I love the process of yoga, its endless potential for growth. From each yoga training I participate in or each class I teach, I come away with new found awareness, with new insights into the workings of my body and mind. What really strikes me time and again is the importance of the stories we tell each other and of the stories we tell ourselves. How we tell our story greatly affects our healing. I have learned this myself the hard way. Like many people, I came to yoga through an injury. Years ago I had an accident that seriously damaged my neck and shoulder. My life as I knew it changed suddenly. I was unable to do any of the things that I loved doing. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t continue my studies at art school. I couldn’t paint or write. I couldn’t read my favourite novels. Basically, I spent most of my day lying down with my eyes closed because the pain was simply too much. I couldn’t sit up straight, because the weight of my head was too heavy to carry. I wore a neck brace. I hardly left the house. My social life stopped. It felt as if the walls of my house had slammed into me, enclosing my life.
The stories we hear
In order to heal I participated in an intensive rehabilitation program, doing fitness exercises every day, working on my posture, regularly visiting chiropractors and manual therapist etc. Despite all my efforts, nothing seemed to change for the better. My spine rather began to feel more and more unstable, like a house of cards, fragile and weak, ready to crumble at any moment. Somewhere along the line everyone around me, doctors and specialists, started to tell me that my injury had become chronic. There were no signs of recovery so it would never heal. I would have to find a way to live with it. I lost all my hope and started to believe what I was told: “This is it. This is what the rest of my life is going to be like”. It’s the story I started telling myself in my head, but I didn’t like it one bit.
The stories we tell
Reflecting on that time of my life, what strikes me the most is that I ended up giving all my trust and power away to doctors and specialists. In the process, I lost all trust in myself. An injury is not just something physical that affects the workings of your body. The way we talk to ourselves about it or hear others talk to us about it has a dramatic impact on how we feel, experience and cope with it. It affects how we define ourselves. Language is a powerful thing. It can change everything. It can uplift and empower you but it can also crush all your hope, if you allow it to. If you hear the same message over and over again, you start to believe it, whether it’s positive or negative. In my case, I heard everyone around me saying “No”. I heard “You can’t”. I heard “You will never”. I started to re-iterate those same lines in my head, giving up on myself, feeling weak, limited, powerless, out of control. We become the stories we tell ourselves. We are the stories we tell.
Opening to that which is real
When we are in pain, we tend to want to push it away. We want to disconnect from those parts of ourselves that are hurting. We tell ourselves that the injury, the shoulder that hurts, is not really us. Ironically, the more we push our injured parts away, the more we allow ourselves to be identified by them. We end up alienating ourselves from our own body. We stop seeing all parts of ourselves, our whole body for what it is. By fearing and resisting to opening to that which is real, we end up putting all our awareness into those parts of ourselves that we try so hard to resist. You become what you think about. You become your pain, your injury. The story you start telling yourself is a very limiting one.
You become what you focus on
I noticed that by focusing all my attention on my injury, I had become my injury, and I hated everything about it. My injury was something holding me back from living the life that I wanted to live, so I treated ‘it’ like an enemy, as something stupid and annoying, alien and separate from myself. My injury was impersonal: ‘it’, ‘not-myself’, ‘not-mine’. The story I was telling myself was only reinforcing limited ideas of myself and of what my life could become. All the treatments I was doing also primarily focused on those painful parts of myself. I literally felt like the walls were closing in on me. I got stuck in the nitty gritty details of a very small part of myself and allowed that part of myself to do the talking, to define all parts of myself, only seeing smallness, losing the big picture.
Re-igniting your spark
At some point, I felt so disheartened by spending all my precious time focusing on my injury, that I hit the end of the tunnel. I realized that I had gotten tunnel vision and that if I were to continue like this, the focus on my injury would only become bigger and bigger. My world would become smaller and smaller. I made a radical decision to stop doing all the therapies I was doing that kept my focus on “my injury”. Somewhere deep down I wasn’t ready to accept that this was it, that this is what my life was going to be. A life of pain killers, constant nausea & dizziness, lying in bed and wearing a neck brace, was not what I wanted out of life. Before my injury, I was never one to accept from others that things are impossible or that there’s thing I couldn’t do. It was time to start to change my story. All the energy, the commitment and persistence I had put towards “healing my injury” I now put into slowly picking up the things I loved doing. I started prioritising positivity in my daily routine. I created experimental to-do lists around the experience of enjoyment and building self-awareness. I made a long list of things that used to make me happy I shifted my awareness to the positive things in my life. I made positive experiences part of my daily routine. I started with small things like painting and sketching again, but I also took up new things like journaling, visualisation and making vision boards. Gradually my spark ignited again.
Re-claiming your body
My healing journey really began to accelerate when I discovered yoga classes online. I was quite new to yoga, but soon enough I was practicing yoga daily in the privacy of my own home. I loved the feeling it gave me. I was still in pain but it made me feel a little bit better about myself each time I got on the mat. Already within 3 months of practicing, I noticed some radical changes. My life started to shift into a positive direction. It started to flow more. A great deal of my pain disappeared. I felt empowered, stronger and more whole. I gained hope. Despite having no idea of what I was doing at the time -I probably was doing a lot of the poses out of alignment-, yoga helped me to heal. It helped me to integrate, to re-connect the different parts of myself. I began to embrace my shoulder and neck as a part of myself again. As something beautiful, something to love and care for instead of something to push away or push into. I realized I had fallen out of love with myself, which made it impossible for me to heal. Yoga became a process of re-claiming all parts of myself, of self-compassion, of falling back in love with myself, with life. You really become what you practice. Yoga helped me to tell a better story, a story that felt embodied and at the same time included the bigger picture.
The art of story-telling
Flash forward to today: I am a yoga teacher and a personal fulfilment and career coach. I left a life and career focused on achievement, on external success for a life and career build around my inner life, around deep happiness and meaning. I now help people to tell better stories for themselves. I help them to broaden their awareness and wake to their own potential. It is deeply fulfilling to teach yoga and coach clients. I play a small part in making the lives of people a little better. Story-telling is a big part of it. When you can help someone to see their own fullness, to see new possibilities for themselves, healing happens. Most of my yoga students, who are suffering from a serious injury or an illness, have gone through the same thing I have been through with my injury. They have lost hope. They have accepted the stories they tell themselves or others have told them. The stories in their head focus on limitation, on the impossible: “I will never run again”, “I will always be in pain”, “I will never be able to carry my baby boy”. Or they have started to hear stories like:“You have to live with this”, “You have to accept this is your life”, “There isn’t much we can do for you”. For a large part, they have allowed themselves to become defined by stories that limit them, that prevent them from seeing possibility, from having hope. They come to yoga or coaching because deep down inside they know there is more to life than what their current story is telling them. They come to change their story. And when they change their story, they change their whole world. I feel humbled by their stories. I have seen so many people’s lives changed for the better. I have seen people suffering from severe pain and injury heal. I have not only seen people become pain-free, but, more importantly, I have seen people thrive in life after a long period of misery. I have seen the breakthroughs changing their stories has created in their own lives.
Saying ‘Yes’ first
Teaching yoga or coaching clients is about telling the whole story, seeing the big picture. You look for the beauty, the good first. You take people out of their narrow, self-limiting story by shining the light on what’s good, on what’s whole. By focusing on the positive people open up to new possibilities. They expand their awareness and are able to tap into their own resourcefulness, creativity and resilience. It allows people to open up to their own potential, to a deeper understanding that there is always more. Instead of saying No, you say Yes first. It’s then and there that healing starts. It’s then and there that a different story emerges, a story that includes both self-awareness and a bigger, bolder vision for ourselves. On the hand, the new story knits the different, often conflicting, parts together, making us feel more integrated and whole. On the other hand, the story expands the vision we have for ourselves, for what’s possible in our future. It gives us the courage to move forward, to focus on the positive and try new things. In case of an injury or severe pain, our stories can keep us from healing and they can hold us back from experiencing life fully. The beauty of stories is that they are stories. Stories can be changed. Through the practice of yoga or the process of coaching, we can learn to tell a better story for ourselves. We can learn to change our internal dialogue, to expand our awareness and open up to the infinite possibilities that life has to offer.