Dear Beautiful Human,
I first heard the term “spiritual bypassing” probably more than 15 years ago from my first teacher Sarah Powers. I was asking her about yoga teachers who didn’t seem to want to deal with reality and she said “oh yes there’s a term for that, it’s called spiritual bypassing, because you use yoga or even meditation to avoid what you’re really feeling”.
It struck me back then as so odd but true. Yes, people spending hours a day meditating as a means of not facing themselves on a very deep level, even though it’s exactly that which the practices were designed for. Huh.
As I did a little research for this blog to discover who coined the term, I found out it was John Welwood with whom Sarah used to work. Here is his definition: A spiritual bypass or spiritual bypassing is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”.
I am seeing so much written about this lately and it has come up repetitively in interactions on social media and in person which I always take as a sign to blog. So here goes.
There seems to be a push or theme in the yoga world to move towards always feeling amazing and positive. I get it, I think that’s what drives us to practice yoga in the first place. I actually use the term “feel good” when describing how I teach. Ultimately, the practices do move us towards feeling good in mind, body and energy.
I can still remember how good I felt after my very first yoga class. It was really challenging and very different from anything else I had tried, and it left me feeling so good. I couldn’t explain it to you very clearly at the time, but it was an instantly positive experience and it kept me coming back for more.
What I don’t hear talked about that much especially within public yoga classes is how it can also be very hard. I don’t mean physically hard. I mean emotionally hard. Why is that? Because when we come to the yoga mat, we are tuning out all the distractions we are normally faced with and are literally facing ourselves. Sometimes old, deep, buried emotions rise to the surface. Sometimes unconscious old wounds rise up unexpectedly as well.
This is why I think so many people avoid meditation or feel they can’t do it. We know down deep that getting still or slowing down and getting quiet, reveals whatever is on the inside. And it does. It reveals both the darkness and the light. But we can’t just jump over the darkness, squash it down, and only reach towards the light. We must face the darkness too.
It’s this tendency to avoid the darkness that has made the term “love and light” a synonym for spiritual bypassing in the yoga world. Here’s a recent article on this very term in Elle magazine: click here
So, what to do? In the simplest terms, embrace it all. Know that pain and difficulty is 100% a part of practicing yoga. There will be days where you are struck with sadness while sitting in meditation or you feel you can’t bear to get quiet with yourself for fear of what will bubble up. This is a part of your practice. There will be days of not feeling very “love and light-ish” at all.
I remember a distinct period of my practice where I realized I could no longer keep avoiding what I was avoiding. I recognized I was doing myself a disservice to avoid (remember the 5 Causes Of Suffering?? One of them is avoidance or dvesha). So, I gave in. I faced my painfully tight hips and cried my way through daily hip opening poses. I have no idea what was caught up in those hips, but something seriously emotional was tied in there and I let myself go through it. I stopped avoiding the feelings both physically and emotionally. Eventually the tension in both mind and body melted away.
Your journey will be unique to you of course. I just want you to know it’s not all “love and light” but also dirt, darkness, and anything that arises along the way. Two of my teachers have said you will grow more and move further along your spiritual path facing the darkness than you will only reaching for the light. I think that’s true.
Allow your yoga practice to help you accept reality and not avoid it. This means both within yourself and out in the world. In both cases sometimes what we see isn’t pretty. Yoga is meant to slowly over time, help us to get at core truths. It helps us see more clearly. Actually, one definition of yoga is that it helps us remove the dirt. Getting there isn’t an easy path and requires consistency, dedication, persistence and presence. It is a lifelong endeavor.
Bypassing the deep inner work won’t protect you from life’s challenges. But fully experiencing those challenges will make you a stronger, wiser and more compassionate human being.