When did being nice become a requirement for practising Yoga?
Picture a yoga class and somewhere in among the stretching and chanting, a picture will form of people smiling, and bowing, beatifically to each other, while offering blessings and Namaste. Email any yoga teacher and you’re likely to get a reply signed off Love and Light, or With Blessings.
This idea that Yoga and being nice go hand in hand is so prevalent that nobody really questions it. During the pandemic, when yoga practitioners, embarrassingly, led the way in the conspiracy theories, commentators speculated that it was because yogis were generally nice and thus susceptible to woolly theories.
Yoga as a disguise
I have been a Yoga teacher for over ten years and have been practicing yoga for over thirty years. My experience of the Yoga world is anything but nice. Which is not to say that there aren’t some genuinely lovely people in it, but probably no more than you would find in any profession. Yoga, if practiced seriously and consistently, will make you a nicer person, in so far as it will help you become less reactive and release many unconscious patterns. But Yoga merely used to paper over the cracks, or as some sort of spiritual disguise, is no better than a painted smile on a clown.
There seems to be an idea in the Yoga world that once you step onto your mat you have to become the Dalai Lama, and never have another bad thought. As far as I can see, there is no requirement for this in any of the classic Yoga texts. Working with the heart – where so much of the cult of niceness seems to stem from – is just a small part of the practice and can really only be achieved when we have worked through our unconscious. My experience of most of the “love and light” stuff in the Yoga world is that it is inauthentic, and often masking some really dark behaviour.
The Pressure to be Permanently Lovely
As someone who has practised yoga for a while now, I am often nice and try to be kind whenever I can. To be honest, it just feels better to be like this than riddled with rage or fear. But some days I get up and the news makes me seriously pissed off. Or, my car breaks down and turns my day into a tornado of stress. Or a client will say something really offensive or passive aggressive. Yoga hasn’t turned me into a Stepford Wife or provided some kind of emotional numbing pill. I still feel the full range of healthy emotions. I still get angry, hurt, stressed.
When I first started teaching yoga I felt the enormous pull to be permanently lovely. On my training, we had a whole module about radiance, how the teacher should hold the space, encompass the class with their superior aura and be non-reactive. Don’t take anything personally. Anyone who has tried this will know just how difficult it is. You are effectively trying to suppress not only natural bodily reactions to perceived threat, but also contain unconscious triggers that you may have held since childhood. This isn’t something you learn in a half day module in some yoga studio in Camden. It takes a serious amount of time, work, and often therapy.
Yet, I still started teaching with this expectation. It was also the presumption of the people walking into my class. We were equally enmeshed in the cult of nice. People coming to yoga don’t want to see the teacher having a meltdown. They want the myth of calm radiance. They want their teacher to greet them cheerfully, hands at the heart, bowed in welcome. They don’t want to know that five minutes before you were having a screaming match with a call centre employee in Mother India over your mobile phone bill. It’s a myth, and we’ve all propagated it.
Raising the Roof
A change came for me during a class at a local cricket pavilion, hired weekly from the Parish council. Ten minutes into the class, there was an almighty noise, and part of the roof of the building lifted off, not, I will add, because we had raised our frequency sufficiently to open to the heavens, but because workmen were re-roofing the building. Ten pairs of eyes looked to me for guidance from their mats.
Now common Western yoga wisdom would have had me meet the challenge seemingly unfazed, cheerfully welcoming the challenge as an opportunity to grow. Happening for a reason, right? But it occurred to me that day, that there are times where our boundaries are being violated and we have a legitimate right to be fucking angry. Suppressing my feelings and making light of the situation in front of the class would only short-change my students, and legitimise spiritual bypassing, where we use some kind of false dissociated spiritual state to hide our real feelings. So, I argued with the builders and got them to grant me 45 minutes. After the class, I drove to the council offices and had an almighty row with the clerk. Pointing out that I was trying to run a business, she refunded me for the hire and sent me an email apologising that I could send to my students.
That was a turning point for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am still nice most of the time but it is no longer forced. Gone is the saccharin sweet “Thank you for sharing that with me” when one of my clients tries to justify Brexit or persuade me that climate change isn’t real. Replaced now by a polite, simple, ”I don’t agree”. As with any small business owner, I try not to lose business. But as a yoga teacher, I’m not doing anyone any favours by being false or frightened to say what I think.
I like to think that I am more honest and authentic as a teacher now. I explain to people who study with me that even though I teach, I am a work in progress. If you’re a serious student of yoga it’s a lifetime’s work to uncover your authentic self, not something you magically resolve on a 200-hour teacher training. I also teach the full range of emotions, including anger, as natural and healthy, and requiring acknowledgement and expression, albeit mindfully. What are emotions, after all, but the body’s way of communicating? And Yoga, a holistic practice, surely requires that honesty.
Yoga is a messy business
Yoga didn’t grow out of the drive to be nice or heart-centred. It was an act of rebellion, a seeking of Truth outside of social norms. That Western Yoga has become some chai latte drinking dissociated sham is a great pity, as it could do so much to lead in the World right now. Make no mistake too that some of the worst shaming I have ever experienced has been at the hands of the love and light crowd, who tell you they are speaking from a place of love and then proceed to attack you from a place of ego. But hey, hands in prayer pose, bow, namaste.
Aiming to be nice and kind is a wonderful endeavour. But it has to be authentic. And who is nice all the time? Even the Dalai Lama gets angry. So often in the Yoga world people hide their shadows and their demons in this faux elevated display of spiritual superiority. Often people refuse to engage with real world stuff like politics because they believe it is beneath them. And so the cult of being nice continues. Teachers pretend they are so enlightened they never to have a “negative” emotion. Students are taught that it’s all about love and bliss, and anything else is just not Yoga.
But truth is, Yoga requires you to be you, and to work out who that is right now and how you got here. It’s a messy business. But only in being honest and shining a light on the parts of us we wished didn’t exist do we ever heal, shed our darkness, and discover our true self.