Picture this, because we have all been there! Walking down the street on a normal beautiful afternoon and all of a sudden you trip on something; all hell breaks loose, and you end up rushing three to five steps forward. You gather your posture and look back to check what happened, and then you resume your walk as if nothing happened, perhaps a little more attentive (or not!) to the street. That was a display of physical resilience, and we all want that but, today let’s talk about mental and emotional resilience.
Resilience comes from the Latin resilio, and if we want to get really technical here, the etymological origin is “salire” (jump, spring) and “re” (again; prefix added to various words to indicate an action being done again…” So resilience is “to leap or spring back; rebound, recoil, retreat… to start back, shrink from, retreat. (1) The term was adapted to use in psychology and other social sciences “as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors”. (2) But our capacity to bounce back from these difficult experiences it’s only half the story, the second part involves “profound personal growth”.
In the world of yoga therapy, resilience is defined as the ability of human beings to adapt positively to adverse situations and come out of them strengthened. Three keywords to keep in mind as we dive deeper into the “what is resilience?”: Adapt-Positively-strengthened.
The good news is this “ability” is not something exceptional, we don’t need to be superhumans or superwomen to have it… It’s something native to our humanness. Yes, some of us take longer than others to recover but, in general, we all have the potential to recover from a bad experience. We end up adapting to the situation and moving forward.
In Yoga Therapy, what are the abilities we look for?
In her extraordinary book “Understanding Yoga Therapy”, my teacher Marlysa Sullivan, considers resilience to be the embodiment of three key abilities.(3)
1. Alternating Between Activation and Calm. The ability to adapt.
Practicing arousing and finding our way back to calmness, or the other way, from being too passive and bouncing back to being calm, centered, and clear. We explore practices that create activation and calm in their own unique bodies, energy levels, thoughts, and emotions and then move between the two states. Activating practices could include active or restorative postures; reflection on ethical principles that are difficult or uncomfortable to apply to oneself or one’s life circumstances; difficult emotions or beliefs; or even breathing practices that arouse the person physiologically, energetically, or psychologically. The idea is to challenge and come back. Adapting develops confidence in our ability to manage our relationship to any stimuli. I safely move my clients from one stage to the other and train them to come back to the center. Usually, the quality of their breath is a great indicator.
2. Widening the Window of Tolerance. The ability to look for the positive.
The capacity to be present with activation, without becoming overwhelmed, evolves from the practice of widening the window of tolerance. In yoga, this resilience signifies an Increased ability to remain situated in equanimity, clarity, and balance, while noticing and experiencing greater fluctuations between extremes like anxiety and depression, for example. In other words, we can be present with and experience a wider spectrum of activation of the body and mind while still finding a degree of comfort and ease, this is building a greater capacity to observe stimuli. As an example, something I do all the time with my clients, holding a physically demanding posture like low plank more than they normally would expect and queueing to focus on the quality of their breath instead of what their mind is telling them. This is being okay, not being okay.
3. Transforming Relationships to Stimuli and Fluctuations. The ability to come out strengthened.
Realizing our essential nature as awareness allows us to experience these natural, inevitable fluctuations with equanimity. Beyond building a greater capacity to observe stimuli, we can learn to embrace and welcome all experiences as awareness, leading to well-being and contentment. Transforming “resistance to what is” into “flowing with what is”. And you may think that transformation means making a sweeping change in our lives, but in reality, resilience is about small little changes and adaptations in our daily lives. This transformation is the result of “learning the lessons”.
The “How to” in Yoga Philosophy.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Patanjali lists three ethical principles for the development of resilience: First: Austerity and the disciplined practice needed for transformation and change (tapas). Second: To recognize our habitual reactions that contribute to suffering, then apply fortitude, courage, and determination to transform these patterns so that they instead support greater well-being (Svadhyaya). And the third one is called Ishvara pranidhana, the capacity for allowing, and for being guided by, listening to, and trusting in a higher principle or power. The concept includes ideas of faith, devotion, and trust and reflects our willingness to surrender to the highest expression of spirit or awareness.
Give yourself more credit!
Reflect on the pains and difficulties you have gone through over your life. Through small frustrations and larger experiences of grief and tragedy, you have made it to this moment, today. Recognize your natural resiliency, remembering that you are, indeed, capable of handling more than you give yourself credit for. Through life, you have adapted, looked for the positive, and grown stronger!
One final thought from the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, verse 76 from Stephen Mitchell English version:
“Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus, whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail”.
- Etymologeek. n.d. Resilio word origin. [online] Available at: <https://etymologeek.com/lat/resilio/13778134> [Accessed 19 October 2021].
- https://www.apa.org. 2021. Building your resilience. [online] Available at: <https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience> [Accessed 19 October 2021].
- Sullivan, M. and Hyland Robertson, L., 2020. Understanding Yoga Therapy. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.
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