By Lori Holden
We sit on the floor in criss-cross applesauce at the beginning of yoga class, and our teacher instructs us to close our eyes and remember a time during childhood when we were hurt or scared in order to find if there are areas in which we need to release and to forgive. Her soothing voice and evocative words take each of us back to address our own personal boogeymen, troubles that loomed large because we were so small.
This won’t work, says my inner voice. I’ve already exorcised all my demons.
I open my eyes and peek around the room, surprised that my fellow classmates are going crimson in the face as strong emotions rise from their bellies. Something powerful is going on, and if I can surrender my thoughts to my emotions, I may have the chance to release something I’ve carried for a very long time.
Hah, that’s what you think! comes a reply, also inside my head.
With an exhale I allow my hips and tailbone to feel heavy, to sink into the earth. With an inhale I lift my spine, filling the space between my vertebrae with, well, more space. In an instant…
…I see Mommy and Daddy walking away. I see them through the droplets of the dank and cold prison they’re leaving me in, the plastic walls and ceiling I’m sealed inside, where I’m having trouble breathing.
Don’t leave me! I’ll be good! I won’t scare you any more please just don’t leave me here! I scream and still they walk away. AGAIN. Every night they leave me here. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT! They leave me here in the care of my torturers who stab me with sharp things and make me bleed and hurt me over and over again. They leave me here in a wet and cold bed. They leave me here in a place where I get only icky food. The bad people here put masks over my face thirty-eleven times a day and it smells bad. I am suffocating.
I am so afraid and uncomfortable and….ANGRY. I am so angry at all of them for putting me here, for leaving me here.
I hate this oxygen tent. I hate the nurse who gives me shots. I hate the doctor who keeps adding days and nights I have to stay here. I hate all the white, and the smell of someone they call Auntie Septy. I hate my lungs for getting New Monya again. I’m mad at my parents for leaving me behind again. I’m mad that I’m so small and powerless still. I’m mad at my body. I hate my life. HATE HATE HATE HATE!
On my mat I am shocked to meet my hate-fueled and scared five year-old self. I am amazed that I could uncover all that in a mere five mindful breaths.
Whoa. Now what?
We begin our sun salutations, stretching the sides and back parts of our bodies with forward folds and crescent moons, strengthening our cores with plank pose and chaturrangas, then simultaneously grounding and lifting in downward dog. Yoga is a practice of alternating currents, of balancing opposites to bring about wholeness: right/left, upper/lower, front/back, sun/moon, rising/melting, strength/stretch, inhale/exhale, tension/release.
And, apparently, my past and my present.
As I move through the rest of the practice, I focus on my breath. With the inhales, I abide with that scared little girl I once was. I am acutely aware of the tension in her body, the balls of wadded up anger, of densely packed fear. With my exhales, I mindfully aim to dissolve those balls of heavy energy, some still residing in my body — mainly in my lungs and hips — using my breath and intention.
The oxygen tent is where I began laying victim patterns that would serve as my template for 30 years. It was in that cold, wet, lonely place that I realized I was at the mercy of others, that I did not control my circumstances, that I was not the subject in my life but rather an object in others’. The doctors made me endure procedures that hurt, my parents made me swallow icky medicines and stay in fearsome places, my body continually disappointed me by not functioning as it should.
I do my thing: I look at this childhood scene through a rational lens. Of course my parents weren’t persecuting me. Of course it was as hard for them to leave me each night as it was for me to be left. Of course the doctors and nurses weren’t trying to hurt me; they were trying to heal me. Of course I wasn’t abandoned; people were there to make sure I was going to be okay. Of course my body wasn’t malfunctioning on purpose; it was doing the best it could.
But the 5 year-old on my yoga mat with me is not a rational being. I have carried her emotional energy of being scared, alone, abandoned, bereft, unwell. She’s pissed. Mad at those who left her, mad at those who poked her, mad at the body that put her in her predicament. She’s been having tantrums ever since, not having an outlet for her fear and anger.
With my teacher’s invitation to dig deep and excavate what lurks beneath my awareness, I am able to give the girl a voice. I feel my face turn crimson as the anger rises from my belly. Now that I know such a well of fear and anger is there, I can access it, breathe through it, release it.
And forgive. One breath at a time.
Lori Holden is a writer, social studies teacher, and yogini. She posts regularly at her award-winning site, LavenderLuz.com and is author of the acclaimed guide The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption. She and her husband are raising their two teenagers and one bichon-poodle mix in Denver. Her lungs today are healthy, thanks to frequently flexing (and releasing) her forgiveness muscles.