telling yourself the same things on repeat, good or bad, your body, being the incredible chemical factory that it is, will manifest that experience in your physical reality overtime.
And so now, almost ten years after having received this incredible insight, I can confidently say that I catch myself much more quickly when I begin to beat myself up, and I correct without effort. I genuinely feel compassion and appreciation and love for myself, my mistakes, and my progress, which was non-extant before. The devil on the my shoulder has never gone away, nor would I want it to entirely—it also serves its purpose in my evolution and drive. I simply have more tools and resources to redirect it when it’s doing more harm than good.
Yoga has taught me how to talk to myself. It began on the mat, and then tendrilled into several other areas of my life. It’s an ongoing process and I have more to learn, more areas to which I need to deliver extra doses of positive self-talk. But I take comfort in knowing that while this isn’t a task with a clear objective at the end of a defined amount of time, some goal to achieve with checked-off actions in my planner, it doesn’t diminish the reality that the most important conversation I will have on any given day…is the one that I have with myself.