The narcissism of small differences

Published on January 13, 2012 by      Print
facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

 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?

I do.

We define ourselves by our opinions, and that’s why we are all, at heart, tyrannical little narcissists.

 About Joslyn Hamilton

Filed under: Zombie Yoga and Tagged:


  1. Leah says:

    Yes. Yes indeed.

    And the quicker we get around to realizing this, the less I hope we care about the other tyrannical little narcissists around us.

  2. Jenifer says:

    Wow, I was just talking about this yesterday with someone! I was talking about what is “real.”

    And, I had such an amazing emotional/healing experience in this realm.

    Years ago, I was hurt by a studio owner. It’s a long drama, but end of the day, I comforted myself about identifying ‘otherness’ in terms of ‘real.’ Her yoga wasn’t ‘real’ and my yoga was ‘real.’ Ironically, she said the same thing about me! Perhaps that’s not irony at all, but just the reality of hurt and the process of “other-ness-ing.”

    Anyway, I recently read a piece written by this person where she wrote about her passion for the style of yoga that she teaches. She wrote about her profound experience once she started this sort of yoga, and how it makes her feel, and how she wants to share that with others. There’s nothing more real, you know?

    I think that, now, we coexist again — there is no more other-ness. We are doing the same thing — practicing and teaching what we love. And, we both run studios, and while I might like the way mine is run “better” it doesn’t make it “more real.” It’s just different. And that’s ok too.

  3. Isabelle says:

    Amen, amen and amen some more. I really don’t care what kind of yoga other people do, I’m typically just happy that we can talk about how great it is and perhaps exchange info about amazing teachers and studios that are available to us.

    The NY Times article is a manifestation of the inevitable backlash that all super popular trends have to deal with eventually. I still love yoga, I know that there are risks associated with it, just like there are risks associated to pretty much anything out there. It makes me a bit sad that some people who would benefit from yoga might me scared off by the gruesome injury descriptions in the article. Then again, I look forward to the day when yoga is no longer hip and trendy and we can go back to loving it for what it is and practicing without sanctimonious bull and cynicism.

  4. gary says:

    The great thing about yoga, besides that fact that it can be a wonderful, liberating experience for many of us who have felt unattractive, or literally trapped in our stiff, out of shape bodies, is that once a fair amount of progress is made, ie getting “good” at yoga, there is a also a turning point point where there seems to be a fulmination of ALL of the character defects known to man. Ego. Arrogance. Competitiveness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in a little town called Mysore in South India. These character flaws are the root of many injuries.

    Why is everyone SO PISSED that the Times blew the whistle on the potential for injury in yoga (no matter how poorly written or histrionic said article was)? Because it makes those of us who have chosen to make the teaching of yoga our livelihood, something we now have to defend. Yes, the very same people who have mangled their knees to get to the point where they are adept at the 3rd series of Ashtanga yoga, are downright insulted that the cat is out of the bag.

    The facts ATMO : (According to my opinion), and not the opinion of someone who knows nothing of yoga but has a forum in one of the most important newspapers in America.

    1) Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga, anyway), is just as intense as any high level martial art, with plenty of opportunities to hurt yourself. Especially mixed in with a desire to “achieve”, “go deeper”, get your picture taken doing potentially injurious asanas for your website, etc.

    2) Almost everyone who practices Ashtanga will at some point experience knee pain. Badly. If not outright tearing their medial meniscus. It’s part of the game. I have first hand experience watching dozens of students limping around the yoga studio in the 20 years i have taught yoga, and have blown my own knee to smithereens. Knees heal quickly, no big deal

    3) The outrage about people hurting themselves in a yoga class stems from the fact that the average person who has never done yoga or seen it being practiced, believes that “yoga is not supposed to hurt you”. I have personally had at least 100 people who’ve never practiced yoga of any kind say this to me. The same individuals have an internal knowledge that rock climbing and extreme skiing are very dangerous, but that doesnt get written about in the Times, because it’s common knowledge.

    4) The latest dirty little secret is that long time Ashtanga practitioners are full on candidates for back surgery, or have actually have procedures done. Its the latest trend.

    I could go on and on, but the real issue is that I personally know several people who have stepped off the sidewalk incorrectly in New York City, and torn the hell out of their medial meniscus. It never makes it into the newspaper.

    Ashtanga yoga is not for wimps, but you can make it as casual or as aggressive as your personality desires. You can throw yourself at asanas like your life depended on it, and wreck yourself, just like dropping into a double black diamond ski run when you’re barely able to make it down a green run. It’s called “asking for it” in most parts of the country.

    As for teachers; it helps A LOT to have one who knows what he or she is doing. They might be able to save you a lot of suffering. Unfortunately, there happens to be a lot of teachers whose egos are based on how “good” their students practices are, not the long term health of their students knees, backs, psyche, etc. These teachers will push their students well beyond what they are capable of. In the words of Richard Freeman, ” There will be a loud popping sound from your (knee, sacro-illiac, etc) joint”

    In summation, if you fear getting hurt, dont engage in risky activities. Ever. If your fear harming your students, DON’T ADJUST THEM. Practice at your own pace. Dont wail on your students knees. THAT is real yoga. Says it right in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali- Yogasanas should be be smooth, sweet and steady. Sthira Sukha Asanam. No matter what style.

    save the heroics for the next big powder day at your local ski resort. And when you blow your ACL out, and get taken off the mountain by ski patrol, you won’t have to worry about someone writing about you in the New York Times.

    • Eleles says:

      Knees heal quickly, no big deal? I hope no one who reads your forum takes what you say too seriously.

      • Joslyn Hamilton says:

        I hope you are not implying that what a commenter says of free will on our “forum” reflects on the “forum” itself? Nowhere in my article did I say that knees heal quickly. Mine don’t, that’s for sure.

        • eleles says:

          Not at all, Joslyn! I was trying to reply to Gary with my comment about knee injuries, but my computer apparently had other ideas. It’s true that a subset of meniscus tears can heal, if you’re very lucky and happen to tear a part that has a blood supply going to it. So maybe Gary’s been blessed in this regard. But the people I know who have had meniscus tears are in daily pain, and may well be headed toward knee replacements down the road. As you have experienced, knee injuries can take a long time to heal (and may never heal completely) and Gary’s comments concern me greatly. I hate to see yogis (or anyone!) experience needless hurt and suffering…

          • eleles says:

            In fact, I might develop an aneurysm just from thinking about all those knees! ;)

          • Joslyn Hamilton says:

            I myself injured my knees (both of them) over years of repetitive Bikram “lock the leg” activity. Those suckers don’t seem to be in any hurry to heal. I curse myself for not listening to my knees instead of my teachers for all those years!

  5. jeramy says:

    Your sad old tired story again? Move on and get over it. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  6. kirk says:

    first, there should be a rule about people trying to write their own articles in the comment section. second, you are amazing. i’m just wondering what is left to be written now that you have pulled the cat out of the dumpster and dropped the mega hammer.

  7. David says:

    I appreciate what you say Josyln and I enjoy this website. I would just like to suggest that everyone not take things and other people so damn personally–ya know, that’s the good part of the mindfulness thing we’re supposed to practice? Oh, and one more thing I learned from yoga that helps me let go of stuff and that maybe we can practice too, and that the instructors always have to remind me to do: fah chrissake, BREATHE.

    Peace and love but since I’m from New York, just don’t tell me what kind of day to have.

    PS suggestion for a tee shirt: Your original face doesn’t need botox.

    • Vision_Quest2 says:

      I will try my best to keep lengthy comments to myself (referring to recent blog posts at this site). But they are quite the catharsis!

      I need to vocalize when I deep breathe. Works better.

  8. Truth says:

    Thanks so much for introducing me to the concept of narcissism of small differences. I hadn’t heard or thought about it as an idea before but it makes so much sense.

    There does seem to be this need to define ourselves by our differences no matter how small they may be.

  9. kellie adkins says:

    Joslyn, what a beautiful, insightful, & well-written article. We are so often drawn to argue those small points that are – for us – so sacred {our sacred cows, if you will}. Those beliefs we cling so rigidly take us away from experiencing our birthright of connection, openness, & expansiveness; they create patterns of thought & self-identification that are causal & concrete…but only in our minds. Unlike the ‘big’ topics – as you pointed out – these small differences are much more rigidly held & argued about because they’re so intricately connected to our erroneous sense of self {ego-driven self, that is}. Fundamentally, yoga invites us to experience union & to let go of the samskaras {mental patterns} that limit that union. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Kate says:

    I think this might be my favorite post on this site yet. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and make of myself an opinion and say that it IS my favorite. Thank you for building up an entire point out of a dangerously overseen nuance in daily life. Contrary to other opinions listed above, I believe your differentiation between arguing over small things or big issues is also the difference maker between this post and other articles written here and elsewhere. But who knows – I’m a tyrannical little narcissist myself. :)

  11. Sanjev says:

    “if I hear the expression “real yoga” one more time I might just have to have an aneurism ”

    real yoga
    real yoga
    real yoga
    real yoga
    real yoga
    real yoga
    real yoga

    How that aneurism coming along?

  12. Laura says:

    yoga doesn’t wreck bodies, egos (and bad teachers) do. I wasn’t surprised by the NYT article. Poorly written but it contains a lot of truth about the super-competitive ego of many so-called, self-styled celebrity teachers. Personally i have never been attracted to extreme forms of yoga. A slow, mindful and gentle practice is what works for me, and i know my body and my mind benefit more from this kind of practice than anything else i tried. But i wouldn’t call what i do “real yoga” lest i give Joslyn an aneurism. If people want to contort themselves in gravity-defying, knees wrecking poses, that’s their problem. Of course, these extremists may end up with a few injuries, but so do ballet dancers. Extreme yoga is dangerous and definitely not for the masses that flock to these studios in the mistaken belief that they too can bend like a teacher who was a former gymnast or ballet dancer. They cannot. Unfortunately a lot of yoga studios create unrealistic expectations among their students and ultimately drive them away from yoga.

  13. Chrissy says:

    Beautiful, well written article! I suppose that ” real” is a matter of perception, which is A ok…. I just never understood the voracious need to defend this versus that…when I feel comfortable with my place at the table of life, I don’t quite feel the need to argue all the time to prove my point…my sister in law said it best when she said ‘ you can’t argue with ego’ , and she is so correct…

  14. Mari says:

    I really think you would really appreciate the show Portlandia :-)

  15. swami nobodhi says:

    Over here in Australia, my last senior Iyengar teacher Peter Scott, wished to be Known as ” His Eminence” We weren,t even allowed to talk with him about a yoga subject, we had to E. mail him.He liked to make students feel uncomfortable because it was ” part of the process”…. I love your work .. Keep it up! We are told to become more “Aware” and yet political correctness suffocates it. We are s,posed to be respectful towards senior teachers and yet they too have baggage, judgement and discrimination. When we open up our hearts and minds and trust our teachers, we allow even the negative stuff in.

  16. Rick Carlstrom says:

    The funny thing is that none of what commonly passes for “Yoga” today is actually Yoga, it would be more accurately called “mind body integration practice”. Yoga is “The cessation of the fluctuations of mind matter” and the only asana it has to do with is a comfortable pose that one can stay in for extended periods of time while engaging in a transcending type meditation practice.

    That is not to imply that there is anything “wrong” with the practice of mindfully moving into and through various physical poses nor that the experience does not calm the mind it is only that until one actually transcends the intellect that Yoga has been experienced.

    Response posted on May 9th, 2012 , 1:25 pm
  17. Near enemies | RecoveringYogi says:

    [...] so there’s gay marriage. Obviously, any decent person is gonna stick up for it. (I didn’t say I don’t have opinions.) And a while back there was the furor about that Time Magazine breastfeeding cover. [...]