What is Spiritual Bypass?
Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
Photography by Laura Waldhier
“I think it’s wonderful when people find God. What I don’t think is wonderful is when people assume this excuses them from working on their shit.”
Without even knowing it, my first recovery sponsor Janet gave me a fabulously potent warning about the dangers of spiritual bypass. She was not one to use a curse word, so when she dropped that bomb, I was sure to listen! When I began my own journey along the path of recovery and wellness fourteen years ago, I had the privilege of working in a well-known pilgrimage site in the Catholic world (Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina). Seekers came from around the world to this mystical place searching for healing and for answers. During my three years of service, I had the opportunity to watch people who worked in the village for a long period become impassioned about faith…and then fall apart when the realities of their lives confronted them with full force. I saw numerous problems with addiction and mental illness amongst the seekers and even felt myself falling prey to the “If I could just be a good enough Catholic then all of my issues will clear up.” Fortunately, Janet’s wise mentorship entered my life, and she instructed me that I could still pursue a spiritual path while addressing my issues and doing the painful work that came with it.
In yoga and meditation circles, I’ve been hearing more discussion about spiritual bypass in the last few years, and I am grateful for this increased awareness. However, many people I teach have never heard of spiritual bypass and are searching for a useful working definition along with some examples, and I seek to provide both in this article. Buddhist teacher John Welwood first coined the term spiritual bypass in the 1970’s. In an interview he gave with Tina Fossella some thirty years after his original article on the subject, Wellwood explains:
Spiritual bypassing is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolvedemotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
The first book devoted entirely to the subject of spiritual bypass specifically as a recovery issue, came from psychologist Ingrid Mathieu (now Clayton) in 2011. She concisely defines spiritual bypass as “the use of spirituality to avoid dealing with ourselves, our emotions, and our unfinished business.”
It is important to note that discussing spiritual bypass does not seek to demonize spiritual, or even religious practice in modern times. For many of us, finding a spiritual path becomes a critical part of our journey towards recovery, wellness, and transformation. But at what point does the pursuit of spiritual practice, whether it be meditating, going to church, practicing yoga, or even going to recovery meetings and saying the requisite prayers and slogans become avoidant? As a clinical counselor with a dual specialty in addiction and trauma, I’ve come to believe that anything, even activities that are fundamentally healthy, can become maladaptive when they assist us in numbing out to the realities of life. I’ve seen it happen with exercise, and I’ve seen it happen with spiritual practice.
You may be shaking your head at me already and protesting, “Aren’t these things supposed to help us cope with intensity?” I would agree that in teaching people skills for stabilization (i.e., coping) and containment over the years, spiritual activities rank high on my list of what I attempt to foster in others. Yet I also assert that people will do just about anything to keep from feeling difficult emotions, whether they come in the form of anger, guilt, sadness, frustration, or any number of manifestations. People may attempt repress these feeling with going to an overabundance of yoga classes and/or church services, or meditating in just the right way with just the right teacher for hours on end, just as easily as other people may stuff these feelings down with drugs or alcohol. The forms of how emotional avoidance may manifest differ, yet the core issue is the same. I also contend, after helping many individuals on their own trauma recovery paths, that peace can come when the difficult emotions are finally felt all the way through—fully, and without apology, in a safe container (e.g., like working with a therapist, a support group, or an open-minded spiritual teacher who has done their own work). More distress generally happens when we hold down what we need to express than in the expressing itself.
About four years ago, I grieved the loss of a relationship. To give it a little context, I was grieving the loss that an old love from high school—a lovely man who re-entered my life at several points in my adult life. Seriously, it was like something out of The Thornbirds. Back in 2011, it became clear that although we loved each other very much, we were on two totally different life paths and a serious relationship was not meant to be—even after all of the near misses. I wasn’t just angry with the God of my understanding…I was fucking pissed. And I had enough insight to identify that being so livid with God was keeping me stuck. I couldn’t understand why the God I trusted so much and attempted to seek through my various practices would keep teasing me with the promise that the love this man and I shared could blossom into something I really wanted. In the aftermath of our last parting of ways, I shared with a trusted friend of mine, “I am so angry at God and I know I need to get it out… but it would feel like sacrilege to really let it all rip.”
Both the good little Catholic girl and good little yogi ego states gnawed at my conscience—it felt like dangerous ground to go there. Wasn’t I supposed to be seeking detachment? Wasn’t I supposed to be grateful for all that God blessed me with on my path? Wasn’t I just being selfish and self-centered, needing to spend more time in church, in prayer, in meditation, on the mat?
And then it hit me—if I truly believe that the God of my understanding knows all and sees all, wouldn’t he already know how pissed at him I really was? At that point I decided to ditch both the shoulds and the s’postas and deal with my deepest darkest feeling—which happened to be bitter anger towards a God who I still loved and was grateful for. Through journaling honestly, dancing, and sharing with a trusted member of my support system, I felt the anger—brutally, painfully, and all the way through. On the other side of that work God and I were in a better place than ever. I was able to let go of my attachment to that great love of my life while continuing to be gentle with myself if emotions around him continued to surface (and they can still surface from time to time). This work opened the way for a new relationship (my current husband) to enter in, and more importantly, new growth in my spiritual practice and relationship with the God of my understanding.
As my sharing hopefully demonstrates, spiritual bypass is not just a religious thing. Anyone who is on a spiritual and/or religious path may become susceptible. I see people bypassing in yoga and meditation circles just as readily as I saw it while working for a major organized religion. As I shared, sometimes my own struggles with spiritual bypass are informed by old religious messages from my past, made fresh again by messages I can also receive from teachers along the paths of yoga and meditation or those in recovery programs. The themes are really very similar.
Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
Photography by Natalie Mancino
When the first aerial yoga studio opened up in my city in 2013, I wrote it off as just another fitness yoga fad. People seemed to be swarming to it because of the novelty, yet because I am large of stature, I knew it would never be for me. Two judgments right there—of others, and myself! A stroke of good timing, the universe conspiring to nudge me in the right direction, and the fruits of my existent yoga and mindfulness practices manifesting converged a few weeks before Christmas of 2014. I decided to give aerial yoga a try. A few months prior, the Facebooksphere connected me with Jennifer Neal, the visionary yogini and dancer who pioneered aerial yoga in our rust belt city of Youngstown, OH. There was something about her energy that resonated. When I finally made my way over to her beautiful studio, a true oasis in our often-bleak city, I told her that I was afraid. Jennifer, in her beautiful way, validated and normalized my fear as a newcomer. She also assured me that the fabric could likely hold a horse or a small car. While some might see that as condescending, I appreciated the humor of it. In realizing that truth, the life and recovery lessons began to flow…
1. The fabric, like the universe and my understanding of God/spirit, holds much more weight than I realize.
During my first few classes I was terrified to jump in the aerial fabric designed to support me. This fear was mostly due to the weight issue. However, even in poses that required me to spread the fabric out with some force, my trepidation still showed. When Jennifer noticed this she assured me, “The fabric can take a lot, it’s there to support you.” As soon as she said that I realized that, like the universe and the God of my understanding, I don’t give these vessels that exist to support me their proper credit. When I can practice the faith that they will hold me, I am not afraid to try new things.
2. I am stronger than I give myself credit for.
I remember the pose exactly: side plank. During a private aerial session with Jennifer, she instructed me, from a seated position in the swing, to grip the sides of the fabric and simultaneously pull-and-roll myself onto my right side. Even as I protested, “No way am I strong enough to do that,” I was doing it. We both laughed at the silliness. So as I flew above the studio floor in a side plank position, it clicked: Clearly I am way stronger than I think I am. My aerial journey continues to prove this to me with ever new pose and subtle variation that I learn. It’s made me notice just now natural it’s been for me to doubt my strength, even during those times when my strength is clearly working in my favor. No doubt I’ve done this on the mental/emotional plane as well, and aerial is helping me make a change towards claiming instead of doubting my own strength.
3. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
Although I liked this well-known quote of inspirational living attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, practicing aerial yoga made forced me to truly work on it or practice it. Jennifer and other yoga teachers with whom I studied beautifully remind us that yoga is “not a competition.” Yet for me, a type-A overachiever in other areas of my life, it’s been difficult for me to put into practice. I’ve never been especially athletic. After a few classes of practicing aerial and seeing how much more naturally others were taking to the practice during their first class, the temptation to quit was strong. Old memories about being the last kid picked in gym class surfaced. Yet when I focused on the small steps of progress that I was taking in each class—holding poses a little longer, getting into poses that I couldn’t the class before, I truly felt happy. When I made a commitment to drown everyone else out and focus on my own practice, aerial yoga began to fill me with fierce joy.
4. Don’t leave before the miracle happens.
At least 10 times during my first 10 classes and lessons, I found myself saying, “I don’t need this!” I almost walked out of the first class, and at the end of it I even said to myself, “The injury risk is just too high and you need to be mobile to work, especially with all of the travel that you do!” I decided to give a private lesson a try before making a definitive conclusion. When I started the comparison games I almost quit again, and then when I hit another barrier when an old knee injury got agitated (more on why that happened in #9). Looking back at it now, had I left at any of those junctures—which could have happened considering my history with some physical activities—I would have missed out on all of the strength, joy, and benefits to myself that I’ve accessed.
5. When I Can’t Actually Ground, I Can Find Stability in My Breath
Many of my trauma therapist colleagues are mystified by my love for aerial yoga considering that in my teaching life, I promote the benefits of yoga and meditation for grounding. Very early in my practice it struck me that keeping my breath even and deep was the key to working through the fear and instability that I experienced on the fabric. Not having literal grounding prompts me to rely more on my breath. In doing so I’ve been able to recognize, in all areas of my life, just how much connection exists between my breath and the earth.
6. Anticipation causes me to lose my breath.
Staying in the moment and keeping by breath full and steady is paramount in aerial yoga. I usually end up falling out of a pose, or talk myself out of getting into a new and more challenging pose when I start anticipating the outcome—how it should look when I get into the full expression of the pose. Even though I’ve heard and fundamentally believed the logic of “it’s about the journey and not the destination” throughout my adult life, I never fully embraced its relevance until I began my aerial practice. When I catch myself not breathing fully in any area of life, it’s usually because I am anticipating. Thus, I can accept the challenge of returning to the present moment.
7. The body can learn new lessons.
My body is capable of so much more than I give it credit for, especially when I can celebrate the small victories. I can honestly say that my body, which I’d once written off as past her prime, feels stronger now after several months of aerial practice than it did when I figure skated in my early teens. Sure, things in aerial yoga freak me out, like have my feet—my vehicles for fleeing dangerous situations—bound in poses like inverted bound angle. Yet noticing this freak out, breathing through it, and realizing the danger it posed in my body challenged me to look at old fears and memories about not being able to escape. I’ve received so many different types of trauma therapy during my life yet nothing has quite yet helped with some of my old body stuff like working through my fears around the poses.
8. Most discomfort experience can be adapted to and accommodated.
In aerial yoga, it can take your body a few sessions to adapt to the pressure of the fabric digging into your body, especially in sensitive areas like the hip creases and below the arm pits. As someone who long accepted that I don’t have to do what doesn’t feel good to my body, I almost used the pressure as an excuse to bail out during the first ten sessions. Aerial challenges me, in a new way, to constantly listen to my body about the differences between pain and challenges that I can learn to navigate. During one of my first times attempting swing balance, I sat there with the fabric digging into my glutes, and I said to myself, “This is bullshit.” Yet I made a choice to keep breathing and after about thirty seconds or so, the annoying pressure passed. Truly, a lesson for me in distress tolerance…
9. Making an adjustment in one area of the body can transform pain and make all of the difference in another area of the body.
My friend Jessica also found herself inspired by Youngstown’s aerial yoga revolution and completed a teacher training herself. In working with her privately during her first few weeks as a teacher, she immediately diagnosed why I experienced so much knee pain during aerial bound angle. She noted, “You are dumping your core instead of engaging it. Try it again and be mindful to not let the core collapse.” Since that adjustment, I’ve been able to do the pose (and the inversion) without any knee pain. Like in life, sometimes when we beat ourselves up about one thing, the answer is to make an adjustment in another area, even if the connection isn’t immediately apparent.
10. Freedom is on the other side of fear.
When Jennifer first whipped this mantra out at me, I must admit, I did the internal eye roll. I’d always fancied myself as a person whose life in recovery set her free, yet those first few sessions of aerial practice revealed to me just how much I’d been holding back from living my life to the fullest. That restraint is all fear-related. In learning the aerial version of locust pose, there was a moment when I first took my hands off of the fabric to fully balance on my hips and I went “Weeee!” As Jennifer observed, as soon as I felt the freedom, I cowered back and freaked out. I will be honest: I am still working on fully living out this truth of freedom existing on the other side of fear. Yet I have strong faith that one day I will experience freedom in my life to an even greater degree, and that is why I keep coming back to the fabric.
Originally published on Yoganonymous (2015) by Dr. Jamie Marich
When I came of age in the early nineties, making mix tapes was a huge thing for me. Like many peers of my era, recording songs off of the radio was a way to procure music, especially when my mother wouldn’t permit me to buy the whole CD if I was just going to listen to one song! Additionally, hitting “Play + Rec” while some of the CDs I owned played a favorite tune helped me to craft a collection that was uniquely mine! Without even realizing it, I began to engage in a practice I now call playlist therapy. The modern technologies of outlets like iTunes, Spotify, and countless other platforms make it even easier for me to craft a playlist that is personal. Not only that, these platforms allow me to capture moments and celebrate experiences. Playlists can also create a musical life raft for riding out difficult emotional seasons of my life. It is my pleasure to share with you in this article some of the ways I’ve put playlist therapy to work for me, and in the comments section I’d like to hear some of your experiences with using playlists as well!
I got my first iPod back in 2005. Like many newbies to digital music, I was instantly amazed and pleasantly surprised by how easy it could be to make playlists. It was at that time that the notion of playlist themes became real for me. In my mix tape era, the intention of making the mix was to capture pieces of music that I liked. Anyone who might find those tapes hanging around today would like have a time capsule-style glimpse into where I was at in my life circa 1991 (i.e., a young adolescent struggling for a sense of identify and acceptance). When I met the digital technology, I began making lists along all types of themes such as, “My best spiritual tunes,” “Instant calm,” and “My cheap happy high.” Yes, I still have several playlists on my device that collect 10-12 songs that are sure to lift my mood, at least somewhat, whenever I hear them. And I’m not ashamed to admit that Hanson’s MMMBop is one of them (please don’t judge me). The happy lists are also populated with a healthy dose of bands like Vengaboys and ABBA. Going to this happy list is still one of my best go-to coping strategies when I feel the weight of stress or some heavy emotional work in which I may be engaging on aspects of my life. There have been times when, on a difficult drive to or from work, cuing up this playlist offered me a chance for healthy containment.
As I’ve learned in my own work and professionally assisting others, sometimes we need a container for keeping our challenging emotions managed, and other times it’s the best course of action to really be with a challenging emotional experience. To feel the feelings fully, to ride out the wave without shame. During these times when that healing work calls me, playlist therapy is also there to assist. I’ve also made playlists along themes like “dancing out my anger,” “crying through my grief,” and yes, even “my awesome breakup mix.” I’ve made several breakup playlists after getting out of difficult relationships and I inevitably find that in letting the list evolve, the list typically starts as anger and angst, and then transitions me to a place of empowerment and claiming my life back. In making such playlists, you can choose to simply listen to them as vehicles for helping you feel the feelings. Alternately, you can dance, practice asanas, or otherwise move to them in a way that’s organic to you. Remember that if this process gets too challenging or overwhelming at any time, go back to one of your container playlists like “happy” or “calming,” Maybe even consider seeking support and sharing your playlists with others in your circle who can support you in this process of mindful listening.
As a facilitator of conscious dance who trains others to facilitate, I work a great deal with making playlists and teaching others to do the same. When we craft dance experiences for the community, it’s generally vital to work with an intentional theme. That theme can be something as simple as “introducing the concept of mindfulness in movement,” to something multi-faceted like “the interplay between darkness and light.” Often, it makes the most sense to craft a class using a season, like “Spring,” one of the chakras, or even a decade of music to facilitate an experience for those attending your class. What I am getting at here is that your options for making playlists along themes and integrating them into your personal wellness practices are limitless. Maybe you are already accessing the power of the playlist in your life—can you think of some other ways that you can take your use of the playlist a step further?
Here are some themes along which I’ve made playlists. I’ve used many of these for my own personal dance meditation practice, yet I’ve also found value in sitting in mindful reflection as I listened, often journaling after the experience:
Where would you like your next playlist to take you? Set an intention, let that intention guide your selections, and just notice what happens!
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity