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Yoga and Anger Management March 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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3 comments

My doctor made a suggestion to me the other day. “Get angry,” he said.

And he didn’t mean in a bumper-sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” sort of way, or a Rage Against the Machine debut-album “Anger is a gift” sort of way, either. He meant that I don’t have to keep whistlin’ and keep on keepin’ on whenever someone treats me unfairly or disrespectfully. He meant that actually, getting screwed over is a perfectly valid reason to get bent out of shape–even for a yoga teacher like me.

At my yoga teacher training, we began each morning and evening by chanting in both Sanskrit and English. We asked both ourselves and the universe to make each and every one of us a force for good, to charge us with the maintenance and upkeep of the happiness and freedom of all living things.  “Free me from anger, jealousy, and fear,” we sang, a cosmic request imploring that, come what may, we’d always keep a level head.

It sounded good at the time–it still does–but I’ve come to the conclusion that freedom from anger, jealousy, and fear is inhuman at best, crippling at worst. To keep myself anger-free, I routinely avoided conflict. And while this is a fairly common human behavior, I found myself taking it to the extreme. In a given situation, then, I’d imagine potential conflicts to avoid; I’d storyboard anger-inspiring scenarios in my head, then erect elaborate emotional scaffolding so that, should they actually occur, I’d know how to navigate them without getting angry.

I also took freedom from anger to mean anyone’s anger. That is, I began to feel it was no longer enough to avoid my own anger; I had to protect others from getting mad, too. I created more scenarios, plotting how my potential actions could potentially enrage others. I imagined that potential anger and let it wash over me, confident that by experiencing it “virtually,” I’d know exactly what steps to take to spare the rest of the world from experiencing it in reality. I did this so frequently and so naturally that I warped my imagination: my scenarios became anthologies of possible ways I could screw something up. After all, how could I avoid and diffuse potential anger if I didn’t avail myself (in my imagination, at least) to any form of ugliness that that anger could possibly take?

But when a foundering project was dumped on me with the blunt directive to sort it out, I found myself at a loss. Or, at least, I found myself getting angry. All of my invented “screw-up” scenarios involved my mishandling the project–or at least perpetuating the mistakes that had already been made by others. It upset my sense of fair play, like Republicans blaming Obama for Bush’s multifaceted mess.

I went in a different direction, beating myself up for not being creative enough to find an anger-free way through the gauntlet, all the while growing increasingly terrified that no matter what I did, I’d be responsible for unleashing a great wave of rage into the world.

Which is when my doctor told me to embrace the anger myself, even if it meant steering into a potential conflict–not so that someone at fault could feel my wrath and be put in his place, but so that I’d stop abusing myself with self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, humiliation, and–of course–someone else’s imaginary anger.

Rather than try to “free” myself from anger, I’m now working to better handle it. Like so much of yoga, the emotion itself is hollow, given weight only when I choose to engage it. Poorly processed anger can indeed make the world an ugly, vitriolic place. But when embraced properly, and used appropriately, anger–while not necessarily a gift (sorry, Zack de la Rocha)–is certainly human and (on occasion) certainly me, too.

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