Fitness Magazine

Self-Study for Emotional Well-Being

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

by Nina

Self-Study for Emotional Well-Being

Sunset Moment by Marie Lossky
(@Marie.Lossky on Instagram)

I had one of my little epiphanies the other day when I read One Small Step at a Time: Patricia Walden on Yoga for Depression. I was struck by the practice of taking a “precious pause” that Patricia Walden recommended for depression. She describes the precious pause as two-step process
“• Identify the negative thought patterns when they occur. 
• Put a space around them, and take a pause, just noticing them without reacting to them. Observe them as the fluctuations of mind patterns that they are.” 
The article said that Patricia explained that if we can take that moment to step back and perceive the thought patterns instead of being caught up in them, over time, this will give us the power to consider a different reaction, to create a new samskara. 
This is exactly how I have described svadhyaya (self study) in the past, such as in post The Power of Svadhyaya (Self-Study), Part 1. And that made me think about how I’d been struggling with how the concept of “holding space” for difficult emotions fit in with yoga. Even though “holding space” is no doubt a very valuable practice, it just didn’t sound like a yogic concept to me. And I literally asked Beth to help me learn more how holding space fit into yoga by having her write about it in her post Holding Space In that post, Beth wrote:
“Holding space means that we are present for others or ourselves. We hold space by witnessing “what is,” without distraction, desire, or judgment. The focus of holding space is ideally on the process, not the outcome, even though the outcome of holding space may call for some type of action or response depending on the situation.” 
My epiphany was that what Beth described as “witnessing what is” was also after exactly what I described in my posts on self-study (svadhyaya). And that self-study really is such a powerful practice for fostering emotional wellbeing for three basic reasons:
  1. Allows you—as Patricia Walden described—to observe negative thought patterns (samskaras), which you can learn to counteract.
  2. Allows you to observe physical symptoms that signal you’re in a precarious emotional state.
  3. Allows you to observe the emotional effects that yoga poses have on you, so you can then use your practice to calm yourself, uplift yourself, quiet yourself, center yourself, or whatever is needed. 
I can actually give you examples of all three of these benefits from my personal experience. As someone who experienced two bouts of agitated depression, which is anxiety based, I’ve learned:
  1. About my thought patterns: My mind often races to anxious future scenarios about what might—or might not—happen. Now when I notice that occurring, I laugh at myself a bit and tell myself “Don’t panic too soon.” The result is that overall I’m a less anxious person. 
  2. About my physical symptoms: Ongoing insomnia, mild nausea, and a burning feeling in my chest signal to me that I’m seriously over-stressed. I now take action immediately, cutting back on stimulation and focus on calming practices, to head off reaching a potentially dangerous state. 
  3. About my responses to yoga poses and practices: Years of practicing and observing has taught me that supported inverted poses are super effective for calming me, that backbends are uplifting and energizing, and that when I’m anxious I can’t do restorative yoga (I need to do active poses and then finish with supported inverted poses). I’ve also learned that many breath practices that are supposedly relaxing are not relaxing for me (see Breath Practices: If They're Not Working For You, They're Not Working for You ) and can actually have a negative effect on me (so I don’t do them!). 
But we’ve also had several people writing about the benefits of holding space for other difficult emotions, including anger, grief, and depression. And right now even though everyone has been using different terms, I think we’ve all been writing about the same thing. Let's have a quick look. 
In her post Witnessing the Self, Beth wrote the Witness is that aspect of ourselves that brings awareness to what we think, feel, believe and do, and the habits and patterns that inform why we think, feel, believe, and do.  She described her experience with “witnessing the self” during a burst of anger and how that helped her let the anger settle and act more in line with her intentions.  
“I pulled up to a stop sign and waited to make a left hand turn. Then, in a nano-second flash, my anger went system-wide. Physically, it felt like a volcano spewing boiling red lava in my belly. I noticed my breath. It was shallow and stuck in my chest. Energetically I felt heavy, tight, and constricted. Mentally, of course, I was seething. 
What was curious is that suddenly I was aware of all of this from an altered perspective. AHA! It was amazing. Body, breath, energy, and mind were all experiencing the same emotion with different effects but all at the same time. I must have experienced this before but I had never been really present and aware of it while it was happening. The act of witnessing was like being in the eye of a hurricane. It calmed me and I was able to watch my anger settle on its own. At the meeting site, I occupied my stepson with a book and successfully managed my meeting."
In her post A Hospice Nurse on Yoga for Grief, Erin Collins discussed the value of holding space both for herself and for others who are experiencing grief. 
“In the pause of just recognizing what you are feeling, you immediately transform from being overtaken by an emotion to experiencing a moment. In that pause, you recognize the temporary nature of your grief. In that pause, you see the light in your dark situation and see that time will help."
And Robin Sturis, who wrote about grief as well as anger in her post Yoga for Grief, Anger, and Shame, described the value of holding space this way:  
“Holding space is the challenging process of being fully present to another without judgment, trying to fix, or having any expectations of outcomes. Many people have never had this experience. It can be moving and transformative. It helps us to begin to see that we have value in our own right, that we are worthy of love and acceptance and that we can choose to be with ourselves in a way that is likely different than anything we have previously experienced. It helps us to begin to understand that our self is not our Self and that we are more than what we have been taught we are, that we are more than our thoughts and emotions, that we are Divine beings just as we are. The yogic concept of “born Divine” is alien to most westerners. I was so steeped in the idea that we have to earn love that I consider it a deep samskara, a mental rut into which I still fall.
In her post Serendipity: Discovering Yoga for Depression on how she discovered yoga for depression, Yoriko Matsumoto did not using the terms “holding space,” “working with the witness” or even “self-study.” She simply said that by listening to her inner voice without judgment, she “felt a lot lighter.” And through serendipity she came up with the three A’s.
Awareness: Yoga gives you a chance to know yourself. Your body and muscles feed your brain back a lot of information. It is so difficult to listen your heart but if its body it’s easier because you feel it.
Acceptance: Asana and pranayama give you a lot of to practice observing. Acceptance in your yoga practice is monitoring yourself without controlling and judgment.
Action: If you practice the first two A’s, your action will be more clear and conscious. Sometime your action comes automatically from habit but if you practice the first two A’s, your action becomes adjustments with awareness.” 
As you probably can tell, I’m still in the process of learning about all of this. So if you have any further thoughts about self-study, holding space, or working with the witness for emotional well-being, please share them with me!
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