By: Karen Jaynes
My dad passed recently. We knew it was inevitable after his numerous strokes. He was sick for a while, fighting the repercussions of a life lived hard. He was a truck driver, worked nights, slept days, smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, and ate like a Philadelphian. As a result, his life over the age of 60 was consumed with diabetes, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Alzheimer’s. Even after quitting smoking, he struggled for breath; in yoga we call breath “Prana,” which means life. Living this way left him vulnerable to disease, as his body was certainly compromised.
His passing left me feeling emotionally vulnerable. Although my dad and I had a decent relationship as adults, the child in me did not like him. Growing up with my dad was difficult; he was rough and tough around the edges, and we feared him a lot. We felt vulnerable around him and his moods, never knowing how he was going to be around us: tired, angry, agitated, or playful. Even in jest, Dad’s humor touched on my vulnerabilities.
Growing up, I learned how to protect my vulnerabilities by growing a thick skin and being quick witted. When I am vulnerable, I feel uncomfortable, like my under-skin is showing and I have an exposed soft spot. My vulnerability reflects what I see as my weak points, my insecurities, places where someone could hurt me or bring me down. As a child, I was vulnerable because I wanted my parents to love me and accept me. Now, wanting those things still sometimes makes me feel that same vulnerability.
That’s the ironic part about being vulnerable. Without it, we can’t experience love. We have to open the soft spots within us to let love in. In loving, we chose to accept disappointments along with the joys. In loving, we chose to look past the flaws and imperfections. In loving, we chose to forgive and find acceptance. Because, without forgiveness or acceptance, the emotion you confess as love is a shallow and conditional “like” suitable for Facebook but not a life well lived.
Vulnerability allows us to learn. It is the opportunity to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t have the answer.” It’s like the day we realized my dad’s terminal situation and I said, “I don’t know what to do next,” and “I didn’t expect to feel this way.”
As a yoga teacher, I realize that sometimes just showing up in a yoga class makes students feel vulnerable when they don’t know what to expect. On our yoga mats, we are faced with our biggest critic: ourselves. It’s just you, your mat, and sometimes a mirror. If you are going through a tough time and I am asking you to begin your practice with a deep breath, this maybe the first deep breath you have taken all day, maybe even longer. If I ask you to take a pose deeper, you may reach deep and find your past experiences are still lingering and hanging around in your present. It may expose your emotions. They might just all come out through that release of breath and end up all over your expression and your mat! (We keep those rooms lit dimly for lots of reasons!)
The beautiful unexpected gift that vulnerability reveals is freedom. Once it is out, you are free from the burden of carrying it and feel peace in its acceptance. Going from the paralyzing unknown to realizing facts helps us move on to contend with the issues at the root of our insecurities and helps us understand what makes us stronger and safe.
My mat has seen the most vulnerable sides of me. If you see me on my mat, you may see my strength. I see them both as the same. Namaste.