The Art and Practice of Softening

“Soften. Soften your body, soften your face, soften your mind, soften your stories, soften your expectations.” I hear the voice of my yoga teacher, Betsy, as I hold a challenging yoga pose. She teaches the practice of softening as a way to help us regulate our bodies and minds in the process of our yoga practice. The beauty is taking it off the mat and into life. I hear that voice when I am worrying, becoming frustrated about something, having trouble falling to sleep or judging myself. It has become my go-to tool for separating myself from an overactive mind, worry or tyrannical stories. It works in an instant. It requires no thought (the perfect antidote to non-productive over-thinking). It makes everything, well, softer.

Here’s how it works: Hear that critical voice? The one that knows so completely, exactly how you have screwed up? How impossible it all is? How unfair things are? That voice that has the story all worked out?

Hear that voice. Take note of it. Say, “soften.” One simple word. Say it in your head. Say it out loud. Then feel the edges of your thoughts start to blur. Feel the certainty and the judgment start to fade out. Feel the possibilities of what could be flow in. The edges become less sharp. The thoughts feel less clear and certain. The situation feels less hopeless. There are possibilities that you have yet to discover.

The evolution of softening is that positive change will occur. By releasing the thoughts that are fixed, we can then open up space in the mind for something new, something possible, that moments ago seemed impossible.

The softening also gives us an opportunity to insert the thought, story or action that we desire. When that is too difficult (which it often can be), softening is enough to start the process of letting go, the prelude to creating something new and better to begin to grow inside us.

When we are overwhelmed by life it is easy to worry and cling to rigid and negative thinking about what is going on. We shut down possibilities for creative resolution when we get stuck in this mode. Softening can be done in an instant. It is one simple and powerful word. It works on the body and the mind instantaneously. You do not need to feel composed or meditative to make it happen. You can be in the throws of frustration and melt down! Just say, “soften.” Repeat as needed. Observe the transformation.

The outcome of the practice of softening is surrender. Of letting go. Of creating a little bit of space around our willful thoughts, loosening their grip on us. We surrender ourselves to what is true right here, right now, softening the rigidity of our perceptions and emotions. We make room in this way for inspiration, wisdom, creativity and resolution.

It is important to know that surrender does not mean giving up or walking away from what is troubling you. It just creates a bit of space around it so that a fresh perspective can assist you and ignite your transformation.

Check in with your body:

Note when your body delivers the message that it is under siege: tired, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed. We all feel this way from time to time. This is the way our body informs us that we are doing too much. We are no longer connected to ourselves, our inner wisdom or the resources available to assist us. The body tells us unequivocally at these times that our efforts are not working for us. We are out of balance.

Breathe and soften first.

The solutions will come.

Karyn Shanks MD - Portrait


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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