Creating Boundaries in a Crowd

Photo Courtesy of Flickr User JayW51
by Valerie Reiss

As a yoga girl who’s ever so slightly an introvert on the Myers-Briggs personality scale, I tend to be most comfortable with people one-on-one. In contrast, parties are not my thing: In about 10 minutes, my circuits are usually overwhelmed and I’m ready for a nap and a snack. As one snarky bodyworker once said a few minutes into our session, “I didn’t realize you were such a delicate little flower.” So it’s ironic that someone as energetically sensitive as me lives in a city like New York, where I’m often packed in with every flavor of human—sane, furious, nutso, aggressive, kind—in sardine-like proximity. The good news is that on the subway or in the streets, I don’t have to ask or answer questions for an audience. The bad news is that I have to work hard to not get squished by the enormous, busy humanity of it all.

What I’ve learned over the roughly 30 years I’ve lived in New York (born, raised, left, returned) is that being in a city is one of the best ways to practice energetic boundaries—essentially to not get squished and to not squash. To live in balance no matter how many tourists, artists, fashionistas, hip-hoppers, business dudes, or attack strollers are headed my way. Here are some lessons I’ve learned. I think they’re relevant for many of the spiritually sensitive among us and can be applied to being in crowds anywhere—at the mall, the supermarket, concerts, even while driving.

Lesson #1: Know your vibe. As with so many things, it’s important to be aware of your feelings and attitudes because it’s very likely that you’ll get what you put out. For example, if I notice that people are behaving extra-aggressively toward me, I try to ask myself: How am I feeling? Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m holding some anger myself. Or if I’m being repeatedly treated as though my physical body is invisible—people walk right into me—I’m likely feeling depleted. If people are unusually kind and deferring, I probably feel vulnerable, but in a calm way. And on the rare days when I seem to flow with human traffic beautifully—as if I’m in a choreographed dance with strangers—I’m probably feeling great, alive, and confident.

Lesson # 2: Pump up the volume. Over the years, spiritual practitioners have taught me to visualize a bubble of light around me that’s like a good boundary: permeable (love flows in and out) yet protective. I try, but I’m not great at it. Much more effective is something a fellow yogi (and New Yorker) taught me years ago: Kapalabhati breathing in a crowd. If I’m having one of those days when every mom, jerk, and Larry is plowing me down—an invisible day—I do stealth Kapalabhati while walking. About 20 good belly-pumping breaths seem to inflate my aura enough to get me some space. It’s amazing, actually, to see the shift. In 30 seconds I can go from trampled to given plenty of space. People could be responding to the energy, or, of course, maybe they want to stay away from the crazy lady panting through her nostrils. But I think it’s the energy.

Lesson #3: Own yourself. You have a right to be here. Maybe you already know that, but I walked away from childhood with the impression that other people have more right to exist than me. In a crowd—and of course lots of other situations—this often translates to overly deferring to others or over-asserting myself to compensate. Since I tend to do the former, I’ve been experimenting with swinging toward the latter, so as to end up somewhere in the middle—healthily asserting my boundaries while respecting others. Recently I had a fascinating chance to practice this. Standing on a curb, I was waiting for the light to change and a very tall, very wide man crossed perilously against the light and needed to get through me and other waiting folks.

He looked at me first—I was feeling vulnerable-yet-cranky—making me a prime target for easy moving. With a deep scowl on his face and aggressive energy, he kept barreling at me. Normally I would have instantly hopped aside, to be “nice,” and out of fear, but today, I didn’t. There were about 20 other people also capable of moving—and space around them. Defiant, curious, and simply wanting to own my temporary patch of sidewalk, I stayed planted. He kept coming until he was about two inches from me. I could feel the body heat permeating through his damp T-shirt. In my periphery, I saw two women gasp, a man cringe. I stayed. He stopped, stared down at me, glared, and finally fear (and self-preservation) won, and I shifted, slightly, so he could pass. As he blew by, he screamed that I needed to MOVE. And I caught a glimpse of how he was feeling—giant, but vulnerable, scared because he was used to using his girth to run people over. I realized that he was young, a teenager. Along with the adrenaline coursing through me, I felt compassion. For both of us—two imperfect humans trying to navigate energy, life, sidewalks, the world. I felt a swirl of triumph and shame. Sometimes owning your place—and spot in a crowd—is like that.

Valerie Reiss is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more.

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