Guest blog by Yogasteya member Abby Nathanson
If you’ve been practicing yoga, chances are you’ve gotten a dose of yoga’s tremendous power to heal us from the inside out, renew us, and make us feel whole. I spoke with two twenty-something yoga practitioners who found yoga when a romantic relationship was coming to an end. Paloma lives in State College, Pennsylvania, where she coordinates social science research programs and dreams of traveling. Noah lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he used to work in an office dealing with medical systems and is now trying out the freelance writing life before hopefully heading to graduate school. Paloma recently experienced the end of a several month-long relationship that she greatly enjoyed, and Noah ended an abusive relationship three years ago.
Me: What was your relationship to yoga before it became a tool for dealing with a breakup?
Paloma: I am a person who is constantly being told that I need to find ways to relax. So my last semester of college, I took a yoga class with a friend. For credit. In a room filled with wall-to-wall mirrors. I gave it a chance, I really did. But relaxation did not come. Just the same gnawing feeling of inadequacy, reflected back to me fourfold in my sloppy asanas [yoga poses] for an hour twice a week. I couldn’t make my body be the right way, not any part of it. A few years later, a roommate was studying to be a yoga instructor at a local studio, Lila Yoga. He gave me a lot of support through a tough time, always jumping around with a frenetic energy and reminding me, “Whatever you’re doing, you’re practicing.” I spent so much time practicing being brokenhearted that I could have gone pro. I liked the way that Ben looked at the world, or at least the lens that he brought to bear from his yoga practice, but I wasn’t ready to give it a try myself. Eventually I started going to a meditation class at the studio. I stuck with it because I like the practical approach of the meditation instructor, a software engineer with a sarcastic sense of humour. He uses mindfulness exercises such as nadi shodhan (alternate nostril breathing) and thought sorting as an entry point into sitting and being present. I liked the way he looked at the world, too. Early on, I showed up with a persistent cough, unsure if I should have even come lest I disturb others’ practice. “You look like you need to sit,” he said sympathetically. “I just feel bad because I’m sick,” I replied. “No, you feel bad because you think you should be healthy.” It was a good point.
Noah: I had never done yoga before my sophomore year of college, and during the year before I discovered yoga I was in an abusive relationship. At a certain point it was clear that things were ending, and things were horrible, and I was so under his control that the thought of breaking up with him was like breaking up with my future. He had even talked about proposing. I broke up with him, and then I emotionally collapsed. I felt so empty. I couldn’t think about anything because I associated everything with him. Because that’s how abuse works.
Me: How was yoga part of a process of healing from an ended relationship?
Paloma: This past fall, I dated someone who became a regular part of my routine, my first somewhat serious relationship, and when the relationship ended I found myself at a loss for how to fill my time. What would I do in the evenings? What would I do on the weekends? So I used Christmas gift money to buy a monthly unlimited pass for yoga classes. One of the things that I missed most about the relationship was the sense of playfulness. I’m an intense person, but this boyfriend had brought out a lightness in me that felt completely effortless. The yoga studio at which I practice – Lila – derives its name for the Sanskrit word for divine play, and this is the spirit that teachers bring to their classes. Not only will they ask students to invite ease into particularly difficult postures and to smile, which I think is done in a lot of studios, they will cultivate a sense of levity through certain patterns of breath or exhalations, postures, and music choices. Often during classes the group will break into laughter. I’ll admit, in certain classes I found this to be frustrating –ugh, but I’m so unhappy right now I can’t even try. On the whole, though, I appreciated this spirit and aspired to find it in myself again. Everyone brings some kind of suffering to the class, and everyone, together, tries to rise above that for just a little while.
Noah: I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t started doing yoga right after the break-up. My first yoga class was in the grass, at the end of summer, with a friend from college. I don’t think I’ve ever given that much to a practice since then—I could feel myself letting go of things that I didn’t even know I had to let go of. It was a really intense class, and I felt the intensity of it, but at the same time I was able to remain incredibly calm. That wasn’t what I was used to—I was used to doing one small thing and then being punished by my boyfriend. To regain control of my body and put it through something that was both intense and positive was unlike anything I’d ever done. When we got to half pigeon I burst into tears. I cried and cried and kept crying even after we got out of pigeon and started doing other postures. When we were done, I was covered in sweat and tears and was so, so focused on the present. The intense pain of the past and of the future that I’d lost… I didn’t feel them. It gave me a sense of joy that I definitely hadn’t felt in the year and a half of the abusive relationship, but I also don’t think that I had ever felt it, even before then.
Me: How has yoga helped you to find healing, peace, or comfort while transitioning out of a relationship?
Paloma: Many aspects of the Lila ethos are healing for me. At the end of every class participants are asked to meditate briefly on gratitude. This is always my favorite moment because, even if playfulness feels inaccessible to me right now, gratitude does not. This is a time that draws me out of my ruminations regarding the relationship that ended to focus on those relationships that are still positive and supportive in my life.
Noah: Yoga allowed me to make decisions that came from a place of self-respect. Being able to have that self-respect even at my lowest point was really, really cool and hugely affecting. I have that tool now; it allows me to survive. It allows me to interrogate myself in a way that’s healthy, I guess.
Me: What affects did different poses have? How did you feel about hands-on assists?
Paloma: The first thing that I enjoyed about practicing was the fact that sometimes it just felt good, especially given the hands-on approach of the studio, which helps to correct postures or get a deeper stretch, even just by elongating the neck during savasana [final resting pose]. And I felt a great sense of achievement and self-respect in being able to push myself to hold a pose for longer than I thought I could.
Noah: I love crow pose, because I like being close to the ground. It makes me feel very safe and very strong. The more upright the poses are, the more daring I feel. Adjustments are most special to me when I’m so internally focused that I don’t feel desperate to be touched. It’s a really special feeling to know that someone is paying attention and caring about you even in the moments when you’re caring for yourself.
Me: How has your yoga mindset affected your perspectives on dating and relationships, or carried over in the rest of your life more generally?
Paloma: There are a lot of reasons that I often don’t feel comfortable in my own body because of the ways in which it fails to meet social norms or because of illness. In dating, it has taken me really conscious effort to overcome feelings of discomfort and to appreciate my body as beautiful and capable, worthy of respect. However, developing and maintaining this kind of body confidence is not a linear process, especially after a breakup. Yoga has provided a space to hold on to some positive feelings about my body and a platform for continued growth.
Noah: It’s about continuing to be a full human and continuing to improve even when you feel like shit. So when something goes wrong, like really really wrong, I always go back to my practice, even if it’s been weeks, even if it’s been months, because it re-centers me. Yoga is a way of growing that doesn’t involved being jaded. It involves being aware of one’s self, whatever that means to you.
Abby Nathanson is the Co-Founder of Women’s Power Space, the center for women’s leadership, collaboration, yoga and arts in downtown Poughkeepsie, New York. She studied Sociology and Africana Studies at Vassar College and is a RYT-200 yoga instructor with a background in the Iyengar method. Abby is passionate about feminism, anti-racism, decolonial witchcraft in Cameroon, crying in pigeon pose, and savasana (resting pose) that is practiced with a bolster, eye pillow, two blocks, and three blankets. To connect, visit her website.