by Eric Stewart

Every December, I hear students describe how important yoga is to them around the holidays.  Just last week, a woman who has attended Solaluna for several years was discussing this with me after a class.

As she walked out the door, she mentioned–almost as an afterthought– that the actual experience of the holidays can be very different from the idea of the holidays.  I was struck by that statement because it speaks to something that has been on my mind.

It Ain’t Always What It’s Cracked Up To Be

As much as the holidays can provide joy, togetherness and festivity, it’s not a secret that many people feel sadness, anxiety, isolation and other difficult emotions creeping into the picture.

This seems to happen often enough that it’s worth looking into the whole holiday experience to understand why it can be so rough, and also to identify what might be done to soften the ride.

The sources of holiday conflict are numerous.  In particular, a lot of stress gets churned up around things (gifts, food etc.), and relationships (with family, friends, coworkers, self).

You may be aware that these two elements can combine in a variety of ways with explosive results. However, things and relationships themselves do not create the special brew of conflict that the holidays generate. Something else must be present.

This mystery holiday ingredient is…..


Expectation is the oxygen that ignites holiday distress.

Expectations seem harmless enough.  They are subtle, slippery and tricky to keep track of during the holidays (and at other times too) because they blend in with the surroundings: the lights and the punch, the presents and the parties.

In short, expectations appear to their owners– the holders of those expectations– as simply the way things should be. Trouble arises when what happens doesn’t match up with the idea.

Let’s say that a person has an idea that the holidays are supposed to be happy.  It’s easy to acquire such a belief and be unaware of it, because it circulates by way of every possible cultural avenue you can think of: advertising, music, everyday language etc. Happy holidays, everyone!

The question is, can people create space and awareness for times when the holidays aren’t so happy?  This requires looking at expectations to assess their helpfulness.

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

A good way to begin this process is to pay attention to how much words like should, could, supposed to, and ought to can creep into your interpretation of holiday experiences. It’s easy to think that this only happens to other people.

A good clue is to look for these words at times when you are feeling uncomfortable emotions. Examine what is generating those feelings.

In this way, emotions like anxiety, frustration and sadness can become a helpful thing instead of something to struggle against.  That is, such feelings are a signal, letting a person know that there is tension between one’s expectations and what’s actually happening.

By being more conscious about expectations, it’s possible to be more flexible with them.  For instance, if you discover an internal belief that you shouldn’t feel bad and should feel happy, how would it feel to allow yourself to be ok with feeling crappy sometimes during the holidays?

It might take the pressure off.  It often helps people feel better.

As you become more conscious of expectations it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of trying to eliminate them completely.  Everyone has expectations; expectations do important things.  They keep people on track with what’s essential; they are an expression of a person’s sense of boundaries and need for dignity.

Trying to eliminate expectations can cause at least as much suffering as being unconscious about them.  What’s important is to be supple with expectations, to be awake to them, and aware of how they affect the whole person.

This is Yoga

The process outlined above is yoga because becoming aware of beliefs that cause suffering is yoga, as much as downward facing dog is yoga, which brings us back to the start of this writing.  Yoga is very helpful for the challenges found in the holidays, and there are many ways to do yoga.

Here are 4 things that can help create more space, ease and clarity over the next few weeks.

1) Feel what you are feeling: give yourself space to acknowledge the emotions you are feeling.  This is not about venting your emotions all over the December landscape. Rather, it’s about witnessing your feelings so they don’t get plowed under by expectations. Otherwise, the rough feelings keep coming back.

2) Pay attention to shoulds: notice if you are interpreting your experience with fixed ideas about how things ought to be.

3) Be flexible with your expectations: as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want.

4) Feel your body: walking, asana, breathing and sensory awareness are all great tools to maintain a center in this very busy, sometimes scattered season.