Welcoming Change: Advice on Softening to the Unfamiliar
Written by Sonia Brand-Fisher
When I first tried yoga, I hated it. Unapologetically, stubbornly, just despised it. Why in the world is this teacher telling me to breathe? Why is she speaking like a hippie inhaling helium? What are these students getting that I’m not getting? Why am I even here if I can’t touch my toes? After declaring the class (and myself) an utter failure, I vowed to never return.... and then for some reason I went back... and then I went back again... and 12 years later I am teaching and practicing yoga regularly (though I still can’t touch my toes, and I’ve made peace with that). My muscle memory, however, continues to hold that resistance to many parts of a yoga practice that I have actually found to be the most beneficial over the years, while life has thrown at me hardship after hardship, loss after loss, triumph after triumph, change after change. During some of the most difficult points in my life, when I was dealing with the sudden loss of a parent, battling addiction, and trying to finish college (all at once, by the way), I intentionally stayed away from yoga because it was just too painful to even consider softening. If I softened, I would drown in everything lingering under the surface of my being. When I did finally muster the courage to practice again, to open hips and hamstrings and heartstrings and begin my process of really existing within the swelling currents of life’s change, I could begin the journey of making change feel welcome.
In a yoga practice, we are encouraged to soften into new, intense sensation so that we can be the most present for what might arise. Doing so allows us to turn inward, dispelling the ego so that we may observe and allow the process of opening and letting go. This process prevents us from injuring ourselves physically while humbling ourselves to the steps of our personal growth. For example, when we are releasing into paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) and we are encountering resistance from knees, hamstrings, lower or upper back, we may be inclined to push forward and force the stretch. This welcomes nothing into the experience except for ego, self-judgment, and pain. By easing off of the stretch, listening to the more vocal areas of the body, and when ready entering back in gently and with intention, we honor and respect the parts of our body communicating to us a firm “NO.” We strengthen ourselves when we soften because we can observe more clearly what we are working with. The same can be said for when we try to enact that same force in life. Whether on the mat or off the mat, Welcoming Change is a continuous meditation on softening to the unfamiliar at every new bend in the river of life.
In an ideal world, change would come when it is summoned by us, when there is quiet in the river, and we can focus all of our energy on ensuring change’s safe passage into the current. Yet how many of us have claimed that we will pursue a new passion, plan a bucket list trip, or begin giving back to ourselves “when things calm down a bit”? Even when the conditions are just right, we are still inclined to resist change, even when it could be deeply satisfying. Seldom do we acknowledge what we already feel to be happening: that life is going to continue its steady barrage of forward movement, organized chaos, and yes, change. If change insists on happening anyway, what can we do in order to support ourselves and ease the arrival of change throughout our lives? Like any journey, Welcoming Change has its ups and downs, often stemming from a central feeling of not being “ready” for these changes as they arise, either expectedly or unexpectedly. The truth is, we are never entirely “ready” for any significant life change because each and every one of us is a human who is learning, day to day, about what it means to be human. Sudden stimuli come and go, we react to those stimuli, we cling to the fallout of the reaction, and anxiety sets in so that we may be on alert for the next time change occurs. Consciously and unconsciously, we try to justify the fears and decisions that we make in our daily lives in order to protect us from being blindsided by change. However, if we continue to plan for the next big shift, can we ever truly be in the moment? Could we sometimes be inviting more opportunity for chaos by paradoxically trying to avoid it? It can sometimes feel like it is nearly impossible to just keep our heads above water.
In my own journey, the idea of “non-attachment” has held space for me while I continue to grapple with my own challenges. Mindfully practicing aparigraha (non-attachment) eases our impulse to continuously react to change in favor of adapting to it. The complex concept of aparigraha offers multiple layers and avenues of interpretation depending on the cultural tradition that one is operating in, so when examining aparigraha in the context of Welcoming Change, we can see where softening in our relationship to change can provide us with more grounding from which to observe it as it occurs. There is often a misconception that aparigraha is a passive way to release one of responsibility for how they engage with the world, to emotionally and spiritually throw up one’s hands to people, experiences, and stimuli in a numbing and disconnected manner. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Aparigraha is about moving through life’s chaos without forming an attachment to the outcome of any given act that you or others perform. It does not preclude ambition, activism, setting goals, or fulfilling dreams. Rather, by loosening our grip on our relationship to an outcome, we free ourselves from the outcome’s hold on us while continuing to do the work. There is no one way to practice aparigraha, and something as small as a deep breath or grounding in the stability of your surroundings to remind yourself of your own safety can send a message that the pain of the reaction is temporary. So as change comes into our lives, from a career shift to a new addition to the family to a literal change in the weather, we have an opportunity to be present with life’s current, to feel its force, observe its complexity, and witness our strength within it.
As we know, some change is less easy to welcome to than others, in the sense that it impacts our lives more dramatically. Somebody cutting us off on the highway is relatively less jarring than the loss of a loved one, pursuing an education, going through recovery from substance abuse, getting married, getting deployed, or any number of monumental changes to one’s existence. How does one soften to a tidal wave when we are already managing the rushing river? At the end of the day, we can only do so much to be present for such changes. It is downright unrealistic to be the best version of ourselves all the time, and part of Welcoming Change is welcoming the new incarnation of ourselves that has adapted to that change. This person might be difficult to live with while the change is happening; in fact, they may be a more chaotic version of yourself as change is occurring and you are adapting. Cut yourself some slack as you evolve since odds are there isn’t just one aspect of your life undergoing change at any given time while other aspects patiently wait their turn to enter gently into your life’s current. Give yourself permission to go through it, all of the imperfect impulsive messy mistake-ridden moments with as little judgement as you can because, believe it or not, that’s part of Welcoming Change as well. Little did I know that those evenings of binge drinking for years to numb my grief were part of my journey to sobriety (3 years in October, baby). Little did I know that making myself physically sick with anxiety was a step in learning to exist with what makes me who I am. In the moment, I couldn’t welcome those states of being because it’s hard to welcome pain when one feels hopeless, and because each decision that I was making was being made out of layered fears of all of these changes. As I continue to work on softening, I have been able to retrospectively welcome that version of myself as part of my journey. I refuse to forget her just because she wasn’t my “best” self, and I refuse to judge her for being scared. If welcoming is akin to softening, you need somewhere to soften from... somewhere to begin.
As the river continues to rush, I invite you to practice softening to change as it occurs in your life, and as it relates to your particular experience on this earth. Practicing self-care by going for a walk, journaling, listening to cathartic music, practicing yoga, snuggling a pet, enjoying a cup of tea, gazing at a favorite view, or none of these are all ways to rehearse your aparigraha so that you can have those tools at the ready when you need some assistance in Welcoming Change. Know now that this journey isn’t easy. Know now that the unfamiliar, big or small, is a part of everything. Know that you are not alone in this process. Know that not a single being on this earth is “perfect” (whatever that even means). Know that for as long as you exist you have your breath as a reminder that, when you’re ready, you can soften.