Who’s your toughest critic? If you answered “me,” I get it.
Being hard on yourself stems from a spectrum of emotions and feelings, including insecurity and shame—but also confidence, pride, ambition and impatience. Negative self-talk does not discriminate.
Still, some people are better at putting the kibosh on kicking themselves. This has to do with their unique constitution, sure. But it also has to do with attitude, and attitude can be learned.
Yoga is an excellent teacher. It offers simple but profound tools to help you recognize your patterns and their causes, to unlearn behavior, and then to learn new behavior. The steps below work equally well in a yoga class or the privacy of home practice. Feel free to stop after each step and write down its results.
You can’t change something without knowing what it is. Observing yourself lets you identify negative self-talk.
For the purposes of this exercise, it doesn’t matter what type of yoga you practice, as long as it has a physical component. This is because doing yoga postures makes it easy to match thoughts and actions. As you move, notice your internal dialogue. It might involve the task at hand: I’m as wobbly as a toddler. I thought I’d have more energy. I should be better at this. I suck. Or it’ll be consumed by something that has nothing to do with your yoga practice: The woman I met this morning thinks I’m clueless. My test results mean I’m doomed. There’s no way I can finish my new project. I suck.
What are you saying to yourself? If it’s positive, bravo. If not, now you know how to begin unwinding the downward spiral. You might need to follow only this step for several sessions before moving on to the other steps.
After you note what you’re saying to yourself, you need to know what’s prompting it. In all likelihood, it’s a mental or emotional habit that manifests in a variety of forms. In other words: No matter what you’re saying to yourself, the germ of your discontent is probably the same. More on that universal germ in a sec.
Let’s use an aforementioned example. Why might you berate yourself for being wobbly? If you’ve just recovered from a physical setback, you might take lack of balance as a sign you haven’t yet healed (disappointment, worry). If your balance is usually perfect, you might think less of yourself (pride, embarrassment). If you rarely practice balancing, you might feel incapable (insecurity, confusion). Lots of variation here. But the core of all these responses is the same: fear.
Your apparent discontent won’t evaporate unless you nip it.
Stop the tongue-lashing. Just kidding. Wish it were that easy for most of us. Here’s a more realistic plan: Draw all your attention to what you’re doing physically. Notice that during the period of time that you’re doing the same exact thing—holding a lunge perhaps—your physical sensations shift, moment to moment. Acknowledge this fact, the shifts, as a testament to life. The same thing applies to your thoughts. They shift—and you can help them shift.
Practicing yoga provides you with a safe space to test yourself and test theories about yourself. You’re committing to however long your session lasts to inhabit a new version of yourself. You have the choice of applying what you gain during your session to circumstances away from your mat, and if it’s a better way to communicate with yourself, hopefully you do.
Stay focused on what you’re doing physically, and engage your thoughts with kindness and honesty. If you form less-than-stellar statements about yourself, mentally respond: Maybe, but even so, that’s not everything. Step up or away from that baseline, if you want: I might not be great at Downward-Facing Dog, but I’m great at taking care of my dog. I feel stronger doing this today than I did two months ago. I’m taking it easy, and that’s okay, because everything is always shifting. The only thing I need to do right now is experience this experience. Keep talking nicely to yourself, and notice how things change mentally and physically. To be sure: Your conversation with yourself will not eliminate fear. Instead, it will recast your fear, enabling you to accept it and know you’re equipped to work with and beyond it.
Mitra Malek is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal, where she was also a staff senior editor. She has taught yoga regularly since 2006.