What is the good of yoga or any spiritual path if it does not support healthy connection to ourselves, our relationships or the welfare of society and the planet? What is the good of being able to meditate or pray or practice yoga or mantra when we can’t even connect to another human being when they tell us of their pain and suffering? What is the point of any of these practices or beliefs if they do not include emotional integrity?
Emotional integrity is the capacity we have to be self aware, to be able to connect with our true feelings and understand why we feel the way we do. It requires us to be completely honest about our feelings, listen to them and have the the maturity to understand the messages they are telling us about what we need. It is beginning to be more widely understood that anger is an emotion that combats threat; that it is there to protect us from injustice. Sadness is there because something or someone is lost; in other words it helps us to let go. Guilt serves us by helping us to see our own responsibilities. Worry tells us to plan in advance. Shame helps us to adapt our behaviour so that we can belong.
All of our emotions are there to serve us; to guide us towards wholeness and wellness within ourselves and in relationship to others. They give us feedback about what we need to feel safe, happy, connected and to belong. When we have emotional integrity, we have the maturity to be honest about our feelings, acknowledge them, listen to them, validate them and respond appropriately to them. We are able to listen to others’ feelings, and acknowledge, validate and respond appropriately to them also. We can self regulate better and we have better social skills.
Emotional integrity might come in the form of letting intolerably painful feelings of grief flow. It might come in the form of being honest about your personal needs and asserting boundaries. It might come in the form of insight that brings compassion, empathy, kindness or patience. Or it might come in the form of cultivating a ‘witnessing’ awareness so that we can take some distance and observe emotions in order to cope better. It might also require, in the case of trauma, shutting down and numbing emotional pain. But when that shutting down of our emotions begins to harm yourself or another deeply, then the integrity is lost.
Being able to hold space around our feelings, even when it is painfully intolerable, helps to lead us towards wholeness. Because when we give space to our feelings, we are listening to the needs that our feelings are pointing towards. Holding space stops us from being divided, fragmented, incoherent, incongruent and unintegrated. If we don’t listen to or respond with integrity to what has hurt us then our wounded inner warriors can continue to fight to protect us in fits of anger, passive aggression, bad behaviour, dis-regulated emotions and even nightmares.
Yet yoga and the spiritual, religious and political worlds - which we would expect to be governed by emotional integrity - are conversely wracked with dissociation, avoidance, violence, abuse and injustice. Which makes me ask, what is the point of yoga and spirituality if it compounds a lack of connection to ourselves and others?
Many of us are becoming familiar with pseudo spiritual beliefs that are far from intelligent and if anything, support the glossing over and smoke screening of what’s actually going on inside of us. Some of them sound so intelligent that it could be easy to just accept them. Such as forgiveness (of someone who has harmed you) being necessary in order to process, integrate and heal from trauma. Or another example that continues to be widely accepted is that the ego is bad. As I understand it, good clinical psychologists check that an individual’s ego is strong enough before beginning in depth trauma therapy. Good, strong, healthy egos are needed for us to be good, strong, healthy people. Somewhere along the line it seems that eastern philosophy has been misinterpreted by western minds. In order to live well in this world, we need to stop outcasting parts of ourselves because they feel bad, or because we believe them to be bad, or worse still: because a yoga or meditation teacher tells us they are bad.
The lack of emotional integrity in the yoga and spiritual world has drawn me towards trying to better understand the science behind connection and I have found some answers in psychology, neuroscience, polyvagal theory and attachment theory. Whilst Patanjali’s yoga sutras guide us towards wholeness, modern science backs it up.
Teaching yoga well is my form of activism against the spiritualisation of dissociation. Teaching yoga well is how I pray for the planet. And whilst cultivating a ‘witnessing awareness’ can be invaluable at times, I also believe that emotions are our superpower.
As Jeff Brown says, “If anything reflects your stage of development spiritually, it’s your behaviour. You can’t call yourself enlightened if you’re a self serving ass” (of which there are many in the yoga world).
I believe that whilst robots begin to take over our workplace, whilst the political world is taken over by selfish power crazy capitalists, whilst our yoga classes are run by teachers who spiritualise dissociation …. emotional integrity, which actually does the work of repair by moving us away from fragmentation towards integration, will become more valuable than ever.
I have absolutely no interest in enlightenment, gurus, yoga, spirituality or shaktipat if it does not include emotional integrity. The wellness of our society, our planet, politics, women, black and minority people - depend on the emotional integrity of us all.
Lately, the yoga world has been such a colossal disappointment to me that I have seriously considered stopping teaching and practicing altogether. Over the last year or two I have immersed myself into the worlds of psychology and capoeira, where I have found the professionalism, integrity and connection I expect. Teaching yoga is all I have done (in terms of work) for 20 years, and so to stop now would have epic ramifications in every way. Yet I know many people including teachers who have stopped practicing entirely; throwing away their mats and taking up gardening instead. And I’m talking about dedicated, passionate, long term practitioners.
Meanwhile in yoga land, teachers are brazenly abusing their students and have been for years. And now that a tiny handful of people are finally speaking out, other students are doggedly protecting their beloved, wise, abusive teachers. Which makes me wonder, does yoga actually work?
Just a few days ago I was accused of gossiping and spreading rumours when I raised the issue of a teacher who has notoriously crossed professional and ethical boundaries by having sex with countless of his students half his age. The response I received felt like an attempt to shame me into silence (naming a known fact in order to bring about justice is not gossiping or spreading rumours, and to suggest that, I believe, is gaslighting). I understood the response I received to be more of a desperate attempt to sweep something uncomfortable under the carpet because it got in the way of ‘love and light’. My silencer was a yoga teacher, which is beginning to not surprise me any more.
These days yoga, which is often translated as meaning ‘to unite’ or ‘connect’, is anything but connection. I see more avoidance, dissociation, smoke screening and pseudo spiritual clap trap than I do actual connection. Whilst abusers use yoga as the perfect smokescreen behind which to hide their unresolved dark shadows and shit behaviour, yoga, mindfulness and meditation are commonly used by many people as a way of spiritualising dissociation. What kind of Svadhyaya is that? As Ann Tapsell West once eloquently said, “You can stuff that yoga practice where the surya don’t shine”.
Don’t ever buy into the myth that yoga teachers (or any kind of spiritual, humanistic therapists) are wise, trauma free, together people who don’t have any shadows and never display behaviours resulting from their unresolved issues. Don’t ever think they they know more about you than you do. And if you’re a yoga teacher, never feed into this hype which does nothing but create hierarchy, division and disconnection. Be authentically imperfect. Admit you’ve not got your shit together. Admit who you are.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if talking about our shadows was respected and revered as being strong and courageous and admirable? Instead of being seen as shameful, weak and needing silencing or hiding behind charming behaviour, drowning it in perpetual ‘love and light’.
Blessed be the truth tellers, the trauma speakers, the whistle blowers, the people with their hearts on their sleeves, their feet in the mud and their heads screwed on. They are courageously bringing dark secrets into the light and carrying out the excruciatingly hard work of excavating, processing and integrating their feelings, behaviours and unresolved issues. If the word ‘guru’ is someone who dispels the darkness then surely the truth tellers and trauma speakers are the real gurus.
I would rather be in the presence of these light bringing warriors, than hiding in a fragmented guru’s presence and receiving shaktipat, any day of the week.
Talking to my 9 year old son about pornography has been one of the most wonderful and fulfilling parenting experiences I’ve had to date.
The conversations we’ve had have bonded us together deeply, generated a mutual respect and connected us both to our powerful inner voices that speak of justice. He has a lived experience of me talking about difficult things, being honest and brave, and that I am stepping up to my role as parent to keep him safe. I can see he feels proud of me. I feel proud of how I have protected him and his potential for happiness and healthy relationship.
The story behind all of this is a story of heartbreak and trauma.
When my son was a little baby, his father became violent towards me and we split up. After many years of single parenting, I met a wonderful man, fell in love, and in time he moved in and became my son’s much needed and adored step dad. They got on like a house on fire. We were all so happy. A year later I discovered he secretly used pornography. Arguments started, lies ensued, my heart slowly broke into pieces, his deep feelings of shame were activated and eventually it became apparent he was not prepared to address the issue and instead the problems in our relationship were blamed on me. It soon spiralled into a nightmare of gaslighting and verbal abuse as he tried to cover his tracks, minimise his problem and deflect responsibility. And meanwhile my little boy saw the father figure he adored slip away between his fingers. He walked out the day before my son’s 9th birthday, having been caught lying yet again about another mammoth porn session.
My little boy was devastated, confused and heartbroken. It was not long before he became angry with me, blaming me for the relationship breakdowns. He did not know about his father’s violence or his step father’s porn habit. All he could see was his mother emotionally smashed to pieces, with his fathers expertly feigning calm, kind gentlemanliness (something they had done their whole lives, creating a smokescreen for their abusive behaviours). The two fathers became friends, spending time together with my son, all three of them sharing in their experiences of me being an emotionally unstable woman (no doubt not discussing the porn or violence). I’m not quite sure how I survived the following months.
Discovering my ex partner’s porn habit catapulted me into a world that I knew nothing about. I began to educate myself on the effects porn has on users, partners, performers, families and society. I learned about the industry and how it is run. I learned about the brain and addiction. And I learned that a child is first exposed to pornography around the age of 10. In other words, it is not a matter of ‘if’ my son would be exposed to pornography, but ‘when’. And having witnessed the deeply destructive effects that porn has on users’ mental health and potential for healthy relationship, I felt a strong urge to protect him from the negative effects of his inevitable first exposure. The more I researched it, the more I realised I needed to have this conversation with him.
Somehow it doesn’t seem right to talk with such a young child about pornography. I wanted his first knowledge of sexual intimacy to not be pornography! But sadly, if we don’t have these conversations with children, we run a high chance of them being exposed without any tools to handle it. And the effects of that are nothing less than traumatising.
That first conversation, in the end, turned out to be surprisingly easy. I used a book called Good Pictures Bad Pictures which has been written especially for parents to read aloud to their children. I changed a few words as I went along, but the book basically did all the work for me. And it turns out that a child centred approach to discussing pornography involves informative and educative learning about the brain and how to protect it as it is growing and maturing. I realise now that it was good my son was so young, because he still wanted to ask me questions, have a conversation and engage on the subject. He was not too embarrassed.
Since then he notices images of women and girls being sexually objectified (they are everywhere) and he asks me if it is pornography. I have been able to explain that it isn’t, but that these women and girls are being turned into objects in the same way that it happens in porn. Now, when we see images of women and girls being objectified, we notice how it is impossible to know anything about who they are and we try to wonder about what hobbies she might have or what her favourite film might be. He commented once that it was like the images turn the woman/girl into a toy - whom you can discard easily.
My ex partner’s porn addiction has undone the desensitisation of sexual objectification I embodied from being bombarded with it everywhere in society. And my son now has also been protected from this desensitisation. He now, aged 10, calls out the objectification of women and girls whenever he sees or hears it. And sadly he hears it amongst his peers at school already. We know that those are the children who have not had the conversation and have not been protected.
I have heard it said many times that we need to teach our sons to respect women. But from my perspective my son doesn’t need these kind of lessons. He was born good and moral and with a strong sense of humanity and fairness and justice. The issue is not to teach him these things, but more to protect him from the people and parts of our society that lead him astray from this.
Discussing pornography with our children protects their inherent nature to be good. It is the job of parents and all grown ups to protect children. Pornography bonds a user to an image on a screen, connecting their brain and physiology to an object. It can bring about a loss of connection to our own natural libido, threatening our potential for connection, bonding and belonging with another human. All the evidence shows that using pornography causes fragmentation within individuals and damages bonding in relationship. So it is ironic that talking with my little boy about pornography has had the opposite effect. It has bonded my son and I together, giving us each a sense of belonging both internally and together. From terrible trauma has grown a sense of belonging.
For more support and information on how to address the issue of pornography with your child, tween or teen, please have a look at the Parents Program which is a free online course offered by Culture Reframed, or look up the book Good Pictures, Bad Pictures.
(And if you wonder why I have put this blog on my yoga website …. Yoga is to ‘yoke’, to connect. So talking with your child to protect them from pornography, to me, is yoga in action. And porn is the opposite of yoga.)