Lengthening and stretching the body is one goal of yoga practice. As you stretch your arms up toward the sky, you also imagine pushing your legs down into the earth. We are definitely not used to this habit of moving in two different directions at once. In fact, we are encouraged from an early age to decide on one path and move in that direction only. Young athletes are advised to concentrate on one sport, lest their potential competitors improve and leave them behind. As medical students, we are encouraged to decide on a specialty early in our training, so we can do research and add clinical experience to our CV and thus appear to be a more dedicated applicant for residency. We expect our politicians to be sure of their positions and uni-dimensional in their stances on issues or we judge them to be “wishy-washy” or not committed to the cause. By not allowing ourselves to stretch into other directions, we contract and weaken. We don’t learn to appreciate, engage and benefit from the full range of our capabilities. We fail to develop the trust and confidence in ourselves that only comes from knowing how far we can stretch. Ask any yogi and they will tell you how much space and strength develop when we learn to grow in opposite directions.
When we deny ourselves the experience of exploring other options, opinions, or activities, we also prevent ourselves from developing the resilience that’s necessary to adapt and adjust to what life brings. Instead of being resilient, we become brittle. The truth is that we are all much more complex and colorful than the uni-dimensional version we allow the world to see. To maintain this facade, we often need to neglect important parts of ourselves. We become disconnected from all that we are, and that disconnection leads to burnout.
David Richo’s Practice of Befriending the Shadow offers a method for stretching our minds and spirits, much like yoga stretches our bodies. Richo asks if we can be “committed in a relationship while still remaining free,” “angry at someone while still remaining loving toward this person,” ” aware of my faults while still remaining high in self esteem,” “responsibly in control of myself while still remaining spontaneous,” “flexible while still remaining true to my standards.” Many of us may wonder if this is possible; we may even feel an instant resistance to this idea. All too often, we fall into an “either/or” or “all or none” stance that forces us to turn our backs on an entire side of our personality or option for our life. We are unable to forgive a person for their mistake and lose valuable friendships. One error causes us to lose our self-esteem and self-confidence. Our lives become more stressful as we fear that one spontaneous act or relaxation of our rules may call our character into question.
We can challenge our habit of closing ourselves off and, instead, intentionally begin to stretch ourselves. What’s something you’ve wanted to do, but told yourself you can’t because it wouldn’t be in keeping with the persona you let the world see? Would you be willing to discuss an issue you feel strongly about with someone who holds the opposite opinion, bringing an open mind and honestly hoping to discover something you might agree with? Is there someone who has angered you, with whom you might have a conversation to hear their side of the story? Have you doubted your ability because you’re not perfect? What do you know about your capabilities and successes that you might employ as a counterbalance?
By making a conscious effort to look at the other side – to stretch ourselves in both directions – we make more space in our lives, become more resilient, and strengthen our ability to live full and rich lives.