by Ann Chrapkiewicz
Over a decade ago, one of my most influential yoga teachers at the time presented me with a quote:
“To the Yogi, criticism and flattery are no different.”
It made sense to me on some levels, and I thought I could relate to not caring about the status quo. I had a history of peacefully withdrawing from certain social circles and finding my own way. In fact, I thought of myself as relatively independent. (Ha! The narratives we keep so dear…)
Throughout my childhood – and to this day – my dad regularly expressed some form of Who-cares-what-other-people-think? when telling stories of his past or present.
In high school I had even left the “cool” lunch table midway through 9th grade to venture out on my own.*
This was just an embryonic stage of independence from social pressures, but it felt significant to me at the time.
Looking back, I recognize these scenarios as (potentially) a very early stage of yoga.
Little did I know at the time how utterly wrapped up I was in the need for flattery and approval. And in the crushing power that criticism could still have over me.
3 Signs I Was Dependent Upon Flattery and Approval
1. Throughout most of college and for several years after, I never felt sexy or thin enough. I apparently cared that an imaginary, ideal male out there had a perception of me that was not ideal or attractive. My self-worth was tied up with all of that made-up nonsense that has been written about extensively. I apparently DID care what other people thought of me.
Crap. Not immune at all. That cultural, gendered conditioning is many layers THICK.
2. At one point, I chose a pretty serious relationship with an abusive, wounded person… and gave up a nurturing, loving, friendship and potential partnership with a healthy, inquisitive soulmate. Why? Because the former laid on thick compliments and immediate physical and sexual approval; the latter was peaceful and did not fill the holes of my self-loathing. (I do not fault him for being so healthy!)
OMG, I gave up an incredibly healthy interaction for an unhealthy one. WTF, Ann? Seriously? I eventually stopped regretting my weakness and choices. Eventually getting to a place where I deeply appreciate everything I have learned from them.
3. Then, when emotional insults and manipulations were delivered thickly, my response was that I needed to try harder to be better. (I later learned that this was part of the classic cycle of power and control in domestic violence. This should be taught in high school!)
I was so conditioned to respond to criticism or flattery, and I naively believed that all other humans always spoke the truth. I could not see abusive behaviors as reflective of the abuser and his pain, wounds, and conditioning. I thought they were reflective of me.
Wow, did I really need for some yoga to happen!
Luckily, I was able to remove myself from the harmful situation. But it still took several years and a lot of internal work for me to see what I was participating in.
In the past 20+ years I have benefited from the wisdom of many therapists, nutritionists, sociologists, friends, domestic violence advocates, Eckhart Tolle (I highly recommend that you read A New Earth ongoingly for the next 10 years), and feminist scholars. Their perspectives have empowered me, given me invaluable tools and perspectives, and made me feel less alone (who has not gone through some of this stuff?)
But two things have changed my energy in ways that no theory, counseling, research, or other “rational” thought could touch:
1. Bikram Yoga
At the very beginning of my practice, the mirrors, lights, heat, and postures created a situation which made it literally impossible for me to maintain the toxic stream of thoughts I had been carrying for 10 years.
“Not-thin-enough”… “How many calories can I eat later?”… “Can I get through today on 800 calories?”…”When will I be able to fit in those pants?”…”I can’t stand my thighs”….
“Oh my god, I was holding my breath while thinking all of those thoughts. I apparently can’t do that and get through the next posture!”
“I guess I have to breathe instead of think about nonsense…otherwise this is going to be a hellish 90 minutes!”
This all seemed to happen on a level that was before conscious thought. (Char Brooks has described this yoga practice to me as “pre-verbal”; I can relate.)
What I learned right then and there – and on a super embodied level, was that:
Concentrating only on my breathing and the teacher’s words was a physical necessity.
No thoughts of thighs or calories was going to happen for 90 minutes.
This all led to the neurological reality of having a clear mind….which led to a complete fresh start in my real and imagined social relationships. During my first full year of daily practice, I could tell when I missed a day – the thoughts would start to creep back in. Luckily, after that, they stayed away and have never returned. It has been 15 years this year, and there have not been any relapses into bulimic thinking yet.
Yet we are always works in progress. It was soon time for the next layer of internal and interpersonal healing.
A few years later, Bikram Yoga provided a quiet, consistent, and stable situation where I could see that I had gotten myself into an extremely unhealthy, abusive relationship. These things are thick and heavy and very hard to see, and I have total compassion for anyone still stuck in one. Bikram Yoga gave me a safe, neutral space – free of abusive commentary, impossible expectations, or mean energy.
And Standing Head to Knee Posture gave me a place to practice my mantra of strength, which I badly needed at that time.
Nothing is going to push me over, no one is going to knock me down, you are not going to make me feel weak. I AM GOING TO LOCK MY F’ing KNEE and you are NOT going to stop me.
That period of time is when I started to really GET that posture, and experience its 99% mental nature.
2. Isha Yoga
As far as I can tell, this is the real deal when it comes to an all-encompassing yoga process. Sadhguru is the only human I have spent time with who seems to be fully realized. If you are even a little bit interested in yoga in its total manifestation, check out Sadhguru’s YouTube videos or blog posts. Or take an Inner Engineering program with Sadhguru and see where it takes you! Once you have completed that program, you can learn the Yogasanas (postures) for home practice or take more in-depth immersions.
Here is one of Sadhguru’s ways of expressing the topic of our need for flattery and ultimately the way that this makes the spiritual process impossible:
Society is training you to hold an opinion on everything; otherwise you will have no self-esteem. Your self is such hollow nonsense that it needs people to tell you, “Oh you are a beautiful person.” You are thriving on opinions, not only on other peoples’ opinions, your own opinions. You are a person only because of the opinions that you hold.
Many forces would lead us to believe that yoga is a stretching-oriented exercise class that can be mixed and matched, mished and mashed, soundtracked and pumped up with weights…anything goes, right? That “doing yoga” is equivalent to practicing postures.
Oh, gods and goddesses, yogis of all ages, Jesus and Mother Mary, can I apologize on behalf of my country?
Both Bikram Yoga and Isha Yoga have taught me that practicing a system of yoga postures (with the right approach) is just a preparatory process…something that can help yoga to happen within you.
They have both shown me that we must practice a consistent system daily, performed exactly as instructed, without omission or addition.
So that you can learn something about what is going on deeply with yourself. So you can operate on more subtle levels of awareness. So you can have the strength to hold your mind on one thing in total stillness and then see what happens.
That does not mean that you cannot do other things with your time. But in order to initiate a yoga process, there are certain things we must not give up.
Although Bikram does not transmit kriyas or other energetic processes of yoga, he taught thousands of us to put the asanas in perspective.
“Postures are not the goal of Yoga. Postures are the tools.”
What I have experienced is that these tools can create infinite possibilities for self-reflection, for rearrangement of internal energies, for pre-verbal transformation, and for the yoga process.
They have helped me build increasing immunity to criticism, and – just as important – increasing immunity to flattery.
So, if you give me a compliment, I will love you all the same, but it will not have power over my day – or my direction – like it used to.
* This was no easy task – I spent most of 5th and 6th grade praying at night to god and Mother Mary that I could someday be part of that group, and magically – on the first day of 7th grade – it became a reality. I suddenly and inconsiderately left my old friends for this popularity. But eventually I found the various factions and “fights” of 7th and 8th grade pretty tiresome. About halfway through 9th grade, I came to the conclusion that the topics of conversation at the time (cigarettes and boys) were of zero interest to me. In any case, it was really scary at first – to go and sit alone in that intimidatingly social scene – but ultimately, my need to watch the whole thing unfold was stronger than my need to remain approved of.