In 1997 I moved to India for a long-term stay at the ashram of the meditation path I had been a student of for several years. A few weeks after I arrived I was invited to offer seva, selfless service, as the kitchen manager. In this role, I was responsible for overseeing the cooks and the chopping room, planning the menus, ordering the food, managing the budget for a kitchen that served both Western and Indian meals, three times a day, plus morning chai, for over 300 people. Since I had only just recently arrived, the Indian culture and cuisine were still new to me. I didn’t even know the Hindi names of the vegetables. There was so much to learn! I knew this was going to be a time of great expansion for me.
My fellow yogis did their best to support me in learning my new role and from the beginning everything went really well--on the outside. All the meals were tasty and on time and there was always enough food for everyone. But inside, a long held habit of self-doubt was in full swing. Instead of delighting in all the support I was receiving and appreciating the daily marvel that everything that was going right, I kept focusing on the mistakes I was making and how much I didn’t know.
One day, while resting after lunch, I had a powerful dream. In the dream I was sitting across a desk from my teacher. She was interviewing me as if for a job. Somehow I knew that she was interviewing me on my ability to change. After a series of questions, my teacher looked directly into my eyes, and with great tenderness and love said: “You are so great, but no one will ever know it unless you change.”
After I woke up, I contemplated what it was about me that needed to change. I saw that I was being hard on myself. It was understandable that this new position was a challenge, and naturally I would make mistakes as I learned the responsibilities of the role, but my inner dialogue was persistently self-critical. This was a long-held and familiar-feeling habit: keeping myself small, and then falling short of the expectations I placed on myself.
I realized that what had to change was my relationship with myself. In order to step into my own greatness, I had to let go of the thoughts, habits, and tendencies that held me limited, unworthy and small.
From that moment on, nurturing and building a loving relationship with myself became a major theme in my sadhana.
My hatha yoga practice played an essential role in this shifting the nature of my inner dialogue from critical to compassionate. Asana became a way of cultivating self-acceptance. I used practice to cultivate a loving relationship with myself, consciously honouring my body as an instrument of service to the highest. Over time, I started to experience my body as strong, beautiful and even sacred, like a temple for the divine. Taking care of my body and keeping it strong and fit through asana felt like an offering. Asana became an act of self-love.
Swami Muktananda called our relationship with ourselves the “1 before the 0000’s.” Like a string of 0’s without the 1 before them, our inner relationship is what brings value to everything else we do. It is the axis point of a fulfilling life. Everything we are, everything we attain in the world, even the love we receive from others, is of little worth without it. I believe that yoga practice is at its most transformational when we use it as a way to restore, nurture and expand a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves. Not only for us, but because doing so changes the way we see others, interact with others and the world around us.
2 Simple Practices to Shift the Inner Dialogue
Consciously making Self-Acceptance and Gratitude part of your practice can help to quiet the inner critic and replace self-doubt with love and respect. Here are 2 easy ways to bring the voice of positive self-regard into your practice:
1. Welcome yourself as you are. Before you begin your practice take a moment, even just the length of one breath, to inwardly welcome yourself to your practice EXACTLY AS YOU ARE. This can be done even while you are laying your mat down, turning on the lights or taking your socks off. Or, if you have time to sit, literally just one minute works, join your hands together in Anjali mudra as a gesture of self-honoring. Allow your shoulders and upper back to soften, your facial muscles too.
Inwardly greet yourself with the same feeling you would have in receiving a dear friend who just came over for a visit. Make the intention to hold this inner feeling of welcoming and unconditional self-acceptance, allowing yourself to be just as you are, throughout the practice.
2. Thank yourself for showing up. At the end of your practice time, thank yourself for being there. No matter what your practice looked it, and even if was distracted, lackluster or in some other way didn’t live up to your expectations, be grateful to yourself for coming back, again, to yoga as a path toward cultivating and expanding the inner voice of self-love.