Fear, Guilt, Shame – Utility and Barrier in Yoga and Veganism

This week’s post brought to you a bit early by hurricane Sandy!

I’ve been thinking, writing, and talking (at a scholarly conference and in yoga classes) about fear, guilt, and shame quite a bit lately. And in those discourses, a theme that has wound its way throughout is that each has utility, but also can present a barrier to growth and wellness (n.b. I’m not going to provide the scholarly source cites here, but if someone needs them, let me know)  As we prepare for hurricane Sandy, taking the necessary precautions but attempting to avoid any freaking out about the situation, it seems a rather appropriate time to put these thoughts in blog form.

Fear is a part of our innate nature as animals. When we encounter situations that we perceive as threatening, the body and mind respond quickly to move into fight or flight mode. This gives us the energy we might need to get out of the situation or to deal with the threat. As we are impacted by things in life that harm us in some way, they are added to our bank of fear-producing events, and that helps to guide behavior in the future. Fear keeps us from doing things that are dangerous to us or to those we care about.

Similarly, guilt helps us to make choices about behavior. Guilt is a more social phenomenon, as it is built on societal precepts of what is acceptable, moral, ethical, and normal. When we stray from the bounds of acceptable, we are corrected in some fashion. From that, we learn what is acceptable and to feel bad (guilty) about straying, or even consider straying, from those expectations, and we use that information to make our life choices. Guilt helps to protect us from making choices that could be bad for others, or have serious social or personal ramifications for us.

Shame is connected to both guilt and fear, but is an entirely social phenomenon. We feel shame when we perceive that others would disapprove of our actions. The distinction between guilt and shame is slight, with the difference being that guilt is more about our own feelings that we are doing something wrong, and shame is about our belief that others would see what we are doing as wrong. While shame is probably of less utility, it does provide social protection that can be important in maintaining community relationships.

While these three facets of our humanity have useful roles in our lives, they can also be negative when they prevent us from the growth and change that is necessary for health, or confine us to narrow personal and social roles. In my life, they have unfolded in both helpful and negative ways in yoga and veganism.

I’m a vegan partly due to guilt and shame. Even from the time I was a small child, I realized that meat came from animals. I would eat hot dogs, sausages, ground beef, and lunchmeat without too much anxiety, but any food that came on a bone, or meat that was very chewy, presented a problem for me. When eating those things, I could not deny or ignore that what I was consuming came from the death of another being. I would get a piece of steak in my mouth and chew chew chew and not be able to swallow. Eventually, as an adult, I finally asked myself why I was continuing to eat meat if it made me so guilty and ashamed. It led me to a diet that has had benefits for me, my family, and probably a good number of animals.

At the same time, I could see how fear, guilt, and shame could become paralyzing in my dietary life. A while ago, a colleague pressed my diet choices, presenting some evidence of plants avoiding damage, and questioning whether I might want to think about how this could mean that plants have a degree of sentience. Similarly, I have had non-vegans lecture me on how the harvesting process inevitably kills insects. Stories of the dangers of soy can make it scary to consume that, as well. It would be easy enough to really take in all of this fear, guilt, and shame and become so conflicted that eating anything would be a trial.

In yoga, also, I have found fear to have its place. Fear of injury can prevent the ego from pushing me into poses that I’m not ready for, or that could be dangerous due to medical issues. Guilt and shame are not as useful, for me, in my yoga practice, but I will say that, now and then, it is feeling guilty about not practicing for a few days that gets me back on my mat. Thus, it can be a motivator in some cases.

Yet, fear, guilt, and shame can stop a person from growing and thriving in his/her yoga practice. I was speaking to a student the other day who has a strong yoga practice. She is dedicated to it and physically capable. But, fear keeps her from most inversions. And then she feels guilty that she is “being a baby” and not doing what she could do, and is ashamed when she perceives herself to be the only person in the room not kicking up to handstand. I know exactly what she is saying, because I’ve had this experience.

Sometimes, fear is not about “rational” or “real” danger.  For a long time, I felt very fearful in camel/ustrasana. I felt like I could not breathe and would begin to panic or not go into the pose at all. Clearly, I could breathe in reality, so there was no fear. And, even if I somehow really could not breathe in camel, I would have come out of it before I suffocated. More recently, I have found myself fearful of wheel. There is a little bit of the rational in this, because I am having a problem with my shoulders in the pose, but most of it is something emotional. It sometimes prevents me from going up into wheel even on days when my back and shoulders feel like they could handle the pose.

Guilt about yoga practice can be, sometimes in small doses, helpful to get us to the mat. But, beyond that, guilt may tend to prevent a practitioner from thinking through different possibilities of yoga. If I’m really busy feeling bad for not getting to a vinyasa class, it might prevent me from remembering that I can do some yin at home. If I’m not able or wanting to do any asana, guilt could get in the way of recalling that mindful meditation is yoga.

Yoga shame can be a powerful demotivator. When we start to worry about how our practice looks to others, and whether others think we are “good” enough or “dedicated” enough or “yogi enough,” it devalues the intrinsic good of the practice and makes it all about the public performance. All yoga practice is imperfectly perfect. It is the path and not the destination that is important, and shame can prevent us from remembering this.

Like so many things in life, fear, guilt, and shame are neither good nor bad. They just are. In any one instance, they can serve our goals and needs or push us further from them. I won’t say that the path is moderation (because, that too implies that there is a “right” level). So, instead, I will say that, when these feelings come up, they deserve some compassionate reflection, that we might use what is helpful to us and let go of what is not.



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