Guilt & Shame: The Poisons of Practice

My assigned topic for the Women in Ashtanga webinar (hosted by Adam Keen and Harmony Slater) was ‘Balancing Family Life and Practice’. It was the night before and I still had no idea what I was going to say. I took out my notebook and stared at that empty page for more than an hour. I literally had nothing.

Firstly, my kids are grown. Though even when they were home, balancing was always a bit of an act. And dependent on so many other variables. Like for one, their ages. But also school, soccer, carpools, stomach aches and doctor’s appointments. Every day was different. There would need to be sacrifices. And for me, sleep and practice always took the biggest hit. I likened myself to a juggler, tasked with keeping all the plates in the air. Which didn’t always happen. Truth be known, I broke a lot of plates.

So if we really want to support women in Ashtanga, perhaps we start by actually making it okay to break a few plates. Or at least notice how many we’re still spinning! But somehow rid ourselves of all the judging or shaming. And stop that poison from being spread around.

They lined up, all women and mostly moms, ready to confess their sins: “Forgive me teacher for I have sinned; it’s been 9 months/2 years/forever since I have been able to stand up from a backbend.” 

Poison #1: Guilt

They lined up, all women and mostly moms, ready to confess their sins: “Forgive me teacher for I have sinned; it’s been 9 months/2 years/forever since I have been able to stand up from a backbend.” 

It broke my heart. These women wanted to apologize … for what?  And to ME? Also a woman. Also a mother. Also someone who has struggled her whole life to feel good enough — as a mother, in the workplace, in practice, as a teacher. Absolution wasn’t mine to give nor theirs to beg for. Instead, I offered a confession of my own: 

“Forgive me students for I have sinned; it’s been never since I was ‘authorized’ to officiate this method of Ashtanga.” Everyone laughed. I was being silly, of course.

But I made my point: a piece of paper doesn’t define me as a teacher any more than the ability to perform a posture defines them as a practitioner. And could we please move on to the yoga which has nothing to do with either? 

The Sinners and the Saints

Whereas yoga is union, guilt is the great separator. Built on a belief system that there is good and bad, sinners and saints, right and wrong, guilt leaves us stuck in this either/or type of reasoning. Unfortunately, it’s a rigid line of thinking that is also quite popular. And we are constantly being drawn to choose sides. 

Though not only does guilt create a divider, the polarization is extreme and done so in absolutes. So if I make a mistake, I am a failure. If I modify a pose, I am a fraud. You see, guilt leaves no gray area, no space for individualism or autonomy. There is one way and one way only. 

Sadly, in the way the Ashtanga yoga method is often taught, either explicitly or implicitly, reinforces this idea. Especially with a more dogmatic, authoritarian-like teacher, with whom poses are earned and students, held back; in spaces where obedience and performance are rewarded in tandem with a strict adherence to rules; and in rooms where words like ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are still commonly used, and options not given. 

All of this only fuels the fire of perfectionism, a trait women are highly prone towards. Perfectionism in women says, “I must do it all. And I must do it all perfectly.” Anything less than perfect, and you’re one of the sinners. Not good enough. Condemned. Cast away. 

Which was what I saw in those women’s eyes — the fear of being kicked out or their practice being ‘cancelled’. All because they couldn’t stand up from a backbend. And then the guilt that this was somehow their fault. 

A Thief of Joy

“I should be more disciplined” Janet told me, “I just need to wake up earlier and get it over with.” The ‘it’ was practice and ‘it’ sounded like a chore. Plus, with three kids and an infant, I couldn’t imagine she slept all that much to begin with.

“Do you enjoy your practice?” I asked Janet. She blinked hard and stared at me as if I’d just asked her to solve world hunger. Finally she spoke: “I know I should, but every time I do practice, one of the kids will wake up and I either sit them in front of a video, which makes me feel guilty as a mom; or stop practicing, which makes me feel guilty for not practicing more. So no. Not really. I used to, but now it’s just something else to beat myself up over.” 

What Janet did enjoy was her seated practice — that was something she could do while the two younger ones were napping and the older ones were at school. And walking. Janet loved walking outside later in the day. She found it gave her energy, cleared her head, and made her feel alive. So that became our plan for the time being. Janet was relieved. And when I saw her a few months later, she looked a lot less tired and certainly much happier.

Guilt takes all the joy out of practice; making the yoga about doing it right instead of a way to feel whole. And it’s why many people stop practicing. Because our idea of what’s right is so narrow and limited, it’s either all or nothing. Yet either way, we are damned. Because whether we kill ourselves trying to tick all the boxes or give up altogether, we are left feeling like we’ve failed. 

Besides that, the ‘shoulds’ make practice a duty, dictated by our internalized expectations of others. There is no liberation here, only a trap. As the drive to please and appease others takes us further away from discovering our one true Self.

Podcast Ep. 51 with Erica Morton Magill // Listen Here

The choices we make from the heart (love) are different from ones we make with the head (judgment). Whereas the mind is limited in its scope and understanding, the heart is infinite and expansive. Here is where we reclaim our joy. By scrapping the ‘shoulds’ and listening to our heart. 

Self-Acceptance: I am Worthy

She sat me down on the steps outside her shala. It was the first time I had practiced any part of third series since menopause and it had taken me months with this teacher to work up the nerve. But she and I had came up with a plan together. I trusted her … sort of. I was still very scared. 

“First of all, your practice is your practice,” she started, “no one — not me or anyone — has the right to take that away.” I felt my body relax. She was there to support, not judge. “What I feel like you could use is some encouragement and perhaps some help managing your energy. There’s no need to do everything. We don’t have to do it all.” 

Guilt holds a twisted view that love has conditions and our worth is something to earn or achieve. It leaves us with the fear that we might be kicked out at any moment. 

And why we don’t need any more correct/incorrect messaging within Ashtanga. Besides, we won’t grow as a community until we can dissolve (rather than define) those extremes; not only allow for options and adaptations, but also fully integrate them as part of the method. 

Anyway, there is enough polarization in our world without us adding to it, don’t you think?  We are already too hard on ourselves to begin with. 

Guilt is an affliction of the heart and we all come to yoga carrying our own wounds. So be gentle with yourself and with others. Offer encouragement and support. It’s not forgiveness that will help us heal, but our own self-acceptance and love.

Now, repeat after me: “I am worthy.”  Let this be your new mantra. 

Poison #2: Shame

It was an Authorized teacher, visiting from out of town, who was with us that morning. Our mats were set up in two long lines, facing each other. I was directly across from my friend, a former gymnast, someone I practiced (often neck and neck) with every morning. We were both stopped at karandavasana.

Typical of us, my friend and I both reached our final posture at the same time. And when we did, the teacher stood in the middle of the room and made this announcement: “Whichever of you lands this pose, will get the next posture.” 

The whole room stopped practicing and sat on their mats to watch the two of us square off. It was my worst nightmare come true. And I wasn’t sure which was worse: being pitted against my friend (the former gymnast) in front of an audience — or knowing that mayurasana came next and that was one I knew for sure I couldn’t do. Either way, I was about to be humiliated. 

We all can remember a time we felt shamed. It’s an awful feeling. And it’s not just the experience itself, but all of the past wounds and traumas it triggers. Like when Father Smith would make me stand in front of the class during eighth grade religion class, my nose pressed against a dot on the chalkboard. This was my punishment for talking.

(Twenty years later, Father Smith would end up killing himself after being exposed for sins far, far worse. Which I only add as a reminder that the righteous and morally superior are rarely ever either.)

Whether rooted in past trauma; an episode of failure, rejection, or exclusion; or an instance of unwanted public exposure; shame is a pain as no other.  Like a wounded animal, we either retreat and hide, or fight back by constantly trying to prove our self worth.

Which is exactly what many women within the Ashtanga Yoga system experience. Because while everyone feels shame, women are generally much more afraid of being shamed than men. And thus go out of their way to avoid rejection, to avoid failure, to avoid exclusion, and avoid any chance of being publicly called out.

That means not only is a woman more easily guilted and more likely to blame herself when things go wrong, but she is also less likely to credit herself with successes. Women are also more apt to question their readiness for promotions (new postures), doubt their opinions (and pain), and sell themselves short (remain stuck). 

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I was relatively new to the practice and nursing a tender hamstring to boot. But he was a certified teacher. And I’d never practiced with a certified teacher. So I signed up for his weekend anyway. Still, I was feeling a bit sheepish, and set up my mat in the back of the room. Which apparently is where the sheepish like to hang out. I was surrounded by a mostly over-50 crew, the majority of whom were women. 

Up front were the superstars. The ones standing on hands, putting legs behind heads, and catching their heels. The kind of stuff you see on Instagram a lot, only this was before social media. And that’s where the teacher was 99% of the time.

The only ‘help’ I received was when his foot moved my knee in janusirsasana as he walked past. No eye-contact. No acknowledgment. Just a foot on my knee. Nevertheless, I did learn three important lessons that weekend: (1) Ablism and ageism are a thing in yoga.  (2) Certificates don’t make a teacher.  And (3) while we like to say poses don’t matter, our actions often say something much different. 

When shame is present, thoughts override instincts. As in negative thoughts, thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough, and that our needs aren’t important. Our inner critic then takes the place of intuition, because you can’t listen and judge at the same time. Listening is a higher order of thinking that fear stops us from reaching. 

And since most women are already shame avoidant, they may go to great lengths to evade being seen. Even if that means denying their own needs.

Which may explain why there seems to be an inordinate amount of women left for decades practicing primary series. Quietly. Contently. And without question. Even though there are actually so many postures that come later that women desperately need to keep their bodies strong and healthy. 

In fact, for the most part, it is still up to women to change who they are to fit the practice rather than the practice change to fit them. Simply because we are still too embarrassed to admit our needs might be different.

Though of course our needs are different. And in nearly every way — physically, energetically, emotionally, and throughout our whole life. After all, Ashtanga yoga is rooted in a practice originally targeting boys and young men. And while it’s evolved, it’s still not enough. With the sheer amount of upper body strength required as well as the design of most transitions, it’s still a practice that favors a male body.

For example, women are curvier, generally wider in the hips than in the shoulders. So any transition (like jump backs and jump throughs) or posture (like mayurasana or any arm balance from third series) that angles the hips over the shoulders is, by design, going to actually require much more from a woman than a man. And I can’t help but suspect it’s one reason women tend to experience more shoulder injuries, especially as they get older. 

But women are different than men in many other ways than just physically. From monthly bleeds to pregnancy and menopause, women cycle energetically, emotionally, and through significant life stages. Simply put, we are like round pegs trying to fit into a linear mold.

The Ego and Egoless

I struggled plenty at the beginning of intermediate series. First there was pasasana which took me years to bind. And then kapotasana, which was an absolutely  miserable and painful experience that didn’t need to be. But it wasn’t until bakasana that I was sufficiently shamed. Not because I couldn’t do it, but because I could. My teacher at the time, watched me land my knees onto my arms and decided I needed a dose of humility. I was left there for six months until another teacher finally moved me on. 

It’s not humility most women need strengthened — it’s their ego.

We all need a healthy, functioning ego to live in this world. And understand — an ego, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Even Patanjali makes this distinction: there is ahamkara, the ego; and asmita, the affliction of ego or egoism. Whereas an inflated ego (egoism) often inflicts suffering on others, it is a lack of ego that often creates our own. But lack of ego is also an affliction.

Ego is our identity. A part of our psyche that begins developing around school age and continues into adulthood. It is what Carl Jung calls Individuation, the journey of awakening, where we free ourselves from the internalized expectations of others and tap into what’s true inside us

Without the presence of that strong inner authority, we are too easily swayed and manipulated. That means more apt to defer to those in authority (teachers), seek the group’s approval (conform), and stop taking risks (remain stuck). 

Of course, there is another side to that coin. I know because this is me. There is the woman who overcompensates. The woman who takes a total opposite route, and rather than quietly accept her place in the back of the room will work overtime to prove herself, even if that means putting her body at risk. 

But make no mistake, this is not egoism, either. It still comes from a place of feeling powerless. Remember the wounded animal? This coping mechanism is another way to protect ourselves from feeling that shame. It still comes from a place of hurt. 

The Overcompensator

While leading a retreat with David Keil, I asked the students a question during one of our sessions: Which one of us do you think is more likely to encourage you to move on in your practice — David, an authorized male teacher or me, an unauthorized female? They all thought it would be me. But they were wrong. It would definitely be David.

I might look like a rebel, but what I really am is an overachiever. I overcompensate for my own feelings of insecurity. Which, in this case, means I will be far too cautious — especially if I am not aware and fear takes over.  You see, caution is a way to protect myself from further scrutiny. And so it’s (once again) my own shame I avoid.

If female Ashtanga Yoga teachers are honest, most will admit they overcompensate. As stated earlier, the system isn’t really designed to meet a woman’s needs, no less see her succeed. And by system, I don’t even necessarily mean Asthtanga, but really any institution, standard, or norm in today’s culture — regardless of a woman’s level of confidence or competence. 

Podcast Ep. 30 with Harmony Slater // Listen Here

For example, even the Supreme Court had to rethink the way opinions are disseminated to make up for gender bias. As Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor explained, citing a 2017 study, “Most of the time women say things and they are not heard in the same way as men who might say the identical thing.”

So any woman who is able to break the mold has done so with considerable will and determination. Which, ironically, doesn’t necessarily make them any more compassionate or less rigid than a man. Sometimes it makes them just the opposite. 

I know it had that effect on me, for a long time. Though cautious with progression, my intensity is rather hard to miss. But there’s a fine line between empowering and pushing, One that would take me years (and menopause) to understand and appreciate. And I couldn’t give to others what I had not learned myself

Which is the beauty of practicing like the woman I am. The ease that comes from tapping into what’s intuitive and instinctive. That vulnerability is actually a strength and what connects us to one another. And it is in relationship to each other and what is natural that we find a true sense of belonging. 

When proving myself changed to loving myself as a woman, it was amazing how much of that shame was dissolved. You see, the qualities and traits that made me the most self-conscious — from child-bearing hips to my monthly cycle — was my own femininity.  After all, we still very much live in a man’s world. 

And why embracing my own femininity would take more than just love. I would also need to be brave.

Empowerment: I Honor the Power Within Me

“I just wish there were more female teachers in Ashtanga,” I complained. I was sitting in my D.C. living room with David Keil maybe ten years ago, unloading my frustration. At which point, he looked me square in the face and said: “And what do you think you are, Peg?”

I hadn’t seen myself that way, quite frankly. I taught, yes. But I never would’ve called myself an Ashtanga teacher. That would’ve been a leap I wasn’t prepared to take. Especially after a group of authorized teachers took to their private Facebook group to discuss me by name. “Who was I to be a voice in the community?” they asked amongst themselves. Who was I, indeed? 

And yet, here was a teacher I respected, someone I appreciated and looked up to, encouraging me to realize my own potential. He believed in me before I did. And rather than hold onto his power as a teacher, he helped me tap into my own. 

Shame is demoralizing, self-defeating, and keeps us stuck in that downward spiral. For the greater our shame, the less we will try. And the less we try, the less we experience and thus the more we will doubt. So down and down we go, until we lose all energy and enthusiasm to turn it around. 

And why the Ashtanga Yoga method, when practiced and taught in a way that honors the individual, can be amazingly empowering and healing!

If you take out all the dogma, the rigid rule-keeping, and all the ways it can be misused in a way that is limiting and even punishing at times, the practice itself is, at its core, inspiring, uplifting, and empowering. It fosters autonomy and offers opportunities to build confidence.

Like Ashtanga Yoga could literally be the anecdote for shame — if only we didn’t poison it ourselves. 

Fortunately, we actually do have the power. And in that, the responsibility to make necessary changes. From the posts that you like to the spaces you choose to practice in, there is power in our attention and presence.

You know, it used to be believed that bullies in schools were the ones with low self-esteems and needed more positive reinforcement. But actually, they received plenty of positive reinforcement — from their peers. Bullying behavior is actually considered quite ‘cool’ (which explains a lot in today’s politics, if you think about it), and bullies are usually popular kids.

So then, change really comes down to us: we are the ones who decide what is cool. In an age of social media, the power is truly right at the tip of our fingers. Through our posts and our likes, we can make it less popular to judge, put less emphasis on performance, and elevate inclusive practices that extol individualism.

And just imagine what could happen if we, women, could celebrate more women. We aren’t just victims of gender bias, we are very much (often unconsciously) a part of it.

You know, I was delighted when Adam Keen took an interest in exploring the feminine side of Ashtanga! Grateful, too. But I admit, it also hurt my heart a bit. Because I realized, it would still take a man to give women’s issues any real traction. At the same time, God bless him for lending us his inherent power as a male. And God bless all the men out there who do the same. My husband and son, included.

And if you’re a man reading this, then God bless you too.

Because I don’t know what it will take to rid ourselves of these poisons. As my friend, Erica Morton Magill noted above, these inherent feelings of guilt and shame are basically seeped in our bones, passed down from generations. But what I do know is that even the smallest act can make the biggest difference. Like someone seeing you and believing in you before you believed in yourself. 

And I’d like to be that someone. Wouldn’t you?