A picture of a half-rolled yoga mat with the words 'Shame-free yoga. How yoga triggered my shame and how it's helping me heal

Shame-free yoga: how yoga triggered my shame and how it’s helping me heal

It’s amazing how a few short words can change the way you see your body. For me the words ‘lift your heart’ changed how I relate to my body, how I relate to other people and how I relate to God. Just three words changed so much.

I heard those words while standing in mountain pose during my yoga teacher training. Up until this point I was an advocate for listening to your body and practising adaptations when a posture is too challenging, except I didn’t ever practice what I preached – those things were for other people I thought. Perhaps I didn’t feel that my body deserved to be listened to, or perhaps I was so used to dissociating from painful experiences that I didn’t even notice. It was likely a bit of both.

I believed that the postures I did in my body had to look exactly like my instructor’s, and if they didn’t I was doing them wrong. If they made their hips align perfectly with the edge of the mat in warrior 2 then mine should too.

Unsurprisingly, my approach to yoga led to more than a few injuries in my 20s, some of which I still carry with me to this day. I don’t know whether my yoga practice caused the injuries or just exacerbated existing injuries, but either way I can blame yoga for a lot of discomfort and some pain.

Now, however, I’m learning that it isn’t yoga that causes injuries like mine, it’s that push-through-pain approach to yoga that’s rooted in shame. Shame that I can’t lift my leg as high as my instructor’s or tie myself in knots. Shame that I can’t force my shoulders back far enough in mountain. In my head the problem wasn’t the pose, surely it was my body being so inflexible.

What I’ve now learnt on my yoga teacher training, and through lots of online research, is that it’s our skeletal structures and nervous systems that affect things like how tight our hips are or how far we can lift our arms overhead. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being inflexible and out of shape, although that can play a part too.

All that time when I was trying to tie myself in knots and berating myself for not looking like my instructors, I never once considered that perhaps my bone structure is just different to theirs. Maybe I’ll never be able to twist as far round as other people, or get my knees anywhere near the floor in bound angle pose and that might be because of my skeleton or my nervous system and that’s OK.

Through my online research I’ve discovered the work of Paul Grilley. More about his approach later but I just wanted to share his pictures of normal variations in bone structures and how this can affect our yoga practice. Just to be clear, these are NORMAL variations, none of these variations would stand out as unusual to a doctor but they can radically affect how we practice yoga. Even getting your feet parallel or your palms facing forward in mountain can be a challenge for some because of these variations. And yet, so often in yoga, we expect perfect uniformity in the way a posture looks.

This video clip shows how this can apply in someone’s body: In it he says the words, ‘this is not cheating’ when talking about someone externally rotating their arm in order to lift it above their head. These four words moved me to tears. How long have I felt like posture modifications were cheating but ended up cheating myself out of a safe, comfortable yoga practice? Yoga was never meant to feel like torture.

What I’ve also learnt, and am still learning from my training, is that when our bodies are in a position for a long time (such as sitting at a desk) our nervous systems see that posture as safe, even if it’s generally seen as a ‘bad’ posture. Because our nervous systems are always trying to protect us, certain, supposedly ‘easy’ postures can trigger alarm bells in our brains and cause our nervous systems to go on high alert and stop us from going into or leaving a pose. In fact, my anatomy teacher said that if someone is in a coma, their nervous system would be ‘switched off’ so you could lift their leg over their head with no resistance. It would seem like they’re really flexible but actually their nervous system isn’t kicking in to protect them from injury.

So our nervous systems are good. They protect us from injury. They keep us safe from threats. And they stop us from doing stupid things like putting our legs over our heads. But for someone like me with a lot of trauma stored in my body, sometimes it feels as if my nervous system protect me a little bit too much, and for me it’s led to a lot of shame as I mentioned earlier.

Learning to listen to my body

Which brings me back to those three words: ‘lift your heart’.

I’ve always tried to force my shoulders back and down in standing and seated postures. Even when the teacher says something gentle like ‘relax your shoulders away from your ears,’ I’d think ‘Oo my shoulders are too high, I need to force them down.’ Because I always believed that as long as a posture looked alright on the outside then that’s all that mattered.

When my anatomy teacher, taught me that ‘shoulders back and down’ was like putting a sticking plaster on a posture problem rather than solving the root cause of the problem, and that this cue could cause injuries, it made perfect sense to me. Because I had an old injury from doing exactly that, while practising hatha yoga from a DVD in around 2010, and it often flared up when doing yoga. I hadn’t made the connection until this point. This always made mountain pose uncomfortable for me but I didn’t realise that it wasn’t meant to feel like that – I thought the problem was me and my body needed to learn.

When she later cued ‘lift your heart’, my body was relaxed because I wasn’t forcing my shoulders into place. So, for the first time, I was able to feel the full benefit of this posture. It was the first time that I was able to stand fully upright without pain or discomfort because I wasn’t forcing the back of my body straight but lifting the front of my body.

I’ll be honest that I always found standing massively triggering and came close to fainting countless times while standing. My heart would race and my breath would catch. This was just from standing still and doing nothing else (I used to have a diagnosis of POTS). It started to become a problem in my job in care, there was one part of my job where I had to stand for long periods while supporting someone on his work placement. I started to find this part of my job traumatic and hated standing for long periods.

Lifting my heart felt different. It was soft and didn’t seem to trigger me in the same way. I now know that when we force our bodies into positions that our nervous systems deem unsafe (like me forcing my shoulders back and down), it can trigger us into fight or flight mode and affect so many of our bodily functions, including our breath. That’s why I now use my breath as a helpful indicator – if I’m breathing shallowly or holding my breath, that’s a sign that I need to back out of that posture. This is why I like slow, explorative yoga flows the best. I personally don’t register that same level of self-awareness when I’m changing posture with every inhale and exhale.

Discovering that I can feel comfortable in a basic yoga posture has made me realise that I don’t have to put up with feeling discomfort in postures. It led me to discover that I was arching my neck too much in cobra and trying to force my body into twists that hurt. I also noticed that I force my knees towards the mat in bound angle pose and didn’t even realise I was doing it.

The cue ‘lift your heart’ also brought things to the surface that had remained hidden since my childhood. In lifting my heart in front of others, I’m standing out and not shying away. As a child who was the second tallest in her year but also probably the shyest, standing tall felt unsafe. I was desperate to blend into the background in any social situation but my stature caused me to stand out. Hunching and rounding forwards was my only defence. So lifting my heart in public has felt uncomfortable. I do so nowadays as an intentional practice to embrace discomfort and take up space where I previously believed I had no right to do so.

Those words also led to a bit of a spiritual breakthrough. I was reading the verse in Matthew 5 ‘in the same way, let your light shine before others’ and had a strong negative reaction, which I realise came from one incident of extreme sexual abuse in my childhood. I thought ‘I let my light shine and look what happened to me’. Then when worshipping in church that Sunday I still had those verses in my head and realised I was rounding and hunching again. I felt the prompt to ‘let my light shine before God’ and lift my heart in his presence. Again it felt extremely uncomfortable and exposed but I really sensed God in it. I feel like letting my light shine before God has set me free in some way from some of the effects of the abuse.

How I now try to practice and teach yoga in a shame-free way

Learning to notice discomfort and pain in my own body – and not push through it – has changed how I now practice and teach yoga to others. I always put safety first and cue myself and others to listen to our bodies and back out of a posture if we feel pain, discomfort of if we’re holding our breaths (a sign that our nervous systems are telling us something). I will never force myself into a posture and never encourage anyone else to do so either.

For example, when teaching warrior 2, I will tell my students that they don’t need to align their hips with the long edge of the mat, that facing their hips to the corner or somewhere in between is still just as much warrior 2 as if their hips were aligned. I will also remind students that their alignment is unique to them and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to alignment. I’ll make it clear that they’re not cheating and that as long as they have no pain or discomfort and they’re able to breathe normally then they’re probably safe.

I also always try to use invitational language. This is important from a trauma-sensitive perspective but also from a shame perspective too because students need to know that they don’t have to do a posture if it doesn’t suit their body and that they’re free to choose something else instead.

I will start every class with grounding techniques to help people to get into their bodies. For people like me who dissociate a lot, it can be hard to even notice discomfort so it’s really important to help people to stay grounded and present.

My classes are focussed around gentle exploration, and I like to ask questions to help people to notice how a posture feels in their bodies. I also like to give people options to find what feels best in their bodies.

I mentioned Paul Grilley earlier and I love his approach to yoga. He’s a yin yoga practitioner, whereas I teach gentle vinyassa, but there are still aspects of his approach that apply here.

He talks about how the postures are made for our bodies and not the other way around. He also talks about how it’s not about what a posture looks like in your body but how it feels and how it benefits your body. So, for example, in chair pose I might say something like: ‘your expression of chair pose is unique to you. You might choose to push your hips back and inch or two, or sit your hips right back to be level with your knees, or anything in between – it’s all still chair pose. Whatever expression of this posture you choose, it will strengthen your quads (front thighs), hips back muscles and improve your balance.’

As you saw above, I cued the modifications as equal options and not a hierarchy – ‘you might choose to push your hips back and inch or two, or sit your hips right back, or anything in between’ – and that’s really important to help reduce shame in postures where people might feel that they should be doing it a certain way but can’t.

And this is where it helps that I’m vulnerable too. There are a lot of postures that I really struggle with and telling that to my students will show them that it’s ok to modify their postures.

Lastly, and this is also a trauma sensitive principle, I will never tell people how they should be feeling in their bodies. I once took a yoga nidra class where the teacher said I should be feeling relaxed at a certain point and also said I should be feeling the presence of God. I was feeling neither. I was triggered and feeling unsafe at the time and that was why I was taking the class in the first place. Of course I felt bad that I wasn’t feeling relaxed or feeling the presence of God.

Those are the main points of how I’ll teach and practice in a shame-free way but there are probably others too that I haven’t thought of.

Have you ever experienced shame in a yoga class? Have any of the points in this post resonated with you? Let me know in the comments.