Forgiveness by Julie Pate
Yoga Therapy Tools for Forgiveness
By Julie Pate
Yoga Therapy offers tools to help students reduce suffering and find peace and balance in life. Unlike group yoga classes, yoga therapy is very individualized and targets very specific physical, emotional, and mental issues to move clients from a state of suffering or duhkham to a state of ease or sukham. When looking at duhkham, it is helpful to go from gross to subtle. On the gross level, we may recognize a sore back, or an immobile shoulder or lifestyle habits like not getting enough sleep. On a subtler level we may look at a clients’ family history, long-held beliefs or how they deal with stress. When a client has an issue like a sore back, we look at physical causes like poor posture or sitting all day at a desk job, but we must recognize that the cause may be something much deeper.
Often in life, the actions or words of others are hurtful and can leave us with feelings of anger, resentment and isolation. When we hold onto grudges, or old resentments, we are constricting ourselves, preventing us from living freely, and hindering our own joy. Asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation are most traditionally used to help students navigate through life in a positive way, however looking at behaviors that may be harming is essential for good health and vitality.
THE YOGA SUTRAS
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali start with the word “Now” or atha. The sutras are concise, precise, relevant, and pregnant with meaning, so each word and its placing in each sutra is very important. The word “now” refers to the present moment, this is where joy is found, peace is found, and life is lived. Sometimes “now” is used to fret about the past, and the magic of the moment is lost. If we bring past hurts into the now, we are being held back from life, as if we have a ball and chain around our ankle. When we open to the grace of the present moment, love drifts slowly to the surface and whispers its intent which is pure and genuine. There is no resentment in love. When Patanjali placed the word “now” in his very first sutra, he was conveying the importance of the present moment in reducing suffering. The Sanskrit word “now” is translated by Frans Moors in Liberating Isolation as “now begins, here it is, an auspicious beginning or blessing”. Imagine if you lived your life as if every “now” was a blessing, an auspicious beginning!
In Yoga Sutra 1.12, Patanjali introduces the concept of practice and detachment (abhyasa and vairagyabhyam) which are intimately connected in the practice of forgiveness. Abhyasa is our constant efforts to cultivate balance or peace. Life is ever-changing, and difficult situations are constantly arising. This sutra recognizes that finding peace is not easy, it takes constant practice. A forgiveness practice may include shifting negative thoughts to the present moment with a breathing practice, or letting go of past hurts and cultivating compassion and kindness. This practice of moving towards the positive should be done with no expectations, no end-game. If we start a positive practice with our eyes on the results, we are losing the now, and living for some future happiness. If we practice compassion because we want to impress others, or want something in return, we are attaching ourselves to an outcome that may never come, and setting ourselves up for disappointment. An abhyasa practice to cultivate compassion is the reward.
In Yoga Sutra 1.33, we are given practical suggestions on social behavior. “A peaceful mind results from a mental attitude of friendship towards those who are content, of compassion towards those who suffer, of joy towards virtuous individuals, of equanimity towards and disengagement from those who act poorly”. The last line in this sutra addresses the issue of other people acting poorly, and how we should respond. Finding a state of equanimity is feeling peaceful even when something challenging is happening. This takes practice or abhyasa because most times our initial reaction in a stressful situation is to panic, or act poorly, which only serves to increase the stress. Resentment focuses on our impressions of other people’s actions, we feel we were mistreated, we judge the behavior of others and how it personally affects us, we sometimes go over and over these thoughts at the expense of our current joy. We can’t control other people’s behaviors, we can try, but we will most certainly be disappointed. When other people’s words or actions are hurtful, it is helpful to stop and notice how it feels physically, sit with the feeling and be very aware. Emotion is energy in motion, so if we are present, we can feel this motion. You may notice a heavy sensation in the center of the heart, or a burning feeling in the throat, or a throbbing in the center of the forehead. These experiences are physical sensations of duhkham. If these physical sensations of tension are left to just sit in the body, it will cause a constriction, or tension. Instead, notice the feeling and begin to take several deep breaths, and see if the negative energy will clear. We are looking to bring about a sense of openness, a spacious sensation. This hopefully will be a feeling of ease, of freedom, of light, and suddenly the past hurt has left, and you are there with your own light. We are not justifying the action that caused harm, nor are we pretending it didn’t occur. These awareness tools allow us to recognize pain, and welcome it really, letting it know you see it, you feel it. Then, from that space of acknowledgement, we can move it through and move on. Now from this space you move forward into life, and attract more of the same; positivity and joy.
In Yoga Sutra 2.33, Patanjali says, “In the distress that stems from doubt, cultivate an alternative mental attitude.” pratipaksa means “opposite” and bhavana means “cultivation”, so pratipaksa bhavana is quite simply cultivating the opposite. If we forgive, we are letting go of hate, and bringing in love, we are letting go of resentment, and cultivating acceptance. Patanjali shares that negative thoughts are distressing, and cause suffering, we don’t judge our thoughts, we observe them, and cultivate something positive.
The late Senator John McCain spent over 5 years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam. During the five years, Senator McCain was tortured, and kept in wretched conditions. When asked how he remembered those terrible times, he spoke of the love and comradery he had for his fellow-solders. He said that life-long bonds were forged and he was able to survive and go on to thrive due to the support and love of his fellow captives. Mr. McCain describes a great example of pratipaksa bhavana, he could have dwelled in a very dark place, but instead he choose to cultivate the opposite by focusing on love and friendship. From this place, he was able to go on and enjoy his roll as a loving husband, father and to serve his country.
We are not looking at life with rose colored glasses with this technique nor are we ignoring pain, we are simply choosing to move in a different direction. Often in life, the actions or words of others are hurtful, how we deal with these offenses can often determine how much ease we will find in life. When we hold a grudge, we hurt ourselves more than the person we are not forgiving. The philosopher St. Augustine said “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.” If someone insults you or is insensitive, it is really all about them, if we allow someone else’s actions to negatively affect us, we are allowing them to hand us their garbage, and we are taking it, and making it our own garbage. In Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, we recognize mala or waste material that builds up in the body and can lead to
dis- ease. When we hold onto past hurts, it accumulates in the body as sludge, waste, constriction, disease. Jesus said, “Before you enter the temple, forgive.” We cannot move into a sacred space with resentment, it will taint our experience. Yoga Therapy offers many tools to deal with life’s challenges, so that we may navigate through life in a more peaceful way, and clear this mala before it hurts us.
THE CHAKRA MODEL
Chakras are described as spinning, energetic wheels of life force. Cultivating compassion can affect these subtle energy forces in many ways. Chakra one is our root chakra and governs our basic survival needs. When we hold onto past hurts, we lose stability. To find stability we need balance. Chakra 2 is our sacral chakra and governs movement in life, resentment keeps us stuck, we can’t move freely with ease, it is like we are being held back. When we hold onto resentment, we are handing over our personal power to the person who victimized us, this affects our third chakra which governs personal power. Love really can’t bloom in the shadow of resentment, so chakra 4, our heart center is affected. The 5th chakra is at our throat and is all about our voice. If we go over and over old stories, we may have an excess at this chakra, if we have not spoken our truth, the energy at the 5th chakra may be stuck. The 6th chakra governs our intuition, it helps to guide us in life to make the right choices for ourselves. We need to be very present to allow this energy to guide us, and resentment keeps us trapped in the past, and we often miss key signs in the present. The 7th chakra is our crown or spiritual chakra, it connects us with the divine and the divine within ourselves. If there is a constriction in the 7th chakra, we will have issues connecting with love, we won’t feel the energy of consciousness.
PANCHA MAYA MODEL
The pancha mayas refer to the five dimensions or permeable layers of ones being. We are a physical breathing body that thinks, with emotions and a personality. Issues that come up in life can affect any and often several layers of our being. Some healing modalities focus on the physical layer, some just work with the mental layer, when we work with all five layers, we have a better chance of healing the whole person. Resentment can often affect all mayas, and is very specific to each person. The application of this tool will depend on the layer(s) affected. Resentment may show up on the anna maya or physical layer with a sore back or a tight neck, and once compassion techniques are practiced, physical pain may subside. The prana maya layer is our energy body, and holding onto past hurts can affect one’s energy by causing restriction in the body and a shallow labored breath. A breath practice can help to open up stuck areas of the body and promote a sense of ease. Resentment defiantly affects the mano maya or intellectual layer as we often think over and over about past hurts which wastes precious time and prevents us from using our intellect for positive goals. Awareness and redirection can help clients get out of the trap of spinning in negative thoughts. The vijnana or personality layer consists of the qualities that make us unique such as how we were raised, what we are afraid of, what brings us joy in life. Often resentment is an unhealthy pattern that causes suffering. When thoughts of blame or judgement arise, it is helpful to acknowledge those thoughts and then let them go as they are not serving the goal of thriving in life. The ananda maya is our emotional layer, and resentment dramatically affects this layer. Feelings of being mistreated can have a strong physical affect and can make us feel lonely, isolated, and unloved. Self-nurturing practices such as warm oil massage, gratitude journaling or engaging in activities we enjoy can help to remind us of how loved we truly are. We must understand that the cruel or thoughtless acts of others don’t prove that we are unlovable, and can in fact be a reminder that we need to bring more attention to this layer of our being.
Kleshas are obstacles to a balanced state of being described in the Yoga Sutras. In Yoga Sutra 2.3, Patanjali describes avidya as misunderstanding or ignorance, and goes on to outline the four branches of avidya which are ego, fear, attachment, and aversion. Often when the acts of others hurt us, we are sitting in the seat of avidya! I have a close friend, and every year on her birthday I plan a celebration for her. Some years I gather a few friends to have a dinner, some years we enjoy a lunch together. I always find the perfect card and often wrap a small gift beautifully, and really enjoy the tradition. Each year on my birthday this friend does nothing for me, often just sends a text message. This year, she sent a message on Facebook. I have spent a lot of time pondering what I consider an unfair exchange. My ego expects reciprocation, and is hurt, I resent the fact that she does not put the thought and effort into my special day that I put into hers, I fear she does not care about me. I attach myself to how I expect her to behave and worst of all I have developed an aversion to my own birthday because it represents not a celebration of my life, or a year well-lived, but a reminder of how insignificant I feel. The issue is not my friend ignoring my birthday, it is really my belief that I am unloved which is avidya, a mistake. I have a mistaken idea, and it causes suffering. I took a practice of kindness, celebrating a loving friend, and let it burn a hole in my heart, and make me feel victimized. I exaggerated her actions, blamed her for how I felt and went over and over my grievance story in my head. I began to forgive my friend by challenging the rigid rules I had for her behavior and by focusing my attention on qualities that I love about her. Practices to cultivate self-love would help me to experience my birthday and every day with joy, and not attach expectations and resentment onto other people’s actions.
In Yoga Sutra 1.5, Patanjali introduces the pancha vrittis or five activities of the mind which are; correct comprehension, misconception, imagination, deep sleep, and memory. Patanjali teaches us that the vrittis can be painful or not painful depending on how we experience them.
In the above example of the birthday exchange, my friend did not offer to celebrate my birthday with me, and this caused me to suffer, this is an example of pramana or correct comprehension. If things don’t go as planned in life, it does not have to lead to suffering.
I assumed my friend didn’t care about me, this is a misconception or viparyaya. I went onto imagine that my friend’s behavior indicated my self-worth which is vikalpa or imagination. My feelings were hurt, and I went over and over it in my mind, ingraining this feeling into my memory which is smriti. Vas means “to dwell in”, vasana is a memory that leaves an impression, if we dwell in this negative memory, a deeper impression is made. If we revisit this memory again and again, we suffer on a deeper level, we take a bad situation and make it much worse. We can condition ourselves to dwell in resentment or to notice feelings and let them pass, and move into a more peaceful state. The fifth vrittis is nidra or deep sleep, and does not apply to our example here.
RESENTMENT AND THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Our autonomic nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic (SNS) which is our fight or flight response and the parasympathetic (PNS) which helps us rest and digest. The Roman physician Galen named the “sympathetic” nervous system because he saw that it was so closely connected with the emotions. The sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline which increases blood pressure and speeds up the heart rate, and gets us ready to act. Anger and resentment are fueled by the SNS, when we have angry thoughts, our heart races, are muscles tighten up, we are ready to fight. When we think about or relive painful situations that happened yesterday or 30 years ago, our nervous system does not understand that what we are experiencing is not an immediate threat, and it springs into fight or flight mode to protect us. When we spend a lot of time reliving past hurts, we tell our body that we are constantly being threatened, and we need to be on constant guard to protect ourselves. We have a hard time moving out of this phase and into a relaxed state, we can’t sleep, we become exhausted. We have chronic muscle tightness that turns into chronic pain, and we suffer.
Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College, did a study on forgiveness in which subjects were asked to think about someone who had hurt them which caused blood pressure and heart rate to increase. Thinking about a past offense is stressful and unhealthy! When subjects had compassion for their offenders, or imagined forgiving them, their stress response subsided.
Over eight hundred years ago, the poet Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” These words still ring true today. When we forgive, we tear down barriers to love, connect with your parasympathetic nervous system and experience ease.
Yoga Therapy is the application of specific tools designed for an individual in a very special way to help them find balance and cultivate a joyful ease in life. The tool of forgiveness has many applications and can be as unique and varied as the clients themselves. Cultivating forgiveness can be an important tool in helping clients navigate through challenges and move forward with love.
SAMPLE YOGA THERPAY PRACTICE FOR FORGIVNESS
1. Inhale hands overhead, exhale hands to the heart while chanting “so hum” 4X “So Hum” means “I am that”, “I am light, I am love” this practice will bring in light, positivity and love to the heart center. This will also lengthen the exhale which will be calming and nurturing.
2. Back heart alignment – stand tall and gently bring the bottom tips of the shoulder blades together on the exhale, inhale and feel the expansiveness of the tops of the shoulder blades. 4X This will bring energy into the heart and cultivate an uplifting sensation, this will also bring awareness and help improve the posture.
3. Surya Namaskar to 4 directions with movement on exhale 4X
To forgive, we must restore our own personal power, and not allow other people’s actions or words to affect our joy. When we move in four directions, we set energetic boundaries to protect ourselves from other people’s negative influence. Movement on exhale will help to cultivate a feeling of letting go.
4. Breath of Joy – Stand with legs wide apart, inhale in 3 parts, bringing arms up overhead, exhale and drop the body down between the legs with the arms moving behind. 4X This is a powerful technique to release stored energy and bring positive movement to the heart. Note: I don’t know if this is in our lineage, but Laura Jane taught it to me, and it is also in the book Yoga for Depression by Amy Weintraub.
5. Guided Meditation with bhavana – sit comfortably and notice your breath. Think of a place of beauty in nature, could be a place you have visited or a place you have only dreamt about. Could be your own back yard, a lush green forest or a soft sand beach with aqua blue waves moving slowly in and out. Imagine yourself in this place feeling completely safe and content………….feel the belly gently rise and fall. Bring your attention to your feet and imagine bathing your feet in the Divines love, and notice how that feels. Move your attention up to your lower legs and bathe them in love……..then the upper legs, bathe them in Divine love. Bathe the pelvis and hips in love and notice how that feels……….bring your attention to the belly and again feel it gently rise and fall in a soft nurturing way…….bathe the belly in love………..bring your awareness to the heart and feel a softens, a gentle grace, wrap the heart in love……..feel the throat, and cultivate a spaciousness at the throat, feel the throat washed in love……….move up to the third eye and notice how that feels…….feel a soft caressing at the third eye of the Divine’s loving attention………bring your awareness to the crown and feel a sense of radiant warmth…….feel love moving in on each inhale and growing in intensity with each exhale, filling every space of your being………….sit for 5-10 minutes more. To forgive, we need to feel that we are loved, we don’t want a feeling of lack, this meditation will cultivate self-love and the practitioner won’t need to seek love from other people, Divine love is enough.
1. Massage the body from head to toe with warm coconut or almond oil – this is a self-nurturing practice to cultivate a feeling of being well cared for, will help to ground energy in the moment and nourish the joints.
2. Sitali Pranayama - sitali means “cool” and this pranayama will calm the mind, cool the body support a good night’s sleep.
3. Journal – journal can be about current grievances, to get them out and be done with them, or about gratitude, which ever seems appropriate for the day.
Anodea, J. (2001) Wheels of Life. St. Paul, Minnesota, Llewellyn Publications
Gormley, J, Vanderberg, L (2006) Holistic Healing with Yoga Therapy
Lusin, F. (2002) Forgive for Good, New York, NY, Harper Collins Publishing
Moors, F. (2012) Liberating Isolation. Puram, Chennai India, Media Garunda
Toole, E. (2004) The Power of Now. Vancouver, B.B., Namaste Publishing
Weintraub, A. (2004) Yoga for Depression. Portland Oregon, Broadway Books
Witvliet, C. (2001 Vol. 12, No. 2) Granting Forgiveness or harboring grudges, Research Article, Hope College