Years ago a yoga teacher told me that if I believed I could, I would, so I jumped into a handstand. My bad. This dalliance with unbridled optimism ended with me crashing to the floor, and momentarily blacking out.
Overall, I am not a fan of magical thinking. I don’t mind a little daydreaming and positive encouragement, but in my world, embracing reality and rationality will get you farther than “following your bliss.” Follow your bliss if you want to party, eat one too many slices of chocolate cake, and end up in bed with a married person. Use your brain and follow a plan if you want to achieve something.
Overall, I am not a fan of magical thinking.
Although my way of thinking might not be as popular as “If you can dream it you can do it” mentalities, I think I might be on to something. According to a slew of recent research, the ability to get things done is often a result of negative thinking, not positive thinking. One study, conducted by New York University (which turned into the book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation), found that people who visualized what they desired—say a new job, a happier relationship, or even something as simple as a glass of water—didn’t feel motivated to take steps in real life to attain it. Then, after they didn’t manifest what they wanted, they were disappointed.
Shocking, I know.
Still, there’s a pervading and somewhat nauseating tendency toward happy-speak in yoga—an abundance of “You are perfect, be happy, be the light, be shri, be the love, shine on,” and on and on.
Can I get an ugh?
Now, I’m not an unhappy person. In fact, I can be disgustingly happy. But when yoga teachers ask me to pretend to be happy when I’m feeling stressed out or sad, yoga starts becoming a little ridiculous. When we, as yoga teachers, avoid what we feel and ask our students to do the same, it’s a form of spiritual (and emotional and intellectual) bypassing. I believe the most important lesson we can take away from practice is this:
The reality of what you feel is always okay. In fact, it is deeply okay.
That means you don’t have to make merry all the time!
When we, as teachers, ask everyone to be happy, it doesn’t actually create happy people. Instead, it can create people who feel ashamed if they aren’t happy—people who feel that they should be happy just because they’re practicing yoga. Instead of asking our students to commit to working toward their happiness—toward achieving their spiritual and worldly goals—we ask them to rely on magical thinking. Does the following sound familiar to you?
Examples of yoga happy-speak:
"Yoga is a cure for everything." Perhaps not. If you have a growth coming out of your head, you might not want to rely on yoga. You might want to see a doctor.
"You are perfect, just as you are." While self-esteem is important, as long as you are human, there’s a chance you are not actually perfect and that you may need to self-evolve and apologize every now and then. Just saying.
"Choose kind words in a soft and compassionate tone." I have been told this many times and it makes me want to scream. I would have to have a lobotomy to speak that way all the time. There will be times when you’ll need to stand up for what is right, fight for your beliefs, and protect the ones you love. It may require speaking directly. And possibly an F-bomb.
Here’s the thing: Desiring something without doing any work to achieve it is a fairy tale. Yet many of us yoga teachers preach the fairy tale because it seems like an easier path and a prettier picture. But our students aren’t necessarily better off. The happiest people are not the mythical, head-in-the-clouds unicorns who feel the universe will always save them. As I mentioned earlier, studies show that Debbie Downers are more fulfilled because they work to save themselves.
Here’s the thing: Desiring something without doing any work to achieve it is a fairy tale.
There’s also a name for this fairy-tale thinking. According to an article in Scientific American, when a person lacks the ability to think rationally, they suffer from “dysrationalia.”
“One cause of dysrationalia is that people tend to be cognitive misers, meaning that they take the easy way out when trying to solve problems, often leading to solutions that are wrong,” wrote Keith E. Stanovich.
These days, so many people have dysrationalia that a rationality industry is sprouting up to help them. The Center for Applied Rationality in Berkeley, California, teaches people—wait for it—how to be rational. You can check in to the center just like you would the Betty Ford Clinic if you really do believe that you are the world’s best person, or that all your dreams are going to come true by clicking your heels like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
I’m afraid yogis are going to be checking in by the thousands.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from following their dream or believing in possibility. But if your dream is to nail a handstand, like it was for me, you’ll have to build upper body strength and refine your sense of balance—otherwise you’ll just end up on your head.
I’m not trying to say that visualizing progress can’t be useful for some people. For many, it can be an encouraging, even necessary, first step toward building a positive attitude toward life. My concern is that visualization will be our only step.
Perhaps this could be the new yoga rational-speak?
"If you dream it, you can probably only do some of it right away. The rest will take work."
"If you can make a vision-board, then you can follow a plan. Use that plan to make your dreams a reality."
"If you are not yet successful at something, try, try again. But if trying isn’t working, then maybe give up and do something different."
The bottom line is this: yoga practice is not an escape from reality. At its best, yoga helps us deal with reality. Happy-go-lucky thoughts may be encouraging, but realistic thoughts can motivate us to transform our lives for the better. Rather than ignore reality, we might try working with it for a change.
Yoga practice is not an escape from reality. At its best, yoga helps us deal with reality.
In my own practice I’ve had to accept that I’m not good at every pose, and that working toward happiness can sometimes be the hardest practice of all. Honestly, I can’t just dream it and do it (I’ve tried!). But I’m not discouraged. I’m motivated to make an effort to learn what I can, do what I can, and let go of what does not serve me. And the next time a teacher tells me to “just believe,” I’m going to give them a card for the rationality center. I want them to get help before they turn another happy little Debbie Downer into a miserable unicorn.