My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.
~Swami Kripalu/Vidya Carolyn Dell’uomo
How many hundreds of yoga classes did I teach, quoting my teacher at the end of each class, before my heart’s mind understood those words? Why did saying them to my students still bring tears to my eyes? Why, after years of meditation, therapy, and medication, was I still so mean to me? Before I began a daily yoga practice in the late 80s, no amount of meditation turned the volume down on that monster in my mind. Every one of us has an inner critic. Mark Twain said that if we talked to our children the way we talk to ourselves, we would be arrested for child abuse. I was particularly hard on myself in the 70s, after my marriage failed. Had anyone been listening to my self-abuse, they would have locked me up and thrown away the key.
My secret name for myself was “Amy Shamey.” Shame wasn’t just a thought or belief. It wasn’t just an emotion. It was a part of my physical being, a daily visceral experience that whooshed through my body, bringing waves of heat and a deep sense of humiliation and with it, grief. No amount of talking about it in therapy, watching it arise on the meditation cushion, or numbing it out with meds, touched the core of my self-hatred. Of course, my body image had a lot to do with it. I saw myself as chubby, unattractive, and clumsy, compared to my beautiful mother, whose expressive face appeared on the covers of pulp fiction magazines like True Confessions and Romance in the late 1940s. My body was not my friend. It had hair in places it shouldn’t. It had ungraceful hands. It had an embarrassing plumpness in the places that should have been lean and an embarrassing flatness in the places that should have been round. From this description, you might think I wasn’t pretty. We’re talking about self-image here, not reality. Pictures attest to my cuteness as a kid and my downright beauty in my teens. I don’t think my creative dance teacher would have tried to convince my mother when I was eleven to enroll me in a proper ballet studio with daily classes, if she hadn’t seen in me a grace and fluidity I couldn’t see in myself. But whatever the source, I hated my body and nearly everything else that went by the name of Amy.
So what changed? In the late 1980s I made my first visit to Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and took my first yoga class. I had been meditating since the early 70s, and had practiced a bit of yoga asana with a library book and some LPs made in the 70s by an American yoga teacher named Richard Hittleman. But it wasn’t until I was on a blanket at Kripalu for the first time, that a teacher invited me to listen to my body and accept it just as it was. It may have been during that first visit to Kripalu, that a teacher spoke the words attributed to Swami Kripalu but that were actually written by long-time Kripalu disciple and yoga teacher, Carolyn Dell’uomo: “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” I’m sure I wept on my mat, when I heard them, although I don’t remember. What I do remember is emerging from the class feeling a sense of spacious abundance, a touching into wholeness that I had never experienced before. In those moments after class, it didn’t matter what I looked like or what mistakes I may have made in my life. I had touched something deep within me that was absolutely perfect, just as it was. In those moments after class, there was nothing I needed to fix, no way I needed to change. I left Kripalu with a bag full of audio tapes to practice at home, as there were no yoga teachers in my town. I came back to my mat, day after day, sometimes struggling to get there with a head full of self-condemnation. And after every morning practice, of stretching and breathing and staying present to the physical sensations the poses evoked, I felt more at home in my body. I rose from my mat feeling at ease with the Amy who looked back at me from the mirror.
The self-judgment didn’t cease in the hours I spent off the mat, at least not right away. At first the daily whoosh of shame came weekly, then monthly, and then eventually, it disappeared altogether. The simple attention to sensation, the backing off from a pose when I needed to, the true listening and honoring of my body, began to change me in the most profound way. Compassion for my body was the first thing to change. I listened to my body’s needs on and off the mat, and a lifetime of suffering from constipation disappeared. I began to crave healthier foods, and without dieting, I lost weight. Eventually, when my inner critic attacked, I found myself talking back, instead of believing everything she said. When I rolled out my mat to practice, her voice fell silent. When I made a mistake or fell short of my own expectations, she always had something to say, but I didn’t necessarily believe her anymore. By the early 90s, I was teaching a workshop at Kripalu called, “Befriending Your Inner Critic,” leading others in exercises to find that compassion for themselves, including their shame parts and their nasty inner critics.
These exercises help bring more fresh oxygen and release old carbon dioxide from the lungs, enabling you to fully sense and be present to physical sensations. This sensory awareness is the portal into finding compassion for all your parts to outshine the weakening voice of your inner critic.