I have a yoga mat made by a company called “holding.” It refers to a key concept in yoga: when we arrive at a difficult posture, one that causes discomfort, we stop carefully and notice it. We don’t react by flinching or jerking back, but we don’t shove forward either. We bring awareness to the physical (and mental, and emotional) sensations we’re experiencing in that posture. If there is physical pain, we carefully back out of the posture. Otherwise, we relax into it, breathe deeply and dance along the edge of discomfort.
It’s also called “riding the edge” in surfing and other sports, or “dancing on the edge,” which accurately portrays the practice of moving forward and back along the rim of discomfort. And there is great wisdom at the edge. It teaches us not only what we’re capable of physically, but also what our patterns of reactions are, mentally and emotionally.
In the face of discomfort, what arises? Fear, anger, judgment? And what’s our natural tendency–to ignore the sensations and shove blindly forward, thus risking pain and injury? Or do we run away from the difficulty, missing an opportunity to grow and advance?
This concept of holding the edge–neither forcing nor holding back–applies to most other areas of our lives. Relationships are best served if we show up fully and completely, not holding back but not forcing what can’t be forced. Successful careers are built on the concept of giving it your all, while not shoving forward into uncontrollable circumstances. And it applies to our food lives.
If you struggle with mindless, emotional or stress-based eating, holding the edge will serve you well. Let’s imagine a scenario, one that happened to one of my clients who wrestled mightily with mindless eating. She worked as a house sitter for a battery of wealthy clients who regularly traveled to exotic locales. Her regular dietary habits were stellar, but when she was staying at a client’s house, the gloves came off.
Around sundown, she would start to get uncomfortable–bored, lonely, out of sorts; sometimes, she found herself inexplicably stricken with grief. By 9 p.m., she would find herself alone in an unfamiliar house, standing at her client’s kitchen counter, elbow-deep in a bag of chips. And she couldn’t stop, until she had devoured most of the chips, cookies, cartons of ice cream in the pantry and freezer. Afterward, she felt shame, disgust, powerlessness. It was exactly the same pattern as an addiction.
Was it because she felt lonely and vulnerable in an unfamiliar home? Was she grieving her modest life in comparison with the spectacular lives of her clients? Was it just the novelty of a pantry filled with forbidden foods? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is that somewhere along the line, she checked out. Emotional discomfort arose, and she yanked back from that edge.
What does holding the edge look like in this instance? The urge to eat arises. You stop, and just notice the sensation. Eating some chips, cookies or ice cream will create a pleasing cascade of happy brain chemicals that will relieve the sensation for a bit. But you don’t do it. Instead, you stay there at the edge of discomfort. It gets stronger, worse, even painful. Maybe you get mad. Maybe you sob. Either way, you stay with it, noticing what arises without reacting to it. Something lies just beyond the craving. Something is there at the edge, some great wisdom and the potential for mental, emotional and spiritual growth.
As it turns out, she did all of the above. One night, alone at the home of a family who was taking some fabulous, pricey vacation, and overcome by the desire to eat, she held her edge. She grieved for being alone, unmarried and childless, for living in a modest home, for being heavier than she wanted to be, for her heartbreaking childhood, for feeling helpless and vulnerable, for the sheer passage of time. She went into the expansive yard, lay facedown under the stars, and pounded on the manicured lawn with both fists. She sobbed for the better part of an hour. At the end of it, she felt renewed, and honest, with a deeper clarity toward her life.
That’s the power and wisdom any of us can find at the edge. The process may look something like this:
1. When a craving strikes, and your first impulse is to head to the kitchen, stop. Do nothing. Close your eyes and breathe, deeply in, deeply out, 50 times. Feel the cells of your body softening and relaxing. Sometimes, this is enough.
2. What’s the level of your discomfort? If 1 is barely noticeable and 10 is unbearable, is it a 2 or an 8? Having a somewhat objective measure puts your feelings into perspective. If your discomfort meter reads “3,” perhaps you can allow it to be there; it may subside after a few minutes.
3. If your discomfort is substantial, find a quiet place and space to let the feelings come up. If you’re in a work situation–a meeting, a cubicle–change your surroundings. Go for a walk, find an empty conference room, take a bathroom break and go sit in your car.
4. Sit there with your feelings. Imagine having them in for a visit and a cup of tea. Let them talk, and listen attentively, as you would to a trusted friend.
5. Allow some space for whatever arises. It’s not necessary to label or judge it. Just accept it. Envision being in a difficult yoga posture, or catching a tricky wave in surfing. See what happens when you find your edge and take it for a ride.