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"Young people are capable of doing much more today than ever in the history of mankind"

- Muhammad Yunus, Prominent economist

The stories we tell ourselves

By Chantal Soeters (Yoga instructor) on 12 June 2012

I love the process of yoga, its endless potential for growth. From each yoga training I participate in, I come away with new insights into yoga therapy and into the workings of my own body but what really strikes me time and again is the importance of the stories we tell each other and of the stories we tell ourselves.

How we tell our story greatly affects our healing. I have learned this myself the hard way. Like many people, I came to yoga through an injury. Years ago I had an accident that seriously damaged my neck and shoulder. My life as I knew it changed suddenly. I was unable to do any of the things that I loved doing. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t continue my studies at art school. I couldn’t paint or write. I couldn’t go out. Basically, I spent most of my day lying down, because of the severity of the pain. Sitting up straight having to support the weight of my head was already too much. I wore a neck brace. I hardly left the house. My social life stopped. It felt as if the walls of my house had slammed into me, enclosing my life.

The stories we hear
In order to heal I participated in an intensive rehabilitation program, doing fitness exercises every day, working on my posture, regularly visiting chiropractors and manual therapist etc. Despite all my efforts, nothing seemed to change for the better. My spine rather began to feel more and more unstable, like a house of cards, fragile and weak, ready to crumble at any moment. Somewhere along the line everyone around me, doctors and specialists, started to tell me that my injury had become chronic. There were no signs of recovery so it would never heal. I would have to find a way to live with it. I lost all my hope and started to believe what I was told: “This is it. This is what the rest of my life is going to be like”. It’s the story I started telling myself but I didn’t like it one bit.

The stories we tell

Reflecting on that time of my life, what strikes me the most is that I ended up giving all my trust and power away to doctors and specialists. In the process, I lost all trust in myself. An injury is not just something physical that affects the workings of your body. The way we talk to ourselves about it or hear others talk to us about it has a dramatic impact on how we feel, how we experience and cope with it. It affects how we define ourselves. Language is a powerful thing. It can change everything. It can uplift and empower you but it can also crush all your hope, if you let it. If you hear the same thing over and over again, you start to believe it. Whether it’s positive or negative. In my case, I heard everyone around me saying “No”. I heard “You can’t”. I heard “You will never”. I started to re-iterate those same lines in my head, giving up on myself, feeling weak, limited, powerless, out of control. We become the stories we tell ourselves. We are the stories we tell.

Opening to that which is real
When we are in pain, we tend to want to push it away. We want to disconnect from those parts of ourselves that are hurting. We tell ourselves that the injury, the shoulder that hurts, is not really us. Ironically, the more we push our injured parts away, the more we allow ourselves to be identified by them. We end up alienating ourselves from our own body. We stop seeing all parts of ourselves, our whole body for what it is. By fearing and resisting to opening to that which is real, we end up putting all our awareness into those parts of ourselves that we try so hard to resist. You become what you think about. You become your pain, your injury. The story you start telling yourself is a very limiting one.

You become what you focus on
I noticed that by focusing all my attention on my injury, I had become my injury and I hated everything about it. My injury was something holding me back from living the life that I wanted to live, so I treated ‘it’ like an enemy, as something stupid and annoying, alien and separate from myself, as ‘it’, ‘not-myself’, ‘not-mine’. The story I was telling myself was only reinforcing limited ideas of myself and of what my life could become. All the treatments I was doing also primarily focused on those painful parts of myself. I literally felt like the walls were closing in on me. I got stuck in the nitty gritty details of a very small part of myself and allowed that part of myself to do the talking, to define all parts of myself, only seeing smallness, losing the big picture.

Re-igniting your spark
At some point, I felt so disheartened by putting all my awareness into my injury all the time, that I hit the end of the tunnel. I realized that I had gotten tunnel vision and that if I were to continue like this, the focus on my injury would only become bigger and bigger and my world smaller and smaller. I made a radical decision to stop doing all the therapies I was doing that kept my focus on “my injury”. Somewhere deep down I wasn’t ready to accept that this was it, that this is what my life was going to be. A life of pain killers, constant nausea & dizziness, lying in bed and wearing a neck brace, was not what I wanted out of life. I was never one to accept from other people that something isn’t possible or that I can’t do something. It was time to start to change my story. All the energy, the commitment and steadfastness I had put towards “healing my injury” I now put into slowly picking up the things I loved doing. Starting with small things like painting again, but also taking up new things like journaling and creating vision boards. I started to re-focus on the positive things in my life. Gradually my spark ignited again.

Re-claiming your body

My healing journey really began to fast-track when I discovered yoga classes online. I was quite new to yoga, but quickly I was practicing yoga daily in the privacy of my own home. I loved the feeling it gave me. I was still in pain but it made me feel a little bit better about myself each time I practiced. Already within 3 months of practicing, I noticed some radical changes. My life started to shift into a positive direction. It started to flow more. A great deal of my pain disappeared. I started to feel strong and integrated. I gained hope. Even though I had no idea what I was doing and was probably doing a lot of the poses out of alignment, yoga helped me to heal. It helped me to integrate, to re-connect to myself. I began to embrace my shoulder and neck as a part of myself again. As something beautiful, something to love and care for instead of something to push away or push into. I realized I had fallen out of love with myself making it impossible for me to heal. Yoga became a process of re-claiming all parts of myself, of falling back in love with myself, with life. You really become what you practice. Yoga helped me to tell myself a better story, to see the bigger picture.

The art of story-telling

I love teaching yoga and yoga therapy. Story-telling is a big part of it. When you can help someone to see their own fullness, to see possibility, healing starts. Most of my students that are suffering from a serious injury or an illness have gone through the same thing I have been with my injury. They have accepted the stories they tell themselves or others have told them. For instance, stories like: “I will never run again” or “I will always be in pain” or “You have to live with this” or “There isn’t much we can do for you”. For a large part, they have allowed themselves to become defined by stories that limit them, that prevent them from seeing possibility, from having hope. The fact that they come to yoga already means that deep down inside they know there is more to life than what their current story is telling them. They come to yoga to tell their own story.

Saying ‘Yes’ first
Teaching yoga therapy is about telling the whole story, seeing the big picture. You look for beauty first, for the good, you open up to possibility. You allow your students to open up to their own potential, to a deeper understanding that there is always more. Instead of saying No, you say Yes first. It’s then and there that healing starts. Then you can start to align and integrate, to bring the body back to its optimal alignment. Then you can start to help them re-connect to all parts of themselves. By aligning our bodies, we are already changing the stories we tell. It’s when we begin to feel integrated that we can express ourselves fully. In many ways, we are what we believe ourselves to be. When we get injured, often the story we tell ourselves is not positive. It can, in fact, limit us, hold us back from experiencing our lives fully. Our conditioning can keep us from moving forward. In case of an injury, it can keep us from healing. The beauty of stories is that they can be changed. Through the practice of yoga, we can learn to tell a better story for ourselves, to change our internal dialogue, to open up to the infinite possibilities that life has to offer.

Chantal Soeters is an Anusara Yoga instructor who lives and teaches in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In her classes, Chantal wants to share the joy of yoga and life. Her classes are fun, light-hearted and dedicated to helping people from all levels and backgrounds to find more freedom. Chantal teaches at delightyoga in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.