A few weeks before this challenge started, I posted a video to Instagram about the trap of forced positives. It was partly on the heels of a discussion with a friend about general yoga culture annoyances, and partly in response to specific classes I had taken.
It’s a well-established fact that I hate being told to smile. As if some outward social nicety has any bearing on my actual feelings, is any of your domain to demand, or specifically belongs in a practice designed for introspection and neutrality. Among other things.
In much the same way, and because as a theme I hate being told what to do even if I like to do it, I find the current yoga world narrative of “be positive at all costs” nauseatingly shallow.
One of my articles on a yoga website in 2013 had a fair amount of traffic, and contained a large amount of snark. The comments weren’t moderated, which meant people could be as shitty as people are on the internet, without fear of retribution. One guy called me a douche. Another called me a bitch, but I’m used to that.
But one lady took the time to spell out just exactly why I am a horrible person, and then signed off, “In Love and Light.”
That is not how this works. You cannot negate all the bad shit you said by deciding it was well-intentioned, thus deserved, and absolve yourself of treating people badly.
When I first moved to Boston, I had an audition at a newly opened yoga studio wherein we each had to teach part of a class while smiling throughout our segment. One girl actually cried the whole time. Tears of joy from how moved she was by taking us through two poses, which I thought was kind of breaking the rules, but then again, I really struggled with the whole constantly-grinning-while-talking thing.
These might seem sort of extreme as examples of inauthenticity, but take any of the popular hashtags or yoga culture phrasing:
Good Vibes Only
Attitude of Gratitude
Any of these are well-meaning and if applied carefully, can create a healthy mindset. If applied with the sense gathered from white-washed social media, they simply feed into an avoidance tactic masquerading as an agent of change.
You can’t ONLY HAVE GOOD VIBES. It is not possible, nor is it valuable.
“Thank you sir may I have another,” isn’t what most people would rank as a mantra.
And I would like to choose happiness, in the same way that I would choose to be a millionaire or to not get stuck outside in torrential rain, but it doesn’t exactly work like that.
It works like work. Like practice. Like having the tools to be able to direct your energy in productive ways while also feeling the feelings you have. You have to be able to sit with things and get to the center of them before you can send them on their way. Otherwise, you’re really just shoving them in the closet and telling your mom you cleaned your room, and I can tell you how that ends. (Not well.)
“Leave your problems at the door,” is another phrase that gets looped into this. As if you could step out of your own life when you walk into class. As if you should. Not only are we in the business of literally bringing things into union, not compartmentalizing, but your emotions live in your body because you live in your body. You can’t actually get out of it, you have to go through.
There is a ton of value in going to therapy, and it cannot be replaced by taking a bunch of yoga asana. I think people forget that.
There are some ways in which yoga, and asana specifically, becomes a useful tool in the deeper version of a progression into positive mindsets:
- Focus on the breath. When things get tough, go straight to basics. What is happening now, and how can I get to a steady place in order to think it through? Full inhale, slow exhale.
- Be in your body. Along with the breath that you have, where are your feet, how are you standing, what is clenching? If one shoulder hikes up, slide it down. If your hands are making fists, soften them a touch. Notice if any of these small changes affect what you’re thinking about or how you feel.
- Sit with your feelings. Not to give them any unnecessary weight, but to know the story that you are telling yourself. See if it’s true.
One of my very favorite teachers says to do things “without judgment or praise.” Generally, if we aren’t critiquing ourselves we are giving ourselves props. Can you do neither and just do a thing?
It’s actually nearly fucking impossible, but wildly important. It’s where we get to that zero hour. The place of neutrality where there is room for life again. Because only when no one is shouting at you to smile can you truly find what it means to be happy.