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An ugly reaction
I was leaving the mall after running a last minute errand when it happened. It was a gorgeous summer Saturday. I’d started the day with a lovely walk in the woods with the dogs. My yoga students in class that morning had been particularly upbeat, leaving me with a smile on my face. I’d then gotten good and dirty puttering around in the yard. My point is that when it happened, I was in the middle of a good day and I was in a really good mood.
The two girls in the white SUV came literally out of nowhere. They were flying across the parking lot not in a lane of traffic, but crossing through empty parking spots, and our tires shrieked and left skid marks as my husband desperately (and, thankfully, successfully) tried not to collide with them. They gawked at us from their car and had the audacity to burst out laughing at our near miss. But our close call is not the “it” that I want to tell you about.
“It” happened a split second after our white-knuckle moment. As those girls started to laugh, I lost my temper. I yelled a bad word. I ranted at them. I’m pretty sure I included an nasty gesture in my tantrum. Not one aspect of my behavior reflected the kind of person I want to be.
In short, both my good mood and my intention to be a good person were completely lost in my immediate reaction to my fright.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
Yoga helps us find the space to choose our response to every situation
Yoga teaches us to mindfully seek the space that Frankl refers to in every situation that life brings our way. We initially grapple with our reactions on our yoga mats when we are asked to hang out and take five long, slow breaths in a posture that is decidedly uncomfortable. We all have a posture that we hate – a forward fold, a twist, a backbend or an inversion. In 15 years I have yet to meet a student who does not have a posture that makes them want to roll up their mat and leave the room.
Yet, in 15 years I’ve never had a student roll up their mat and leave the room because I asked them to try the posture they loathe. I credit yoga’s emphasis on breathing for coaxing us all to hang in there. After all, when all you have to do is take one more breath, it’s easy to persevere even when there is nothing easy about what you’re enduring. That “one more breath” provides the space to choose our response (to hang in there) rather than toppling to the force of our reaction (to get the heck out of Dodge).
Mindfully acting rather than reacting is a powerful way to live
This is perhaps the lesson from my practice that has most changed me and the way I live and respond to my life. My ability to mindfully choose my response to a situation (or stimulus, to use Frankl’s word) rather than mindlessly reacting has gone a long way to smoothing out the rough edges of my experiences. It has made me more patient and more empathetic. It has helped me to stay calm and centered. It has helped me to understand and to honor my emotions without allowing them to dictate my actions. In short, it has been the key to my hope of mastering my temper – precisely the growth and freedom that I most hoped for when I first started to practice.
But we’re still going to mess up
Not only do I still sometimes (rarely, but it happens) bail out of postures that I hate (note: I don’t leave the room, but I do fold into child’s pose), but I still have moments like the one I described earlier. Despite years of practice and mountains of good intentions, my temper still sometimes gets the best of me. And here’s the best part: It is OK. Really. It is OK. After all, we are practicing yoga not perfecting yoga. And the same is true for life. It’s all practice, which means we’re allowed to mess up.
When we realize that we’ve messed up, we find another space. In that second space we also have the power to choose our response – this time to our own failing. This tiny space holds infinite potential. For if we choose to gently accept our mistake, own it and resolve to do better next time, we find our way back to the growth and freedom that we turned away from when we fell prey to our reaction.
The awareness that comes from noticing our mistakes is also powerfully freeing
In fact, I believe that the potential for freedom is even greater in this second, post-mess-up space than it was in the initial space between stimulus and response. When we’re living with mindfulness and awareness, our mistakes have a great deal to teach us. We can begin to see patterns for when we slip off track. We begin to notice specific triggers that routinely leave us acting out or throwing a little tantrum. Simply knowing what these triggers are can help us avoid reacting to them.
So the next time you, like me, realize that you’re reacting in a way that you’ve been working to avoid, take a breath. That breath will give you the space you need to determine what has triggered your reaction. (For me, it was fear.) In that same space, you can choose to gently forgive yourself, and to move on with the self-awareness needed for your further growth and freedom from the tyranny of reactions.
Come practice choosing your responses to challenging and not-so-challenging postures with us. Check out our class schedule.