Emotional Chutes and Ladders

Kripalu Yoga teaches us to “ride the wave” of emotion using a technique abbreviated “BRFWA” — Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. But what happens when your waves seem more like endless pits of darkness and despair?

I’ve sometimes found it difficult to relate to the wave analogy, but I’ve come full circle back to it, and wanted to offer several other analogies one might call to mind when standing in the face of strong emotions.

Moods move (if you ALLOW them to)
First, I see parallels of this wave analogy with several forms of therapy that focus on emotion regulation, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). These teach us that moods always move. Positive and negative, they’re like a sine wave graph–up and down, up and down. Like the weather in New England, our moods always keep us on our toes! But knowing that moods naturally shift can provide us with a sense of freedom. Feel bad? If you WATCH patiently it’s very likely that your mood will naturally shift.

Unfortunately we humans have several tendencies that make this whole process difficult:

  • We reinforce bad moods with automatic negative thoughts (a self-harming behavior)
  • We assume our moods are dependent on changes in the outside world (though these internal states of mind would change regardless)
  • When we’re in a low state, we’re more likely to recall all the other times we felt the same way–this is called “mood congruent bias“, and it reinforces the thought that we must always feel this way (an over-generalization as well as technique used to avoid the present moment)
  • We fail to trust in the process–for moods we label “bad” in particular, we try to “solve the problem” (rather than radically accepting what is)

Alternatives to the wave analogy
One of my friends from yoga teacher training once told me that even if I dig my own hole, I know how to get myself out, and that I would. While this made me feel a little better at the time, it didn’t quite capture the depth of what I was going through. In conversations with a another friend who seems to experience her emotions as deeply as I, I started to think of it like this: instead of a hole, it’s really a well–I visualize something like the one from the movie “The Ring”. And when things are bad and I start to feel myself falling, I have two choices.

  1. I can try using my nails to claw at the dirt on all sides, flail my feet and my legs to try and find some footing to prevent it from happening, scream in terror at my misfortune, etc. 
  2. Or, I can let go and surrender –using my BREATH to RELAX my whole body until I land with a splash at the bottom. I can take in my surroundings (FEEL), maybe learning something new or discovering some message I’d left myself the last time I was down there. I’ll trust that I’ll find the stashed rope ladder when I’m ready to, and then with the energy I’ve conserved from not fighting the fall (brahmacharya!), I’ll use it to climb back up into the sun.

Another analogy that came to mind for me was the game Chutes and Ladders (am I dating myself here? :-). If I can freely and easily slide down–maybe even learning to find some small pleasures in the ride–I’ll have the strength to climb back up the ladder when its time.

What about you? Is this the first time you’ve heard about BRFWA and riding the waves? Do you simply ride the waves like an expert surfer? An awkward beginner? Do you find this as challenging as I do? I know a lot of people currently who are going through difficult times–what analogies have you created to help yourself (or a friend) get through them?

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