• Holli Gipson

Yoga as An Art Process: Chiseling Pain

This week we have a beautiful wonderment about healing. I hope this post re-frames and softens the oppressive positivity that can happen in yoga and other self-improvement practices. Being an artist, I like to think of healing as an artistic process. I explain that here in the post.


Often, in my air practices, I struggle not to feel a sense of failure, seemingly unable to let go of past hurts and patterns that cling and struggle against my efforts to set them free in the wind.

Sometimes I fear that if I really wanted to let go, I could - mere attachment to the state of being hurt that is keeping me where I am. I am looking back too much, and choosing to keep myself here. Other times, I feel the complexity and embeddedness of what it is that I am trying to let go.

How do we know when we are ready to let go, and when we still have more to heal?

~ Penny


Dear Penny,

Thank you for your vulnerable wonderment. Your last question is one of the greatest questions for all that need to heal. Observing the state of our earth and of our people I think it's fair to say most, if not all of us, need some healing. I'm so glad you've asked it for us! Thank you!

"Letting go" is definitely an air aspect of ourselves. Air teaches us to move, sometimes quickly, with ease, with little weight or baggage. This is a beautiful wisdom particular to air.

YET, especially in yoga classes, sometimes this offering of the wind and of this particular wisdom can feel very demanding. I think some yoga teachers do give off an aggressive energy to "let go." I also know some students will interpret most offerings as a challenge, pressuring themselves even if the offering is soft.

I too have felt in yoga classes this pressure to make things light that are not light, to release baggage even though we may still need to carry it for a variety of reasons.

I don't think I ever felt more dismissed by one of my teachers than when I shared an intimate side of myself and his response was to "lighten up." He may have had a point, but at the same time I did not feel light. My reaction to his teaching was that I felt wrong for being where I was at. I was heavy, inquisitive about darkness, attempting to penetrate my demons. I couldn't let them go and access light.

The excessive command to "let go" can become oppressive. Much of the "positive" messaging in psychology from the past 10 - 15 years is quite overbearing. Oppressive energy can make us feel less-than and like we've failed.

The truth is air is just ONE of the elements. There are other elements (earth for example) whose wisdom tells us to hold on, to become heavy like the baggage that we carry.

I believe as yoga teachers we must be sensitive to our students and what they are carrying. I try, although not always successfully, to question and create a vibe of inquiry rather than demand or command, particularly around letting go. I will ask people to attempt to connect to air -- their own inner ability to let go -- but that does not mean you must let go of everything. In fact it's rather important to attach as well.

The Chiseling Process

You already have described a chiseling process for healing deep-set pain in your wonderment. You've described it as a vacillation between being aware of what you can let go (parts of the ego) and then knowing there are embedded aspects you just can't let go. Let me elaborate and perhaps create a metaphor that might help when approaching our embedded pains.

When a memory or thought pattern embeds its self in our psyche the only way to change it (eventually) is to listen and breathe with it. This is why yoga is so powerful.

Two aspects of our mind that you have addressed in your wonderment are smiriti (memories) and samskara (set thought patterns). Both of these can be set like stone within our minds or like the earth element (even though they are of a subtle nature). So in our yoga we are consistently taking the breath (wind) to the physical body (earth) and also to the earth aspects of our mind (set patterns or memories).

Air teaches us how to let go, but we can't (always) break a stone into a million pieces of dust in a blink of an eye. Sometimes it would be harmful to do so. Not only because one may not be ready, but there may be a gem within the stone. So if a memory is set in stone we cannot expect to let it go with the snap of our fingers or with a single yoga class. The aim may not even be to remove it all together.

Think of wood working and how the artist must decide what to keep and what to chisel off -- what is useful and what is not. When we approach these embedded pains in our yoga, it is as if we are approaching a block of wood or stone (earth) set within us. The aim (for most of us and at first) is not to eradicate the block of wood but to begin the artistic process of sculpting it. Every artistic process asks: what do you choose to keep and what do you choose to let go of? Depending on your exploration the shape of the wood or art-piece will change.

Perhaps try to trust the struggle and clinging as part of the process. Trust that you are holding this for a reason. Think of it as your subconscious and/or conscious mind saying to you, "we might still need this piece for our work." This might soften the struggle and re-frame it as an artistic process.

Think of the breath aspect of our yoga as our chiseling tool. The breath will let you know what to let go of and when. Most of us want to only do this with our minds, particularly with our ego and rational minds. The breath is much more powerful and trustworthy. Listen to the breath. I know you've heard this; I know it can seem like a platitude, but I promise you it works.

Personally, I have taken deep ancestral pain and abuse into my yoga practice. I have and continue to reshape these embedded memories. The beauty and intelligence of trauma is that it stores memory in our bodies and minds -- freezing it in time. This gives us the chance to come back and reshape it. This seems at first like a curse, but I've learned to approach it like an artist given material to work with when I'm ready. I may keep these materials out in the shed for a while. Out of sight; out of mind. I come to them when and as I need.

This doesn't mean my ego and rational mind has "control" of when I work with these memories. Most of the time, especially in the beginning, it seems we have little or no control of when these traumas or patterns arise. I have learned this phenomenon -- spontaneous eruption of memories or thought patterns -- to be the subconscious letting me know it's time to work; it's time for the artistic process. Again, this concept means one must trust their mind and body desires healing.

However, one must be willing to be an artist and accept the artistic process -- to approach the stone or wood with the chisel. If not, then trauma and these consistent patterns can lead to destruction of self in a variety of ways.

Our pain and memories most likely will not fully be eradicated this lifetime. Maybe. For Some. For me, I think about my pain, my memories more as changing shape rather than dissipating.

A Starting Point for What to Chisel Off

1. The ego's criticisms of the process. For example, perhaps your ego is judging yourself for "looking back too much." Can you let that go? Let yourself look back and release the judgement of doing so? And can we let go of any other criticisms of ourselves "doing it wrong." (again this may take time).

2. Attachment to doom or self-defeating identities (again this may take time). This is the part of ourselves that simply wants to hold on to the hurt. Perhaps holding on out fear of losing our identity.

A Starting Point for What to Keep

1. TRUST the body, breath and the subconcious mind as a vehicle for your progression, which again for many of us includes healing.

2. SEEK HELP from a teacher, healer. I always say this but we are not meant to do this work solely on our own. Every artist I know has influences and teachers.

3. YOGA SUTRAS -- in my opinion, the yoga sutras are one of the best text describing this process. So if one is willing and able, studying them with a teacher or in a course would do wonders for understanding and implementing this mental artistry I'm describing in the post. Eventually studying them on your own is very empowering.

I'll leave you with two of the Yoga Sutras:

The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period of time. 1.14

The discipline of any artistry takes time to develop. Give it time.

One can attain freedom from pain and suffering by cultivating faith and trust (shraddha) in their bodies, minds and connection with spirit; with an attitude of enthusiasm and through great effort; by recollection or constant memory of their true nature, through contemplation and meditation, and by pure awareness of what is. 1.20

I hope these help you with your artistic work. I hope this post serves you, dear Penny, dear community.

Until next time and in solidarity of the artists' and healers' within,


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