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How to stay steady when life gets stormy

Being human is messy and complicated. There’s no avoiding it.

Just recently, I was on my way out the door to teach yoga at Kripalu. I was so happy that Kai had sweetly fallen asleep for his afternoon nap, and excited for my Friday evening out of the house.

Between being at home a lot, caring for my son, and working from home, even a trip to the grocery store feels like a mini vacation.

As I stepped into my rain boots, my phone chimed with a new text message.

My heart sank as I read it.

“Say a prayer for Aura. Robbie’s rushing her to the ER.” My mom went on to say that my eight-month-old niece was experiencing severe stomach issues, and her doctor had advised that she be seen immediately.

In a split second, I went from feeling excited and joyful to feeling terrified and helpless.

I took a few deep breaths, and watched what was arising within me.

I observed the fear, dread, tightness in my stomach and shoulders, helplessness, vulnerability, and concern for my niece, brother, and sister-in-law. I watched my need to show up strongly for the students I was about to lead in yoga practice, the doubts that I’d be able to do so, the urge to get on the highway and drive straight to Pennsylvania to support my family, my angst around the total uncertainty and the chaos and conflict that swirled within me.

I stayed present with the conflicting thoughts and feelings, without trying to stop or change them.

I simply made space for them, while part of me remained separate from them. These were the facts: Aura was sick and going to the hospital, and I needed to get to Kripalu to teach yoga. I would know more after my class and, until then, I would have to live the uncertainty.

I arrived at Kripalu, and focused on teaching my class. When worries surfaced, I acknowledged them and allowed them to stay with me for as long as they needed. I sent some healing thoughts to my family, breathed deeply, and directed my awareness back to the moment: the students before me, the sensations of my own body and breath, and my connection with the ground beneath me.  

As soon as class was over, I checked my phone for updates.

Aura was okay. The doctors had ruled out any serious concerns. I both experienced and watched a huge wave of relief wash over me.

Like the weather, life can go from blue skies to torrential downpour in a second, and you can’t control it.

We’ve all had those moments, when life is flowing along smoothly and we’re suddenly blindsided by trauma or tragedy. Thankfully, the situation with Aura turned out to be a blip on the radar, but it still stirred up tremendous turmoil and uncertainty for me.

Yoga teaches that, although you can’t control your inner weather, you can choose how to be with it.

I knew, when I got that text message from my mom, that I had to use the tool that has become my savior in times like this, one that’s central to the teachings of both Kripalu Yoga and Pranakriya Yoga. We call it “the Witness.”

The Witness is the part of yourself that simply observes your inner experience as it unfoldswithout judging it, reacting to it, or needing to change it.

It’s a part of you that’s fully present, yet removed just enough to watch calmly. The witness observes thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, inner dialogue—everything and anything that arises within you.

My Witness allowed me to contain the enormity of my thoughts and feelings, without being consumed by them.

It allowed me to stay grounded and connected to the facts of the moment. Without the Witness, my mind would have gotten attached to stories of what might happen, or the strong emotions might have taken over and compromised my ability to function as I needed to right then.

Shutting down or going numb might protect us from the pain of the moment, but it cuts us off from parts of ourselves that are real and true and need to be integrated in order for us to be whole.

The more you witness, the better you become at witnessing.

The Witness is a muscle that strengthens as you use it. Every time you watch without judging, you strengthen your ability to be present with strong emotions and intense experiences.

This leads to more calmness, freedom, and peace.

When you’re witnessing, you no longer become your feelings, so your feelings no longer own you. You’re free from their grasp. Even in the midst of feeling an emotion, you’re able to see that this emotion will pass. Sadness, anger, joy, and fear move through you, but they are not the essence of you.

As my teacher, Yoganand, puts it, your witness, or your true self, is like the sky. The weather changes from moment to moment, but the sky never changes.

The more you practice the Witness, the more you can identify with the sky rather than the weather, and the more calmness and clarity you feel.

I can’t say enough about how powerful this tool is, and how profoundly it has helped me to heal, grow, forgive, enliven, and live a more full and peaceful life. And it is accessible to all of us.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

I believe we grow best with the support of community, so please take a moment to share a comment below.

Is the Witness new to you or something you already work with in your life? 

Thank you so much for reading. I’m honored to explore with you!

With love and gratitude,

Allison Signature 2

47 Responses to How to stay steady when life gets stormy

  1. Ginny May 12, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

    What beautiful insight and powerful tool to have in the midst of a storm of life . I’ve never used “the Witness” concept but will give it a try next time some tidal wave of life comes along . Thanks for your piece .

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 13, 2014 at 2:19 am #

      Hi Ginny, Thanks for writing! You can begin trying the witness anytime. You don’t have to wait for a tidal wave, and in fact it’s better to practice it when life is less intense. One way to do this is to close your eyes for just one minute and notice thoughts that float through, feelings that are present, and/or physical sensations in your body. Spend some time just watching. The key is not judging anything, not reacting or needing to figure anything out, no matter how tempting it may be.

    • Robyn Tashjian May 13, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

      I have used this concept of the witness in my personal practice and as a teacher of yoga for almost a decade. I feel it is somewhat easy to discuss with newer yoga practicitioners and help them incorporate. It has great utility for stilling the mind and accessing the energy for growing and learning. thank you for highlighting this in your article.
      namaste.

      • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 14, 2014 at 1:34 am #

        This is great, Robyn! It’s so wonderful that you have a gift for sharing this concept with new yogis. You’re so right that it helps to still the mind and open to life force energy that is otherwise thwarted. Many blessings on your journey sharing your teachings!

    • Monique January 30, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Witness is a practice in my life but it’s a work of each instant, someone to be aware, to look for.
      Thank you Allison, for sharing this moment.
      Love, Monique from Québec.

  2. Kristin Papanek May 12, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your personal story and concept of the witness. I have never heard of this idea of dealing with difficult emotions in this way. I do not look forward to the next trauma in life but know one will come. However, I will use the witness to help myself through.

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 13, 2014 at 2:44 am #

      Thanks, Kristin! As I responded to Ginny above, you don’t have to wait for a trauma to give the Witness a try. It’s much easier to try it when you’re just frustrated in a grocery line or even doing something fun and enjoyable. No matter when you do it or what is going on, your Witness will grow stronger the more you use it.

  3. Deborah May 13, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    I have danced with the idea of attending a yoga class. I have gone as far as exploring options that would work within my busy life schedule. Reading your personal traumatic experience and learning about how yoga’s teachings have helped you through one of life’s many personal crises might be what was needed to cause me to make the leap.
    We all experience trauma and hope each one is the last, though intellectually we know better.
    We want to be made aware of these situations when we have a personal connection to them, yet are often not able to be immediately available. The angst experienced is indescribable. They are beyond the “fight or flight” adrenaline rush. Western teachings are not based on patience so I find the concept of “witness” to be both foreign yet intriguing. Thank you for sharing and causing me to explore.

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 13, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

      Thanks for writing, Deborah. I’m glad this post has fed your interest in giving yoga a try. It’s truly these types of life tools that make yoga so invaluable to me. Let me know how your exploration unfolds!

  4. Ralphie May 13, 2014 at 2:28 am #

    I sincerely loved reading this blog. I find it interesting to think about these concepts in coping even with daily, more mundane “traumas”. I will personally look forward to observing, without judging, and hope that as I continue to practice and grow, that these concept will become second nature.

    It’ll be a fun ride- I’ll keep you posted how it all turns out.

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 13, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

      Ralphie, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading. You’re absolutely right – using the Witness to help you ride your daily ups and downs can change everything. As you do so, you grow less and less reactive and better at seeing things for what they are (rather than seeing the stories we weave around our experience). Please do stay in touch and let me know how it goes!

  5. Pete May 13, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    Thankfully, the situation with Aura turned out to be a blip on the radar, but it still stirred up tremendous turmoil and uncertainty for me.

    First of all may I say that I am very glad the situation with your niece was not more grave and that it has passed.
    Secondly I am glad you were able to tap into your spiritual training to weather this storm.

    I, too, have received this teaching on the Witness and use it quite often. It is a bedrock in the stormy seas of Mind and Emotion.
    My take on it is that the Witness sees all of Life as a blip on the radar – every joy, concern, pain, trauma, victory, bliss. Every state of being is there but only imbued with the story line we attach to it, thereby giving it power.
    Just my thoughts.

    And thank you for taking the time to post this occurrence in your personal life as a help and resource for us!

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 14, 2014 at 1:22 am #

      Thanks so much for this valuable contribution, Pete. I’m so glad you have this tool as an anchor. I completely agree with you. I think the ultimate goal of practicing the Witness is to get to a point where we can see every single human experience with total objectivity, equanimity and clarity. The ancient yogis worked to strengthen their Witness so much that they saw all human experience as a flow of neutral energy. I know I personally have a long way to go to get to that level of non-reactive objectivity, and at the same time, I’ve come along way over the years of working with Witness consciousness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – so great to discuss and share!

  6. Avery May 13, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Beautifully said. The winds always blow… and sometimes they threaten to blow us over… finding ways to twist instead of fall is key. Thank you. <3

  7. Elizabeth May 13, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    I can’t think of anything more powerful or useful for my life!

    Thank you! You are off to a kick booty start to this blog! My heart is open!

  8. Laura May 13, 2014 at 8:57 pm #

    Thank you again, Allison, for such a thoughtful and wonderful read. I always look forward to your writings because they always speak with the clarity and essence of what is most meaningful in life. They are true gems.

    That concept of being a non-biased observer to oneself is one I’ve tried to incorporate more and more as a way to explore my fundamental self and achieve more clarity and peace. I find it much easier to practice the Witness in some aspects over others, and I’ve also noticed that oftentimes non-judgment and acceptance towards others and outside circumstances comes more easily than it does towards oneself. But I suppose some of the most rewarding things in life are only achieved through great courage and perseverance. Thanks again for this inspiring piece!

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 14, 2014 at 1:57 am #

      Laura – I am so grateful for your feedback and kind words.

      It’s so true that some experiences are much easier to objectively observe than others. It’s the topics that hold the greatest charge for us that are most challenging to observe without judging or reacting. But when we do, the charge eventually dissipates and we find greater freedom. It can be so valuable to look more closely and ask what is the charge about? Then practice witnessing the answer to that too. There are reactions and emotions that I literally observed for YEARS before they finally lost their charge. I’m talking life long patterns that finally let go, and when they did, it was first shocking and secondly exhilarating. This is a life long practice for sure. Wishing you all the best!

  9. Michelle Heron May 13, 2014 at 11:42 pm #

    Beautiful website and blog. It’s about time you connected all your talents. Have a great Rhythm & Spirit weekend, Mark and I will make it there again soon with both our boys!

  10. Elaina Mortali May 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    this is so beautifully written! I defiantly need to make friends with my witness. Thankyou for continually inspiring me! xoxo

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 15, 2014 at 1:52 am #

      Right back at you, mama! Your creativity feeds me regularly. And thank you, by the way, for the headshot used here. xoxo

  11. Mary B May 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm #

    This was fascinating to read, Allison! Your description of this process of being “Witness” is so clear that it makes me feel I can definitely try it! I think it will take lots of practice for me, as I tend to let my emotions take me over at times that are really overwhelming. Thank you so much for sharing such a healing strategy!!

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 15, 2014 at 1:57 am #

      Hi Mary, I’m so glad this seems like something you feel you could try. A great way to start is in a calm moment, just close your eyes and practice watching whatever’s inside – thought, feelings, sensations. Just check in with yourself, honestly, and watch. Don’t judge or try to do anything about it. If you start to do this regularly, your Witness will grow. And you are not alone – it takes EVERYONE lots of practice. It truly is a life long exploration, but one that is incredibly helpful as a life raft. Let me know how it goes!

  12. Jessica Sommar May 14, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    Allison, thank you for describing the actual process of equanimity. My mother was ill this year and then had a heart attack March 30. The drama was constant and the pull toward despair, fear, anger and helplessness was too. Her condition continued for 30 days — procedures, medicines assigned to help her but could also possibly kill her were daily recommended and we, her family, had to decide what was best for her. From the ambulance ride on that Sunday morning to the MICU for 8 days, another hospital room for two weeks and finally back to Westerly and into Hospice I used the teachings I learned at Kripalu — to Breath, Relax, Feel, Watch and Allow. Encouraging myself to live in the witness, watch and be awake, but allow and let things be. I had my feelings, all of them, but in them and not repressing them, I was able to experience all of what happened, the love, the hope the pain and the suffering and I know I learned and I hope I helped. Mother died on May 2 and now my witness and I walk the walk of grief. This week I was able to come to my mat, following Jurian’s gentle class on DVD. The movement is so healing and is so comforting. I remember you Allison and your Friday night class that I loved. Blessings on you and your family, and to the Kripalu lineage. Jess

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 15, 2014 at 2:06 am #

      Jessica, wow. Thank you for sharing your story so intimately. I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. I’ve heard it said that when you lose someone so close, you go on, but you go on differently. I send you so much love as you navigate that transition. I can’t imagine a greater test for your ability to watch, stay present, and find your ground. So very glad that you could draw on your yoga practices to help you. Hope to see you at Kripalu again when you can get there… many blessings to you!

  13. Carol Shwidock May 15, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    Allison I loved reading your blog and seeing your sweet face! As you know my husband passed 18 months ago and my yoga practice is what holds me in the present moment, witnessing the gifts everyday and even the sadness…It’s all about ENERGY, i think, our thoughts, our worries, our feelings of joy and excitement…and i find when i ACKNOWLEDGE what I am witnessing, feeling, observing within my self, the fears seems to disslove…at least for the moment! I try to teach what I need to learn and spread the love…see you in August at Kripalu I hope, gonna take a workshop. Namaste and love to you and your sweet family, Carol

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 15, 2014 at 2:11 am #

      Hi Carol! So so happy to see you here. I think of you and your girls regularly. You’re so right that all of those experiences are just different expressions of energy. And the magic of witnessing is that they start to lose their charge – it may come back, as you suggest, but over time the charge loses its hold on us more and more…. You are so brave and graceful! I am blessed to know you. Looking forward to giving you a hug at when you come to Kripalu this summer. xoxoxo

  14. Jim Greene May 15, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    Hi Allison! Very nice post. I’ve witnessed first hand how you handle things when life gets stormy. On your wedding day! Wow, what an incredible turn of events, from sunny and warm to blustery and wet. And the remarkable thing is that you, Shaun, and your families and friends not only took it in stride but embraced it with music! It was just incredible, and I was so happy to have been there to document that wonderful moment and day in your life.

    So in your post you state “Like the weather, life can go from blue skies to torrential downpour in a second, and you can’t control it.” It’s moments like your wedding that define who you are and how you deal with unexpected life changes, and it was amazing to witness. So it is no wonder you were able to weather the storm of hearing about your niece in the way that you did (and so happy all is OK). Cheers!

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 16, 2014 at 2:21 am #

      Ha! This is great Jim! Thank you so much for making that connection – yes, that really was opening to and rolling with the change of weather in the most literal sense. We were (are!) so thankful that you captured it all! So glad to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to write!

  15. Vickie Bandoski May 16, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    Hi Allison – every morning when I do my yoga practice, I say, “Now begins the practice of Yoga. Still the mind. Witness.” It really helps me to be non-judgemental of myself. To be more of an observer. I won’t be so critical of my postures, and am able to laugh at myself if I lose my balance, for example. After reading your story, I realize that I can use this in everyday situations. Or at least try. Especially when circumstances are actually beyond your control. It’s like having a back and forth conversation with a person that is causing some pain in your life while you’re trying to fall asleep! And expecting the problem to be solved! When what the moment calls for is… sleep. I can see that “witness” is something to PRACTICE..

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 20, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      Yes, Vickie! That’s exactly it. And since you’ve been practicing this on your yoga mat, you already have developed your Witness quite a bit, so when you start drawing on it for everyday situations, it will happen much more quickly. You’ve already cultivated that equanimity and you’ve already explored that space inside of you that actually can remain objective, even when another part of you wants to be pulled by emotion or thought.

      Practicing it on your yoga mat automatically translates to the rest of life, and since you have a beautiful mantra, I would carry some part of that with you as you explore your Witness off the mat. For example, when you feel any anxiety or turmoil, or uncertainty arising, say to yourself “Witness.” This will help you drop into observing mode as you navigate the situation or sit with strong emotion.

      Thanks so much for this wonderful sharing!

  16. Terri DeBarros Garrity May 16, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    These words of wisdom came perfectly timed. Thank you.

  17. Carmel May 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    Hi Allison
    Thank you for the yoga off the mat lesson. I have neglected my yoga practice for the past 6 months and I needed this reminder as a wake up call.
    I find myself carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders,-93 year old mother, son in university and getting married, etc, and yesterday a vehicle ran a red light and hit my new 6 month old car (no one was injured- that’s a good thing) Wish I had read your email before today…
    So , I am going to haul out my sticky mat and invite my witness out of the shadows. I have been asking for help and this much needed calming practice is already allowing me to step back out of the chaos. Thank you
    Carmel

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise May 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm #

      Hi Carmel, So glad to hear from you. The reality is that we ALL fall off the mat at times – even yoga teachers. I know my tendency is to judge myself when I fall out of my regular practice, but that only creates more inner division. So, practice not judging yourself for the falling off and find the small ways to guide yourself back.

      When I’m out of my regular practice, I find it helps so much to make really small commitments to ease back in – like I commit to doing some yoga warm ups and stretches for 5 minutes before bed, or I commit to 2 sun salutations each morning.

      Often I’ll end up doing more. Sometimes I just do the 5 minutes I promised myself, and I practice allowing that to be ok. It gives me a completely manageable goal, which helps with feeling overwhelmed and like I don’t have time for it (which is usually my thought process when life is too demanding)…. You have a lot on your plate for sure. I’m so glad this post has reminding you to draw on your Witness to help you hold it all.

      Sending you love and blessings.

  18. Jamie June 19, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    Interesting. How do you suggest this approach to people with depression/anxiety/PTSD who get overwhelmed by the experience of their emotions and have a hard time creating the distance of observation?

  19. Allison Gemmel Laframboise June 19, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

    Jamie , this is a really great question. I am not a psychotherapist, but I have worked with people with the conditions you’ve mentioned.

    I think there are other yoga tools to support people with depression/anxiety/PTSD – depending on how acute their condition is, they may or may not be ready to integrate the tool of the witness.

    Practicing the physical aspect of yoga (asana) is extremely helpful for these folks to learn to reconnect with their bodies, as so many are completely cut off (especially PTSD) from their bodies.

    Practicing yogic breath work also helps calm the nervous system (especially the 3 part yogic breath, called Dirgha) and is tremendously helpful with breaking cycles of anxiety. There is other breath work that helps a lot with depression.

    Getting well established in these practices first can really help people prepare to work with The Witness. For example, someone who suffers from anxiety can learn to create more of that distance through the breath work. Once they have more of the distance, they can begin to observe.

    It also helps tremendously to practice observing in non-threatening ways first. For example, when a person is not in an acute situation (such as a panic attack), they can practice watching their bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings without judging or reacting. I have a meditation I’ve recorded to help people learn to do this. I’ll be releasing it sometime soon as one of my free yoga resources.

    Or they can practice watching sensations in their bodies during yoga. This strengthens their ability to witness and prepares them to carry this witnessing practice into more charged experiences.

    Practicing yoga also helps people learn to feel more grounded, which is huge for all of the conditions mentioned.

    If you, Jamie, or anyone else reading has found specific yoga tools that work well with these populations, please do share!

    Amy Weintraub is an expert in this area and has a lot of excellent tools to help: http://yogafordepression.com/

  20. Janice DeVirgilio June 20, 2014 at 3:14 am #

    So beautifully written Allison… the idea of allowing thoughts and emotion to move through me without becoming attached is familiar to me from my Zen meditation practice. This is essential to being as present in the moment as I can be while meditating which hopefully is carried with me throughout the day (not always easy). Your writing of “The Witness” and labeling this familiar concept as such I feel will enable me to practice this non-attachment more easily… you’ve helped me to truly connect with the Witness in me and I Thank You. While reading this article, I could not help but think of a saying I heard many years ago: “Serenity is not Freedom from the storm; but Peace amid the storm.”
    I look forward to reading more from you… good stuff!!

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise June 23, 2014 at 1:56 am #

      Oh, I’m sooooo happy this has helped you carry your Zen practice further. Yes! The saying you’ve shared is exactly the point. Don’t try to escape, but find the eye of the storm and stay steady. So glad to connect in this way! xo

  21. Amy Weintraub June 20, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    Beautiful acknowledgment of the witness, Allison. The witness is our own true nature. The witness is there, always, beneath whatever mood is visiting, beneath whatever story we’re telling ourselves. What’s wonderful about our practices–asana, pranayama, mudra, mantra, meditation–is that they connect us to the Witness. The moment after a pranayama when we pause to sense deeply into our palms, for example, we are cultivating the witness in our lives.

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise June 23, 2014 at 1:51 am #

      Thank you so much for this contribution, Amy. I love the example of pausing to sense after pranayama. It’s amazing how those moments translate into the rest of life without effort. Thank you for all of your work and for sharing here

  22. Miriam abrahams June 8, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    Wonderfully said. I’ve been practicing yoga 20 years and teaching for 4.. This is exactly what I try to convey to myself and others through the importance of breath and body awareness. I’m not even close to being there, but reading this and other positive messages surely helps. Thank you! Namaste

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise June 8, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

      Thank you for sharing, Miriam! I’m so glad that you have this tool for yourself and especially that you share it with others. I’m not close to “being there” either, but I feel strongly that it’s a life-long practice, and it’s in that practice that we’re transformed. (Even if we’re only able to do it some of the time.) Any time we have a moment of awareness that we are something larger than the stories of our lives is a huge step toward freedom. Keep practicing when you can! Celebrate those times when it helps, when you feel the shift. Lots of love to you.

  23. Carmen Paris-Hunter June 9, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    Hi Allison, Thank you for sharing your experience of the ebb and flow of life. Told beautifully and much appreciated. I practice this in my life and share with all I meet, family, students, clients and strangers ! To invite the compassionate witness to be present and to Breathe, Acknowledge, Identify, Feel and Allow . This practice has kept me alive and thriving, through health crisis and life events. I feel truly blessed to have this relationship with self witness and to be with community of like minded people. I am awakened with courage and joy each day, each breath, each sharing.
    Namaste,

    • Allison Gemmel Laframboise June 9, 2015 at 11:26 pm #

      That is beautiful, Carmen. I’m so glad that you’ve found this practice to guide you through over the mountains and through the valleys of life. Thank you for sharing – so wonderful to hear your voice. Much love, Allison

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