I hate when people say, “you just need to let it go.” As if, I somehow have the power to open my hands and drop it like it’s hot. Some things, are as stuck on us as our own skin. We all have stories that define our identity. Some stories are good and true. Other stories are old and false; those are the ones to let go of. But letting go is not something we can do on command. We have to both want it and work for it. Unfortunately, sometimes letting go means moving towards the story we’re holding tight to. We must understand it better, before we can know how to set it free.
I am the queen of holding onto old stories. In my queenship, I reign over the country where old stories shape reality, more so than the present moment. It’s a more delusional version of Pleasantville, where everyone is in denial that life outside actually exists. Wildly healthy, my kingdom is.
Old stories have defined me for most of my life. I spent years walking around in victimhood. In some seasons of life, I rightfully was. I will never minimize the pain of abuse. But sometimes, we carry our baggage far beyond its capacity to serve us. And in order to make sense of our pain, we attach narrative to experiences and perceptions. We do this best, with things that are painful or shameful. Instead of saying, “I experience anxiety” we say, “I am anxious.” We turn the experience of being anxious, into part of our identity. If we tell ourselves the same story long enough, we mistake it for reality.
Long after I was a victim, I still told myself I was. In my mind, it was never an isolated event where I had been victimized. I was a victim, and that was my identity. I was fragile and defensive, closed off and hard-hearted. I wasn’t eager to let go. Because being a victim of a terrible relationship, was my battle scar for having loved and lost. It was my badge of honor saying, someone loved me here. And for someone who spent the entirety of their life just wanting to fit in, a love that had the capacity to damage deep, felt like the realest of acceptance.
Though I recovered from being victimized, I perpetuated the self-fulfilling prophecy by telling myself the same story. Believing it, is what led me to operate from it. I suppose, I wanted a story to blame all of my false behavior on. I needed some hardship or tragedy to be the scapegoat for the condition of my heart. I knew that moving forward meant getting closer to the pain, and I didn’t want to. I prefered to keep it on a shelf, and stare at it from afar. Mostly, I was terrified of what might happen. Would I have to share my truth with people? Would I even recognize the person under the pain? I didn’t feel I had the permission to do this heavy changing work. Afterall, I had been queen of this country for so long, I felt comfortable here. My false self felt like a safety blanket, a place where I was safe because I was closed. I knew deep down that was a lie. Staying there was never safe, it was only secluded. In his book, The Gift of Being yourself, David Benner writes, “Wherever I am closed, there I am false.” Much of who I was, was false.
Like everything in my life, the big stuff has its way of bursting out of me. I was starting to be more mindful about all the places I felt false. I recognized them, and knew their stories by heart. Still, I couldn’t set anything down without picking it back up again the next day. I still showed up on my yoga mat, as often as I could muster. Each time, I felt a tiny paint chip of my false self fall away. It was small work, but I recognized it as good work. I spent months digging deep but not releasing much of my false self. One day at a time, one tiny paint chip at a time. Then one day, everything unraveled. To paraphrase John Greene, I finally dropped my old stories, the same way you fall asleep; slowly and then all at once.
It was near the end of a particularly intense yoga class; I was sweating profusely, and at the breaking point of my physical strength. When we finally collapsed on the mat, I felt raw and vulnerable. Perhaps my teacher knew. Because what she said next, was entirely for me. She spoke of surrender and letting go, but not in a way that required me to, but rather, invited me to. If I wasn’t already on the floor, her words would have put me there. “You are allowed to drop stories that no longer serve you. You are allowed to set it down, and leave it here.”
I opened my eyes in disbelief. She had to be speaking directly to me. It was the same advice, but phrased exactly how my heart needed to hear it. I had been invited. She invited me to leave my junk right there on my mat. No one ever offered me that much grace before. It was always, “you should drop it,” but those words never came with a plan to accomplish this act of letting go. People telling me to let it go, wasn’t helpful. I didn’t want to do it for them, it felt too fake. So I held on. Trying to let go because I was supposed to, was an obligation. So I held on. But letting go simply because I was allowed to choose for myself? That empowering moment changed everything. Because what I was trying to let go of, afterall, was a man who took away my power to choose. And now, I was being invited to choose. My teacher had nailed it. She gave me the option to choose all for myself, and then she held safe the space where I would leave it all behind.
There on my mat, I chose to drop it once and for all. I felt it hit the ground, and I had no desire to pick it back up. All this time, I had been chipping paint with chisels people gave me. When all I actually needed, was someone to tell me I could choose paint thinner instead.
Through yoga, I found ways to change the narrative in my head. The pain went from being victimizing, to a vehicle by which I claimed back power. Yoga gave me the power to choose what felt good for my body. I could choose whether to dive in or hold back, without anyone manipulatively convincing me otherwise. I experienced my most real self, the way my body was designed: for good. I remember looking in the mirror one day and thinking, “This is what it feels like to look at myself, and finally know the person staring back. This feels like love.”
I signed up to become a certified yoga instructor, the same year we moved to England. The timeline for completion was only weeks before moving out of Wooster, Ohio. I knew the commitment was going to be physically demanding, but I far underestimated how much emotional healing would be involved. I already did the heavy lifting in that department, and was certain there couldn’t be much left in the tank.
My yoga rabbi (what I lovingly call my forever-teacher) asked me to consider signing up. She saw a potential in me, long before it was fully realized. At the time, my yoga practice was mediocre, to be generous. But my personal achievement of the asanas was not a requirement for teaching. To be a teacher does not mean one knows it all. A teacher is someone committed to the journey of becoming. This was the stuff I needed more of.
I was nervous to tell Chris I wanted to sign up. It was a large financial commitment, and I would spend more than 200 hours dedicated to the endeavor. But those things weren’t what made me nervous. Choosing to be a yoga teacher, was something that made my soul expand. The epitome of choosing something entirely for myself. I was afraid he wouldn’t understand or approve. I was afraid, my true self wouldn’t be accepted. In true form, I came to him with a rationalized explanation, making an air-tight argument as though I were defending a court case. In his truest form, he didn’t bat an eyelash. I’m not actually positive he listened to my entire defense. I didn’t even finish my case before he said “If that’s something you want, then go for it babe.” Go for it?
I was stunned by his acceptance, and the fact I did not have to defend myself. Was choosing what is best for myself, actually that easy? What if this fear of being rejected, was actually another story I had been playing on repeat? I picked it up as a kid, because it was true. I was often bullied and rejected in school. But once it stopped being true, I never put it back down. The story kept its endurance, as I interpreted years of tiny mis-understandings as rejection. They confirmed my worldview; people don’t like the real me. I collected every story, like kindling on the fire, piling up to keep it burning. Could people accept the real me, exactly as I am?
I began my yoga teacher training, choosing to believe I was totally and wholly accepted as I was. I had no need to pretend or put on a show. No need to tell old stories or masquerade as a former version of myself. I entered that space entirely open. Lucky for me, so did the other 12 strangers. We spent 9 straight days together during the first leg of our training. We endured intense physical practice and emotional upheaving of junk. We watched each other come undone. And then we championed rebuilding, with the strength of 12 other souls woven into the fabric of our mending hearts. We were open in this place, because space was made for being open. Our false selves were never needed, because there was room enough for the fullness of who we really were.
What lingered of my former self, was my perfectionism. It was the cape I threw on, when I felt the real me being threatened. In training, it surfaced on day one. My yoga rabi threw us into the ring to start teaching, before we even knew what that meant. We had to stand up in front of one another and call out the sequence. Here I was, in my personal form of hell. I had to stand up and be terribly awful at something. More than that, I had to be terribly awful IN FRONT OF other people I had just met. Kill me now. People stood up before me to take their turn, equally nervous I am sure. But this wasn’t just about nerves for me. This was about exposing part of myself that I had spent my entire life trying to conceal: dont let them see you feel or fail. These people were about to see both.
As the first few people stood up, I realized they too, were terrible. But what struck me, was that I had no judgement towards them. I held no expectation of them to get it right as they stood up and tried. Did they hold this same space of grace for me, too? I realized once again, I had it all wrong. This transaction between perfectionism and acceptance, was a story I had yet to drop. Being perfect was my way of avoiding rejection and criticism. And here I was, learning that 12 adults could accept one another, as each of their flaws were exposed. I had finally started to know my real self, and perfectionism was the thing keeping me from being fully known by others. It was that simple. For years, I had felt the pang of not being fully known or understood. The realest me was rarely known, because she never took off her mask.
Something big shifted in me that day. I stood up, and stumbled through the sequence without feeling the need to explain or justify why I was bad. I was learning something knew, and everyone else was too. We were becoming something, together. As I continued to operate from the realest part of me, my old stories never emerged. I had carried them for years, and they finally lost their power. My identity was no longer defined by them. I had finally let it go. For the first time in my life, I was content being exactly who I was. I felt no need to qualify, justify, or pretend. I met the realest me, the same day 12 strangers did.
They liked her. And I did, too.
Originally published on FlexYoga Wooster’s Blog.