Gestalt theory explains most human behaviour in terms of the Cycle of Experience. When we are at peace with ourselves, with no desires, we are said to be in the fertile void. After some time a sensation may emerge, such as hunger; this sensation comes into our awareness, maybe we notice our stomach rumbling. We then mobilise ourselves to take action – realising we fancy that last piece of cake and deciding to go and get it. We then take action – going to the kitchen, getting the cake and eating it. Whilst we are eating and enjoying the cake we are said to be in contact. We then move on to a period of satisfaction where we enjoy the feeling of having eaten and begin to digest our food. Finally we go through a period of withdrawal, as we lose interest in the food and return to the resting position of the fertile void. This cycle can be applied to almost anything in our lives – wanting to go out, feeling bored, falling in love, reading a book, practising yoga, and so on. A healthy individual will have many cycles operating at the same time which they will move through at different speeds, each time reaching contact and then moving on to withdrawal. However, often the cycle will be interrupted and we will not be able to complete a healthy cycle. Many of us have learnt behaviours as children which were crucial to our survival at the time, but which are unhelpful as adults. These behaviours will usually interfere with the cycle of experience and stop us from getting our needs met.
The cycle may be interrupted at any of the stages. When someone is desensitised they may fail to experience a sensation. They may become so alienated from their body, or from their emotions, that they cannot get in touch with a sensation on any level. For instance, someone with an eating disorder may be completely out of touch with their natural appetite, starving themselves or eating uncontrollably. Others may have learnt strategies to deflect, to stop sensations coming into conscious awareness. Common examples are changing the subject, laughing, or avoiding eye contact. When we apply this to the practice of yoga, some people are so focused on getting to the end of their practice or on getting the pose ‘right’ that they are unaware of sensations arising in the body, painful or pleasurable. Awareness of what a person is doing in their practice may be solely thought-based, or cognitive, instead of beyond words and into sensation. More often than not, those that experience this process in their yoga practice will also be experiencing the same process occurring in their lives. Yoga can be used to help an individual get back in touch with their bodies, with sensation, and at a deeper level, to help people become aware of the strategies they use to avoid dealing with their feelings.
Others may be in touch with their feelings, but are unable to mobilise themselves to take action. This may be as a result of core beliefs – that is, ideas and values that a person has taken on board, often from parents, without challenge. This can often happen in early childhood, when we tend to believe that everything our parents and the wider society around us, tells us is true. So we come to believe on a deep level that we are lazy or no good, that we are not good enough, that we’ll never do anything right. These deep rooted beliefs can lead to us failing to act on our sensations – never risking going for a job, never speaking out when we feel angry, never signing up for that college course, never coming to self-practice! Gaining an awareness of our core beliefs can help us to understand how we stop ourselves from making contact and satisfying our needs. The practice of yoga, and Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga particularly since it is a set system, can be used as an invaluable mirror to reflect our core beliefs back to us. It is a safe way to allow these beliefs to come to the surface and work with them, doing something different, the process of which can then be transferred into your daily life. What comes up for you during your practice? What are the thoughts, the frustrations, the blocks? How easily do you buy into them and how readily are you able to let them go? In this way, yoga helps us to develop a deeper understanding of our inner selves and our conditioning, and provides a way in which, through awareness, we can begin to de-condition ourselves and return to our original, pure nature. This is one of the five niyamas, observations of self, known as Svadhyaya.
When someone holds back from taking action they are said to be ‘retroflecting’. This holding back of our energy can lead to the energy being turned in on ourselves, which can in turn lead to illness, depression or even self harm. Of course sometimes it is appropriate to hold back from acting, if our impulse is to hit someone or do something dangerous. However, we still need to release the energy in some way, perhaps through talking about it, or expressing it in art. If we fail to do so we may end up hitting ourselves, or punishing ourselves in some other way. Again, this is often seen when individuals push themselves through their practice, often to the brink of injury. In yoga, the action that is most helpful is that of surrender which allows the body to open and be more receptive to the benefits of each asana.
In our fast paced society many of us rush through the second half of the cycle of experience. We move straight from contact to the next contact without taking time to enjoy and fully digest the experience. We can become addicted to the thrill of contact, unable to sit quietly and take time to really check out our sensations and needs. The result is a life full of meaningless experiences, none of which really give us what we need. Applying the entire cycle to one whole yoga practice, how much do we really make full contact with what we are doing? If we look at Savasana as being the last part of the cycle, satisfaction and withdrawal, how much do we really allow ourselves to experience and feel these last two stages? How many of us are thinking about what’s next in our day, be it breakfast, work, or anything else? Thoughts get in the way of sensation so again, really try to be present, really allow yourself to feel your increased life-force running through your body, really allow yourself to get to the end of the cycle and ready for the next, whatever it may be.
It’s important to note here that the various personal interruptions we may have to our cycles are usually developed for very good reasons – namely as defence mechanisms at some point in our lives. Someone who was abused as a child may well have developed various interruptions to contact as a way of surviving. Desensitisation may be the most appropriate way to deal with abuse in the moment. Retroflection may be the only way to cope with the anger felt towards an adult abuser. It is important to see these tactics as valuable defences that an individual developed in order to survive. Now in adulthood they may no longer be helpful, the abuser is no longer present and it may be safe to learn to connect with our feelings again and to let go of some of our anger.
A healthy cycle of awareness allows us to have the necessary closure in order to be able to move on with our lives.