Guilt is a function of conscience. It serves a role in the development of an ethical sense, discouraging us from harming ourselves and those around us. A modicum of guilt when recognizing our overindulgence, or when blurting a damaging, snarky remark, helps us modify such behaviors in the future. And when yoga is a major part of our lives, our old companion guilt sneaks into the yoga room as well. And while it may prompt us at times to return to a healthier path or to keep our criticism of others in check, no amount of remorse will make us perfect. In fact, it may well create a major obstacle to personal growth.
As a yoga teacher, I have often felt like a “guilt cop” when I see former students dodge me in the market (or worse yet, gush apologies about missing the last six months of classes). “I’ll get back!” they say. “I was just thinking about you the other day! Life...you know!” They walk away with their spines comically over-aligned, while avoiding the chip aisle (lest I catch them buying foods less pure than gluten-free seaweed and kombucha).
However, the self-consciousness that comes of being thought lazy or making less than healthy choices is at the low end of the yoga guilt scale. We associate words like enlightened, skillful, balanced, aligned, mindful, fun, and even sexy with yoga practice. But when we instead feel confused, lopsided, awkward, scattered, struggling, and unattractive in our yogic efforts, the Kraken that is guilt arises with all of its primordial self-hatisms. “I’m not good enough or thin enough or poised enough or smart enough.” Or “I can’t afford good classes, and even if I could, I couldn’t afford the perfect clothes or yoga props necessary to attend.”
We associate words like enlightened, skillful, balanced, aligned, mindful, fun, and even sexy with yoga practice.
We compare ourselves to others. No matter how many times our instructors remind us that we’re there for our own practice, and that non-possessiveness, non-grasping, and non-greediness are yogic virtues, these tendencies arise and we compare anyway. Comparison/guilt may even rise up because of our natural flexibility next to our less bendy mat mates! “Am I being a showoff? Am I making the person next to me feel badly?” Then we begin to feel guilty for being “unyogic” in our comparison. “I’m a cruddy yogi!” Suddenly ice cream sounds good.
Because our cameras live in our pockets, and social media is but a click away, there is a trend toward making yoga practice look idyllic. Shots on beaches, with well-behaved babies, pets, romantic partnering, glorious arms and legs and flexible spines all look far more marvelous than our humble, sweaty attempts at pajama-clad sun salutes in our cluttered living rooms. And we compare.
If we attend a class, we feel we must be in the attire of the studio—whether hippie-drapey and tie-dye or racer-back athletic. We fished quarters out of the change jar for the $10 just to attend, and can’t help noticing the compliments paid to those with the cute leggings and new mats. We’re sure our T-shirts and slightly pilled yoga pants must drive the message that we don't belong in those waters.
Then there is simply getting ourselves to class. As a young mother, I often had to walk away from small, teary faces in order to teach yoga classes, only managing to wincingly justify leaving by remembering that it was my work. At times, guilt had me trying to love my work just a little less in order to suffer just a little more. I once left an expensive workshop with a wise senior teacher to return home to “be there” for one of my daughters who was going through a jagged emotional patch. Then I felt horrific remorse for having spent money to go to the workshop in the first place! No amount of listening to rational explanations and “You need ‘Me Time!’” and “You’ll be a better mother for going!” could whittle down my self-shaming. If I were a true spiritual sadhak, I thought, I must put others first. Now my daughters each have their own yoga practice—perhaps because they witnessed me going to class, studying, and not succumbing to neurotic backpedalling each time (despite my feelings of guilt).
Spending the money, not spending the money. Attending, not attending. Buying the new mat, not being able to afford the mat. Being thin, being fat, staying in a beginning class, being among so many privileged white people, getting cream in your coffee in front of a vegan friend, getting coffee at all, drinking, not drinking, being lousy at savasana, not having a home practice, sleeping late, thinking non-yogic thoughts, and just not being perfect (yet) can all be sources of guilt. But none of these, of course, make one a bad person. Maybe we need to examine blameworthiness at its gnarly roots—because, truth be told, guilt is the flip side of the arrogance coin. Guilt is perceiving our behavior as the center of all activity, when our associates are in fact too tangled in their own busy minds to have time to worry about whether or not we’re drinking soda instead of cold-pressed kale juice.
Our yoga practice makes us more aware that subtle things matter—and that’s a good thing. But before we self-flagellate over minutia, we can look guilt square in the eye: “Are you here to benefit me?” “What would I choose to do differently in these circumstances?” “Am I harming myself or someone else?” In answering those questions, perhaps we’ll see what guilt can teach us. On the other hand, if guilt is simply a vasana, a go-to habit pattern, it may help to write or talk about it. Call out the old rascal.
Our yoga practice makes us more aware that subtle things matter—and that’s a good thing. But before we self-flagellate over minutia, we can look guilt square in the eye.
There are times when our behaviors may have truly injured someone, for which we then feel deep regret. When asked about giving apologies or making amends, my teacher Eknath Easwaran said:
“As our spiritual awareness deepens and we begin to see ourselves more clearly, there will be times when past mistakes will swim into our vision and do their best to consume us in guilt or regret.
“Here I can offer one consoling application of the law of karma. If, when you were in Milwaukee, you happened to say something insulting about your girlfriend’s dog, it is not necessary to go to Milwaukee and find your old girlfriend or her dog to make amends. Every dog you treat with kindness will be a proxy for that dog. If you have treated a particular person badly, even if you can no longer win that person’s forgiveness, you can still win the forgiveness of yourself, of the Lord of Love within, by bearing with everyone who treats you badly and doing your best never to treat anyone else badly again.
“This is the tremendous practical implication of St. Francis’s words, 'It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.' Whatever we have done, we can always make amends for it without ever looking backwards in guilt or sorrow."
—From The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living
We all make blunders. We insult people, and we leave bruised feelings in the yoga world (as we do in any other place). Yoga asks us to take a look at what we’ve done, and to do better.
Guilt is not going to make us the perfect asana experts or the perfect spiritual aspirants. But when we use it as a tool to help us remember what really matters and who we really are, our yoga-related shame can be turned from neurotic over-processing into a means of learning and expansion. And when embarrassment and guilt no longer serve us, they can be left behind—just as a snake sheds the skin that was limiting its growth.