|Reno, Nevada: Beth Hemmila|
Imagine the contentious relationship between the drill sergeant Lou Gossett Jr. and the young recruit Richard Gere in the movie An Officer and a Gentlemen and you'll get a visual of my first year of Bikram yoga. Most classes I was mentally rebelling and completely impervious to whatever the teacher was saying because I felt so emotionally vulnerable to what I perceived was criticism.
Let's back up to the beginning. Like a lot of people, my family of origin had a habit of using criticism as a behavioral response to a need going unmet. In this context, I am not talking about healthy constructive criticism rather I'm referring to those moments when hurtful things are said that don't nurture your spirit.
The way I've come to understand this type of criticism is that the person delivering the message may feel angry or ashamed, and by dispelling energy through hurtful comments they are producing some kind of personal relief from internal pain.
For example, maybe your dad came home from a particularly hard day at work where he felt unsupported and undervalued, but he hadn't figured out how he could meet those needs in another way so his pent up anger was intentionally or unintentionally rolled out on you.
Or lets say a sibling was repeatedly calling you "ugly" or "stupid." Looking deeper you might find that your brother or sister was wanting some attention from your parents but you were hogging the spotlight, and their disappointment came out through angry words.
If you were raised with harsh criticism as a strategy for dealing with internal pain instead of effective communication, then you may have built emotional walls so as to protect yourself from this kind of destructive behavior. Consequently, you may have also closed yourself off from receiving healthy criticism, which has a completely different intent but sometimes sounds similar in tone and language.
Over the last couple years, I have specifically used the Bikram yoga classroom as a practice space for learning to hear criticism in a whole new way.
I can't pinpoint how the switch in my thinking happened, but I believe it may have occurred because of the consistency of my practice, which allowed me time to get to know the personalities of each Bikram yoga teacher. It wasn't long before I came to see that beneath every word that flowed from their mouths was a sincere desire to contribute to my well-being. The depth of their constructive criticism became a measurement for just how deeply they cared for me, and moreover, demonstrated how invested they were in my desire to be whole. They were on my side every step of the way and were willing to show up for me even when I wasn't willing to show up for myself.
One thing I noticed was that as I became more comfortable in the Bikram yoga classroom, I began to to soften the expression on my face, relax my shoulders that had been poised in defensiveness, and open my heart space without fear. Teachers started talking to me differently. Perhaps my body gestures communicated that I was open and willing to receive whatever teaching they were ready to offer. Their tips and tweaking of my poses came free of apprehension on their part because we had developed a new level of trust. Their love for me was unspoken, but I knew their constructive feedback was a symbol of how much they cared for my body and soul.
From this new ability to receive the love underneath constructive criticism, I am learning to take this practice one step further so as to hear the unfulfilled needs and yearnings beneath comments that are hurtful in design and appear destructive.
Learning to have empathy for others by hearing their criticisms in a new way is one of the life-changing patterns I discuss in Chapter 14 of my book Lemonade Mantras. It's a simple matter of switching the focus of criticism from outward to inward.
For instance, if a person says to you, "I don't like you when you're lazy and sleep all the time," in your head you would change it around to hear the other person saying, "I don't like myself when I'm lazy and sleep all the time." In this way, you begin to see how this person's criticism isn't so much about you, but more about their own confusion concerning their needs for purpose, rest, and relaxation. What felt like a personal attack on your character becomes a moment of compassion where you see just how much this other person is struggling with self-love, self-acceptance, and self-care.
Whatever criticism you are experiencing, something hurtful that comes out of nowhere from someone you love, the inner critic making judgments in your head, or the constructive kind from people who want the best for you, it's all valuable material to work with in your life and can lead to new ways of seeing yourself, the people around you, and the magnificent unfolding design of the world.
The Enlightening Mat is a blog series exploring moments of awareness that come to Beth Hemmila while practicing Bikram Yoga.
To shop for yoga charms that celebrate the different poses click here to view this blog post Sterling Silver Charms for Bikram Yoga Postures.