Photo Credit to Moto Waganar
In yoga and other spirituality practices, we are bombarded with the “love and light” phrases that seek to bring us closer to enlightenment. This is not a bad thing. Especially in our digital time of political unease, inequality, and digital modernity where we are told to look and be certain ways. My issue is that “love and light” is another way of being told what to be. Focus only on the positive and all will find its way. A few blogs back I touched on opposites. This is the idea that whatever you are feeling has an opposite emotion. Pretty true, right? We cannot focus solely on love and light without packing down the negative emotions that also make us human.
Being certified in Trauma Sensitive yoga opened my eyes to a whole reality that each of us has some degree of suffering. I can see as the world is becoming more and more connected, that mental health awareness is becoming less and less stigmatized. And I am here to hopefully push that cause forward. We need to start talking about the negative emotions and how they get stored in our bodies as tension and racing thoughts. We as a society have to step up and realize that sometimes we are not okay and that is okay.
This is where the idea of Shadow Work comes in. What do you think when you hear the word “shadow?” Darkness, scary, negative? These things could be true but to add to that I recently listened to an amazing podcast by Ana Kinkela, also known as the Wild Soulcast. She did the most beautiful job of explaining that your shadow is a part of you but not exactly you. When you look at your shadow you see a somewhat warped version of you. She also explained the Peter Pan concept that your shadow almost has its own personality. In essence your shadow is you but not the whole you. It is a part of us that we sometimes wish to not be. We try to bury it down because it shows parts of us that we are afraid for the rest of the world to see.
WHAT IS SHADOW WORK?
Psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, coined the term “shadow” as a way of identifying the deepest wounds that our minds hold onto. As stated by Dr. Connie Zweig, “Carl Jung coined the term ‘Shadow’ to refer to this area of the unconscious mind, which is outside of the light of awareness. Theologists may call it human “evil.” But, in psychology, it is understood to be an innate part of human nature that only becomes problematic when it is acted out destructively.” Now I am neither a psychologists nor a theologists but I really like how these two areas describe the unconscious mind. It goes to show how in yoga and mindfulness, this work spreads across many different fields.
Personally, I think identifying “shadow” with the word “evil” is a little harsh. And if you are a yoga teacher or have studied any areas of Trauma Sensitive work you would understand how important languaging is. Our words hold power. I do not think that shadow work is dealing with evil or demons. Shadows are the area behind the ego and conscious mind that we have stored away because at one point they were used to help protect us and survive. I’ll give an example from personal experience: When I was a child, my parents instilled in me the habit of putting on a seat belt to protect myself from any threat of a car accident. As I became older this habit became automatic. It became part of my unconscious mind and now I don’t even think about why I use my seat belt, I just automatically do it as a survival instinct. This is a very relatable, and mostly good, habit that became a shadow. However, I can give other examples that have affected my ability to grow or perhaps have created speed bumps along the way.
In my very first blog I described being in a very abusive relationship as a teenager. The mental, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse robbed me of my own power over my self. As a result of leaving that relationship I was left with trauma (as tension in my body). As I got out into the world I developed a defense mechanism to make sure I always had my power. When I began living with my current partner I became overly independent and at times would not allow him to help me with even cleaning the house. Little things like this. Harmless at first, but as it became a habit in order to survive and take back my power it led me to refusing his help. What was once used as a survival instinct had turned into a source of pushing the ones I loved away.
We all have shadows like this. And until I started yoga, and even more so when I became certified as a Trauma Sensitive instructor, did my work with my own shadows become a thing. So I want to make this clear: that many of our habits and shadows come from circumstances in our lives that were once used to help us survive. I believe that no one is inherently evil. You can call your shadows demons if you want but these demons want to teach you something. They are not there to send you to Hell or to be violent in this world.
So coming back to the question: What is shadow work? It is the work of dealing with opposite emotions. It is the deep work of identifying our habits. It is asking questions like “why?” And guess what…its hard work. One of the hardest things you will ever be faced with is looking at yourself. Your whole self. And I say thread lightly and know your tools for self care. And even if this work sounds like something you want to do, you should also ask yourself the question: Am I ready? And it’s okay if you aren’t. I know for me, my shadow work took a lot of my energy and was constantly triggering me as stories and narratives would to come up the deeper I dove. But being able to identify that it is the work that is showing up and not “you” is life changing.
TIPS WHILE WORKING WITH SHADOWS:
1.) Self care! Knowing what comforts you and taking time for yourself. This might mean that you stop what you’re doing and go for a walk in nature to get grounded. Or even getting your nails done, or going to a yoga class or the gym. It could be something so simple as laying in bed and watching Netflix. The key here is that you need tools that you can care for yourself with. And sometimes REST, I’ll say it again…REST can be your best friend. So many of us are overworked.
2.) Have a strong network of people you can trust. Your friends and family can be your biggest ally. Trusting them and being able to tell them that you aren’t ok or that you’re working on yourself is important. But sometimes our friends or family can be the source of our shadows. So seeing out people you trust. Aside from that, reaching out to people in the work you do (for me, I am lucky to be involved with a network of amazing yoga teachers that listen and help me and know the tools to help me along the way). And also knowing or having a list of professionals, such as therapists, within reach. This is, after all, mental health that we are dealing with.
HOW DOES SHADOW WORK SHOW UP?
The shadow of ourselves are the parts that we don’t want to look at. They are the fear, anxiety, depression, jealously, greed, and anger. An overabundance of these emotions eventually boil up to the surface if they are not dealt with. Soon, it has an impact on your outside world and the people in it, including yourself. In yoga there is so much attention placed on the positives of the self. But, in my own practice, I found myself searching and searching so much for the love and light, that I became so pissed off at myself for not finding it. There was a period of time in my practice when I thought I sucked at yoga. I felt like a failure because I wasn’t at one with the stars and planets, etc. etc. Self destruction can also be linked to the negative emotions of shadows. Fortunately, I had been trained well enough to know that either this was part of my journey or I needed to slow down enough to go deeper.
I, on the surface, am so much of a “sunny day” type of person. I thrive on bright warm days and am naturally and cherry, bubbly person. But now as it’s getting colder and darker (I live in Ohio so when winter comes you just have to either cry or accept it). Darkness, here in the form of cold, short days, showed up and let me know it is time to go within myself and reflect. Again, I have been lucky and doing my practice long enough to know and align myself with things like nature and the seasons. But for others reading this blog, your shadows might come as stress or fear. Maybe things are out of order in your mind. Maybe things at work or home just aren’t aligning. Maybe you are completely miserable. Shadows show up in many ways for everyone. And I’ll let you in on a secret…EVERYONE has them. We just have to be willing to wake up enough to identify them.
IS THE UNIVERSE SENDING YOU SIGNS?
Oftentimes, in life, we are put in situations that allow us to grow and change. Shadow work comes to us when there is a transition or opportunity for something new on the horizon. Human nature, or the ego, might want you to push back against these forces. And as long as we keep pushing against our universal truth, things will keep happening in repetition. Maybe you feel like you’re stuck in a loop at your job and it feels like you’re going nowhere or you just can’t seem to know what the next steps are. These and other feelings like this could mean a time to look within yourself and surrender to the lessons that are to be learned. Your shadow is not all of you, but some of you. It requires attention and nature as well.
Many times when the Universe, some call it God, some call it energy, I just mean the thing, or the force, that is “ALL”, comes knocking on the door in very simple ways. There is no need to make this a complicated matter where you must sit down and meditate for 3 hours on how to completely heal yourself. You can simply make small changes everyday. Whether that means finding a new exercise routine, or putting your kids to bed an hour earlier so you can have some time to yourself to reflect. You know you best, and you intuitively know what to do.
For me personally, I have synced up my energy (keep in my I am a yoga teacher who has had a pretty steady practice for the last 5 years) so that I noticed certain numbers or animals in my path. I know when they arrive either on license plates or while I’m out for a walk, for example, that I need to tune in. Something, a message perhaps, is trying to come through. Now that might sound a little witchy but I am only using that example to show that my experience is different than anyone else’s. The universe, God, energy, the force, whatever you wish to call it, works in mysterious ways. And they are mysterious because they are only known to the individual and their own perspective. What’s true for me and the work I do in the world will be different than yours and your shadows.
To know if the Universe is sending you signs that there is work to be done you must also be willing to create the desire to receive. You must want to change habits and manifest things to come to you. You always have the power within you, sometimes you just need to do some digging.
THE BEAUTY OF DARKNESS
“No mud, no lotus.”
Shadow work, at its core, has many benefits. It causes self reflection and awareness. It enhances creativity as it allows you to find your true authentic self and it connects you to a deeper purpose within the world. The heart of darkness can show us negative emotions, traumas, unexplained fears, repression, and so many other things but the beauty of these all these thoughts and feelings is that they make us hungry, they make us grow and change and progress. You are a wild being made of up stardust and all the stars aligned to bring you to this point on earth in this life. That is a beautiful thought. And the work you do from this point on will again make all the stars align. You just have to see them in the dark.