4 Steps to Self-Forgiveness Through Yoga Practice
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
In this new series, we will be exploring how we relate to ourselves, and how we can move from self-loathing to self-love. The best place to start seems to be forgiving ourselves.
So often, we hold onto things that happened in the past that we can't quite move on from. Things that we may have done that we are now too afraid to look at or examine, and that cause us pain that lies below the surface of our everyday lives.
We carry guilt and shame from our past around with us. They are powerful emotions that don't feel particularly nice to experience, so we turn away from them and force them beneath the surface, never quite dealing with them. Eventually, we internalize these emotions and begin to believe that we are inherently bad people. This eats away at our self-worth, and we begin to believe that we are not worthy of care, love, and a multitude of other things. Problems with self-forgiveness can ultimately lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, and severe mental health problems.
This normally begins with an action that causes us to feel guilty. Experiencing guilt is a normal part of being human, it lets us know when we have done something that doesn’t align with our values. We all make mistakes. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t learn from them, and we wouldn’t have any motivation to improve ourselves or our behavior. Mistakes make for great personal growth opportunities. However, too often, we see mistakes instead as a sign of personal and/or moral failure.
Shame is when we internalize our mistakes and trick ourselves into believing that because we have done something "bad" we are a "bad person" overall. Sometimes we take on shame from others when it isn’t even warranted (such as shame for being female, a minority, or not having a 'perfect body'). This type of shame is not something that we can control or that we caused by our own actions...but it is still important for us to recognize that we do not have to buy into societal beliefs about our worth.
When it comes to hurts that were caused by our actions, we tend to rationalize or justify why we have hurt others in order to avoid those terrible dogging feelings of guilt and shame...but they still lurk beneath the surface. We might attempt to "forgive" ourselves so that we can bypass doing any personal work and absolve ourselves of any and all blame. But this does those we have harmed no good, and because we don't take any responsibility for our actions and examine how we might do better next time, we don't experience any personal growth.
We can learn to realize that bad actions don't make us bad people...we can take action to release that shame and move on. However, a healthy amount of guilt is good to have in our lives to remind us that we’re on the right track. Again, it is like a little alarm that goes off when we have gone against our own personal values. It's an important emotion to have and to work with in an intentional way.
So, how do we go about forgiving ourselves?
Instead of running from guilt and shame, learn to sit with the discomfort. It is better to feel them strongly in the short term than to carry them around constantly in the long-term. As we have learned, there can be real health risks involved when we chose the latter.
Recognize what brings up feelings of guilt or shame for you. Were these situations consequences of your actions, or is it an embedded shame simply bestowed upon you by others? Release what you are not responsible for and what you cannot control. That weight isn't yours to carry!
As for everything else, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t play the blame game or try to justify or rationalize why you did wrong. Try to take ownership of things that, knowing what you know now, you believe you could have done differently. Recognize who you have hurt and how it impacted them, as well as you.
Yoga can help us here as we practice ahimsa, or non-harming. If we hold ahimsa as a deeply held personal value, then guilt will tell us when we have crossed a boundary or violated this value. Taking time on the mat or meditation cushion can help us to turn our attention inwards and sort out complicated emotions such as these. Emotions are often stored within the body in the form of physical tension. In releasing this tension, we can also help to release the emotions that go along with them.
Make amends. Is there anyone you need to apologize to or make amends with? Showing others that you have recognized how your actions have affected them can help them to move forward in their pain, and