If we lived in the Garden of Eden, we’d probably complain that the apples were mealy. If visiting Utopia, we’d likely see the unicorns as too sparkly. According to studies by psychologist Martin Seligman, we humans see the negative side of things 70 percent more often than the positive side. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson posits that the human brain acts like velcro for negative thoughts (which tend to “stick”), and teflon for positive thoughts (more likely to “slide right off”). This tendency can be beneficial, especially in terms of raw, human survival. Our ability to sense danger and learn from injuries and past mistakes in order to choose wisely in either fighting or making a speedy escape has kept our otherwise vulnerable species thriving. But this bias toward the negative also extends to everything from our workplace and colleagues to what’s for dinner—until finally, we overlook or ignore all that is good in our lives. We fail to see the forest, focusing instead on the risk of bug bites, bad weather, and allergies.
According to studies by psychologist Martin Seligman, we humans see the negative side of things 70 percent more often than the positive side.
Despite yoga's reputation for facilitating optimism and acceptance, this negative bias is also prevalent in the yoga world. My social media feed has recently been bombarded with venomous articles and exposés on everything from ethics to inversion. Given that many of these criticisms are quite warranted, and with so much of what we read about today’s yoga being disparaging, it may be tempting to dismiss the whole business of yoga practice altogether.
I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to complaining about today’s yoga scandals, the increasing commercialization of yoga, the prevalence of yoga-related injuries, ego-led practice, distorted interpretations of sage teachings, cultural appropriation, false gurus, and misaligned asana. It has now become trendy to paint a sullying stain on how our culture has responded to yoga. I even know some gifted new teachers who are fearful of offering their skills to the public because they have heard so much negative talk about yoga teachers in the media. But in spite of the cynical press, we yogis keep coming back to our mats and meditation cushions because there is healing in this movement, joy in the breath, and peace to be found when we bring our minds to rest.
One of my teachers would often say, “Practice whether it’s correct or not! Bad yoga is better than no yoga!” This, of course, came with the caveat of moving kindly and avoiding pieces of the yoga puzzle that were not yet in our skillset. There’s much to be said for staying the course, and the bottom line is: Practitioners know that yoga can and will enrich our lives, and a perfect practice simply does not exist.
Things are much better in Yogaland now than they were back in the day.
As a bit of an old-timer in the yoga field, I’m not really nostalgic about how things “used to be.” In fact, things are much better in Yogaland now than they were back in the day. A few things I now find encouraging are:
1. A better-informed, less fearful public. I find it delightful to regularly encounter people who are not only interested in practicing yoga, but already have some familiarity with it. Best of all, most of them perceive yoga as something that could potentially benefit them.
I clearly remember alarmed phone calls (it was so long ago that I answered on a phone with a long curly cord attached to a wall) from individuals trying to save my soul by stopping me from swaying gullible students to the “dark side” (i.e., to yoga). Often, these well-intended individuals had found my number on a promotional yoga flyer and felt compelled to call to instruct me on the serpent’s tricky ways.
And back then, many of us yoga teachers steered away from mention of the Yoga Sutra and other sacred texts, as well as in-class “oms” and “namastes,” in order to make what we were doing seem friendlier.
While such misperception of the culturally different as inherently evil may still exist, most everyone nowadays knows at least one person who is better off from having pursued the practice of yoga. Many have read yoga research articles or heard their doctors extoll the value of yoga for decreasing their tension headaches and blood pressure. And after all, if Oprah and mainstream newspapers say yoga is good, it must not be a direct road to the underworld.
2. Choices. While some may periodically get stuck in the “one true yoga” mindset, the fact that there’s a “yoga for everybody” is actually a wonderful thing! If you don’t dig Iyengar yoga, you can try vinyasa flow. If that’s not your cup of chai, go try a hot yoga class or a cooling yin practice. In the early days, whatever was in your area was what you got. Now, good hatha classes have never been more plentiful. You don’t have to go to India to learn a sincere yoga practice from a well-trained teacher.
3. The medical community loves us! Every month it seems there’s a new study touting the benefits of yoga for some aspect of health and well-being. Regular practice has been shown to improve heart, brain, joint and gut health. Not only will your doctor refer you to a yoga class, these days she may be practicing on the mat next to you.
4. Teachers are better trained. In the '70s and '80s, if someone wanted to teach yoga, they could read a book, watch an episode of Lillias Yoga and You on their local PBS station, and claim they were a yoga teacher. Today, potential employers as well as students now ask questions like, Where were you trained? What style? Did you do a 200- or 500-hour training? This is a good thing. And instructors who study in-depth also have a better grip on the origins of yoga, and more respect for the ancient tradition and scriptures from which all of this fervor for a tranquil state began. Even in a 200-hour training, a new teacher will encounter the eight limbs of yoga, and that information can guide even the most fitness-oriented student to an understanding of yoga as a path to something bigger.
5. Much more attention to safety. “Let’s begin our class with headstand!” is not something you’ll hear in your studio today. Most teachers are informed and aware of the importance of warming up and safely sequencing postures so students don’t get hurt. On the whole, teachers today are more interested in teaching people to stay healthy than teaching them to do stuff that looks cool. Instructors today are trained to pay attention to their students' levels and limitations and are more knowledgeable than ever about the importance of offering appropriate modifications.
“Let’s begin our class with headstand!” is not something you’ll hear in your studio today.
Overall, the current skepticism and critique of yoga may even be for the best. Everyone who can do a downward dog won’t think they need to be a yoga teacher/guru, because qualifications for teaching yoga have risen substantially since yoga’s early days in the U.S. Teachers will be more accountable for unsafe classrooms, and we’ll all be less gullible when someone touts the newest, shiniest yoga studio, type of practice, prop, or alignment cue that claims to make us “uberyogis.”
Perhaps what is emerging is a view of yoga as a practice that can still the roaming tendencies of the mind through personal diligence, non-attachment, and dedication—and for the ones who stay, a path that leads to joy. And that may sound pretty familiar, because what is true and life changing about yoga remains true and life changing in any era.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Hanson, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.