The narcissism of small differences
By Joslyn Hamilton
Yes, I’m sick of talking about the New York Times article too. I think we’ve pretty much covered it. But when an editor from the Times’ online opinion forum, Room For Debate, asked me to contribute some thoughts about the whole brouhaha, I found myself drawn into the discussion. And it made me start to ask myself: What really is the problem with yoga?
Is it yoga?
I don’t think so. Like millions upon millions of people, I’ve been exposed to the healing and calming properties of yoga through my 15+ years of practice across a wide swath of styles, teachers and experiences. I’ve practiced yoga in San Francisco, Marin County (where I now live), Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, small towns in empty states, retreat centers in foreign countries, lonely hotel rooms, long romantical piers overlooking the sea. The practice of yoga has been a beautiful thing for me. It has taught me that I am in charge of my body and not married to my mind. It led the way to my introduction to a mindfulness practice. And — perhaps most important — it was the catalyst for meeting two of my closest friends, Vanessa and Leslie, with whom I founded Recovering Yogi.
So why do I now flinch when I hear the word “yoga” in conversation?
Somewhere between the mid-90s, when I first tried yoga at a Washington DC YMCA with a very serious yogi named Avatar, and today, when a zillion studios exist in San Francisco alone (yes, I’m too lazy to look up the statistic, and you get the point) and yoga apparel companies are outfitting ladies across the land in their everyday luon-wear, a sanctimonious, almost religious attitude has come over the yogis I know. Most of us who “do yoga” have very strong opinions about it. I’ve lost many, many hours of my life to dinner parties where the conversation was devoted exclusively to which type of yoga and exact sequencing each individualist preferred.
I say “individualist” for a good reason. Recently I heard an expression, coined by Freud in the early part of the 20th century:
the narcissism of small differences
We differentiate from each other and form our own special identities by a “taboo of personal isolation,” in other words, we are conditioned to honor our individuality above all else. Our uniqueness and specialness is drilled into us as being our birthright and the only thing that gives us any lasting value. We are committed to manufacturing it at any cost, one particular little opinion at a time.
Christopher Hitchens phrased it thusly in a political piece he wrote about conflict in Kyrgyzstan (a place where you’d think they’d have bigger problems): “In numerous cases of apparently ethno-nationalist conflict, the deepest hatreds are manifested between people who — to most outward appearances — exhibit very few significant distinctions.” It’s those of us who, to the outside observer, should get along, who in fact will fight to the bitter end to defend our particular and exact favorite yoga / type of Buddhism / belief system around food / any other dogma.
We develop very intricate opinions that we defend as if our lives are in the balance. And we will argue about this minutiae with more vigor, said Freud, than we will about major things. We are more likely, in other words, to get passionate in discussion with a yogi who prefers Bikram to our beloved Ashtanga (heretic!) than we are to engage in debate with someone who doesn’t care for yoga at all or is, say, a practicing pedophile. Rather than seeing a fellow yoga enthusiast in the Bikramite, we see a troublesome rebel who “just doesn’t get it.” Because, of course, everyone knows that Bikram is dangerous and Ashtanga is “real yoga.” Or vice versa.
J Christ, if I hear the expression “real yoga” one more time I might just have to have an aneurism on purpose. If one more person attempts to explain to me why this yoga is better than that yoga and this teacher is better than that teacher and this is how it should be and that’s not, I swear…
Can’t we all just be happy that our sisters and brothers are doing yoga too? Or not? How about that? Is it okay if they are not? Is it okay if one of us is a devout cynical humorist and the other is a pious positivist? Is it okay if I eat meat? What if I eat McDonalds hamburgers? Or is it only okay if I eat grass-fed, free range, organic local meat? Do you have an opinion about that? Think about it. Do you have any opinion about everything?
We define ourselves by our opinions, and that’s why we are all, at heart, tyrannical little narcissists.