How yoga was actually making me unhappy... / by Cherryl Duncan

This is a story about how I used good things like yoga, meditation and Eastern philosophy to make myself unhappy and how I found my way back to happiness by keeping some things but throwing out a whole bunch too.

When I got into Yoga, I went extreme. It’s kind of my nature, to go all in or nothing. So I gave up my job, went to India, then when that wasn’t enough, I went to New York. I gave up my job, my relationships, a became vegan, took Buddhist vows, went on silent meditation retreats, studied Eastern philosophy, and Western philosophy, I even floated for hours in sensory depravation tanks just so I could try to feel what it was like to die.  What else? I went on weekend retreats alone in the woods, renting some tiny cabin and meditated for hours along side a stream desperately hoping to experience something more and deeper and truer than I believed we could all see.

I sat for hours in psychotherapy, for years, tried hypnotherapy, cranial sacral therapy, light therapy, every kind of yoga you can imagine, sang kirtan, learned to play the harmonium, retook up flute playing again, formed communities, left communities, joined cults, left cults, held séances , summoned the dead (ok, fine, I did that when I was 13 so probably doesn’t count), walked up mountains, toyed with the idea of jumping off of one, took drugs, chanted mantra, visited temples, read read and read more books, hung out with gurus or people claiming to be gurus, sat in churches, monasteries, temples and graveyards. Ok you get the idea… all in search of happiness.

Because I believed happiness existed somewhere very deep within me, and if I could face every single one of my fears, which mostly involved death, then I could somehow trick death and transcend my human condition.

I didn’t trick death. I now, absolutely believe that I am going to die. I also know that I am probably not going to enjoy the process, no matter how many sensory depravation tanks I float in.

Of course I learnt a lot about myself along the way, I leant how the consistent practice of yoga and meditation makes me a happier, calmer, and more centred person. I feel closer to myself. My inner wisdom, or whatever that thing is, has shown me what is false and what is true in this world. (and continues to do so).  I learnt that the power of observation without judgement has the power to awaken a profound curiosity about the world that never leaves me bored and always in a constant state of inquiry.

I learned that it feels good to be an overall nice person and to wish well for others – as well as to take responsibility for my own life and to not blame the world around me. I learnt that life is mysterious and there are good and bad forces in some kind of cosmic dance and that nothing is inherently bad or inherently good and the exploration of that if often where our deepest creative urges lie. I learnt that no one else can do the work that leads you to happiness for you- no Guru, and no God.

I also learnt that being authentic and vulnerable facilitates connection and that connection to others is one of the happiest states we can know as humans. And that’s it.

What I let go of, was the restrictive rules that I tried living with and beating myself up with.

Strict rules including beating myself up with a karma stick. Yes, understanding karma is vitally important, but not in the Catholic guilt sort of way.

Strict rules that involved impossible diets

Strict rules that involved a gruelling yoga practice

Strict rules about how much time you should spend alone, meditating and in silence.

Strict rules about a punishing God, or Gods, or ones that take credit for all the good things in your life, and none of the responsibility for the shitty stuff, but require total devotion and superhuman love and devotion. Talk about a toxic and narcissistic relationship.

Strict rules involving rituals that took up two hours before you’d even had your morning coffee – if you could stand the guilt of drinking said coffee.

I’m not going to go into all the restrictions I lived under for so many years trying to be perfect and make it through the doors of heaven, but there were many.

In the end, I was more disconnected from the people around me. If you weren’t vegan, we needed to have a conversation as to why.

If you didn’t do Yoga, you were just a disappointment.

I was superior, judgemental, above it all with my moral high ground, strict disciplines and my oh so independently free spirit who disregarded important facts of life, like the money system, for example.

Mostly, this search for happiness was making me unhappy. The very thing I was searching for became the source of my misery- isn’t that true of all love affairs? I digress…

The unhappier I felt, the more restrictions I put on myself. It’s because I was still eating too much sugar, or I wasn’t meditating long enough, or my yoga practice wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t living my real purpose, I hadn’t met my Guru, I hadn’t surrendered enough to a higher power, the list was endless.

Until one day, Life really happened.

I found myself in a foreign country, having just walked out of my second marriage, on a friend’s couch staring around in disbelief at what had become of my life. I was 37 and I realised with shocking clarity, I was not where I wanted to be.

I had no money, absolutely no employment opportunities, (there aren’t a lot of jobs for people with a lot of education in philosophy and sensory depravation tanks) a broken heart, my family thousands of kilometres away and absolutely no faith in anything. All of my practices, beliefs, ideals, theories, and philosophies were absolutely useless. I was like WTF?? Isn’t this when all that training is meant to payoff?

It was then that I threw out EVERYTHING that wasn’t working for me and started gathering up what did work.  I didn’t know it then, but that was really the start of dharmaKaya® yoga.

I remember being in a yoga workshop with David Swenson 10 years before, and the women, mainly women then for some reason, were debating at length whether ashtanga yoga should be practiced 5 or 6 days a week. They were so passionate about this number, and the debate got quite heated, until David answered with the one sentence that I had no idea would impact me so deeply years to come. That sentence was,  ‘Enjoy your life’.  He didn’t say you should practice 5 days or 6 days a week, he simply answered with a slightly exasperated, ‘Enjoy your life’.

And I was like, Yes! And then of course I  ignored that until all these years later.

I threw out everything that wasn’t making me happy and kept the things that did.

Eating well makes me happy

Yoga practice makes me happy

Meditation makes me happy and the values I mentioned above which have now formed the basis of the dharmaKaya® yoga method that I teach.

No more, no less.

My mantra now is Enjoy your life.

And no, I don’t know the Sanskrit for that.

Since I decided on my own values, I am thriving in my work, having accepted and embraced the money system, I enjoy what I do every day, I find ways to have fun, I have dear friends both old and new that I invest in and cherish and who bring me so much joy and laughter – some of them are yogis, some of them are not. I am health aware, but not obsessed, my yoga practice is sometimes strong, sometimes not, I read fiction and non-fiction, I travel to places that have nothing to do with yoga sometimes, I enjoy my food, whatever it is I’m eating, I seek meaningful connection, I laugh, I play and I hold the mystery of life close to my heart, and I’m finally ok with accepting that I will not, and cannot know everything there is to know.

And that is why I teach yoga, and mentor people on how to Enjoy life. I want others to use the deeply transformative and often times challenging practices of yoga and meditation to Enjoy their life more.