Count me out of the positivity cult
By Kimberly Johnson
Okay, I get it. Nobody wants to be a downer — especially a yoga teacher.
Oh no, because a yoga teacher is a model. We model what our students want to get out of yoga.
But does telling people that “everything is perfect,” “we are all interconnected,” or my personal favorite, “it is what it is”—even though people are actually really feeling depressed and terrible—make it so? Last year, a hairdresser I had never met busted out “it is what it is” to punctuate the end of her story. “It is what it is” is the newfangled “whatever.”
Do these phrases really make people feel better? They just piss me off.
After I wrote my last post, “Please don’t call me spiritual,” and then read “Holding up a big fat mirror,” I realized that I had experienced a similar reaction to that writer after my own post went live. I felt exposed in having posted something and also outed something I wasn’t supposed to. I experienced feelings of guilt, and like I had betrayed some secret code.
That secret code is the code of constant positivity within the yoga community.
In the yoga world, you are not supposed to disagree—even though everybody does—and you certainly are not supposed to be disagreeable. Of course, most people have strong opinions about which kind of yoga is better (their kind) and what the other schools don’t understand, because if they did, clearly they would convert to the right school. The right thing, in yoga, is always the thing that you do. But most people don’t express it openly. Better to feign peaceful coexistence and call it “acceptance.”
However, I have found both in myself and in my peers a lack of courage to engage in truthful dialogue around teaching philosophy and practice. I didn’t have the nerve to tell my friend that she was giving the same dharma talk in every class and it was getting old. No one had the nerve to tell the male teacher to stop serial-dating his students. There is this gaping hole of communication, as if egos are so fragile and every class so personal and precious that there is no room for dialogue.
The feelings of guilt and betrayal I felt when exposing my truth in my last Recovering Yogi article were the tiny echoes of a victim/abuser relationship, where the victim feels protective of the abuser, says things to defend the abuser, and is afraid to speak truthfully about the experience publicly.
There is an irony here.
The tradition of yoga itself is one of fierce debate, Sanskrit battles, and commentaries responding to commentaries. None of it in the least bit flimsy. On the contrary, you had to have some shlokas, some sutras, and some humor at your cerebral fingertips to enter this ring. Not unlike a hiphop duel. A rhythmic battle rife with wordplay and samples, the ancient yogis threw the shit down.
But somewhere along the way, this rigor has been next-to-lost in our contemporary yoga communities. People settle for mixing a little armchair/pop psychology in with a sutra or two and use it as a substitute platform for practice.
A platform of actual dialogue has been critical to the evolution of yoga as a living practice. Dialogue keeps both the speaker and the spoken honest—which is why the debates were between schools, not just within schools. The tradition of yoga commentaries is not just about re-interpretation of text from an intellectual point of view. Yogis understood that rational penetration of a subject does not yield to complete understanding of that subject. So new commentaries were written (think Taimni in the yoga sutras) to offer new perspectives of the path. This is invaluable really: to learn about how many ways there are to live, practice, and meander our way through our dharma to moksha.
Now, I have to say that my yoga philosophy studies have seen more impressive days. Being a single parent has cut into my formal study and practice time, and to be fair, changed my interests quite a bit. My call to action here is not about yoga teachers learning better Sanskrit or studying the texts more rigorously (although not a terrible idea); it’s more about mindful speech based on real experience.
Save the New Age truisms and clichés unless there is some actual connection to yoga and your direct experience.
Ask yourself—did I read this in an Oprah magazine? Is this something I hear over and over again? Does it have any connection to yoga, really? Do I have real personal experience that verifies it? And finally, am I using this experience as a teaching tool or as a way to vent/dump/process? If you answered yes to vent/dump/process—don’t talk. Just don’t do it. Button it.
For instance: “Everything is perfect.”
That is a very simplified translation of the chant “Purnamidam, purnamadah…” But “everything is perfect” is a pathetic fraction of what this Veda really means. And is everything perfect? Do you really get what that means? If you do, then communicate the complexity and depth of it. One way to do that is to addresses naysayers and nonbelievers. Instead of going on and on about how “it is what it is,” address the difficulty in really “getting it.”
The positivity train is a slow road to nowhere. Why? Because just believing things to be awesome doesn’t make them awesome. Repeating to yourself (or others) that everything is perfect when you actually feel like shit just pastes a veneer over what you are really feeling, which then has to get peeled away later. In my experience, the fake-it-til-you-make-it approach doesn’t work. Shellac some positivity over trauma, and you’ve got yourself a grief pain packet waiting for you at some later date. Glue a “yes” onto some definite “no’s” and you get yourself a recipe for unexplained depression.
When it works, yoga is a way into—not out of—these deep places.
For a lot of years, the yoga practice that I practiced was coming to practice and composing myself. I tried so hard to look perfect and together and happy. It took some cosmic dropkicks to penetrate the division I had been able to make between my practice and the rest of my life. Before the tears pushed their way in and I no longer had control.
Teaching people how to be present with what their actual experiences/ feelings/ mental patterns are, rather than bombarding them with bad philosophy, is essential. The destiny talk — telling your students that all their negative experiences are “good,” “supposed to be this way,” “a blessing in disguise,” or “going to be compost for their fertile garden” just isn’t that helpful. We undercut the rich and personal process of making meaning out of our experience by constantly redirecting and rerouting others to the positive on shaky philosophical grounds.
After all, we don’t really know what is going on with most of the students who come to our classes. It takes some humility to remember that.
Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil—and a Brazilian—and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 3-year-old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth: Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars; leads teacher trainings; and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she travels, teaches, and learns about what yoga has to do with womanhood.