Judgment, shame and self worth in the yoga world Part 1: Judgment based society
The rise of judgement, shame and lack of self worth in the yoga world seems ironic and yet, when we really examine our interaction with yoga - its representation, the community and the commodity it has become, it’s everywhere. I travel a lot and teach in many yoga centres throughout the world and what I so often see is a lack of confidence and even confusion in teachers and students alike. When I press people for “why”, I recognise an enormous self doubt. The questions that arise from teachers and students are:
“Am I good enough?”
“Do I have enough students/followers?”
“Am I teaching the right stuff?”
“Should I be doing more handstands in my class?”
“I’m afraid of losing students if I’m not doing the same stuff as the ‘popular’ teachers”
What happened to our inner call to slow down and be integrated with ourselves? What happened to the reasons we started practicing yoga in the first place? How did we cultivate a community, based on connection, that seems so completely disconnected?
"How did we cultivate a community, based on connection, that seems so completely disconnected?"
Modern Yoga & Self Worth
Through the extremely quick rise of 'modern yoga' and the technology with which so much of it is viewed through, we’ve been whipped up into a frenzy of judgement: right and wrong, traditional vs modern, this school of yoga against that school, sporty yoga against soft yoga, us vs them. When did it become ok to be judgemental about being non-judgemental?
About a year ago I was interviewed for a podcast by Mark Walsh (The Embodiment Podcast). His last question to me was “Since you travel all over the world teaching, what is something you notice that is either fundamentally the same or vastly different within those cultures?” My answer was immediate: “Everyone, everywhere suffers from a lack of self worth.” It shocked me a little when it came out of my mouth, and Mark too. Surprising. In a perceived practice or methodology designed to explore self connection, compassion and mindfulness we seem to be perpetuating a system no different than high school athletics and I’m not just talking about yoga as exercise.
"In a perceived practice or methodology designed to explore self connection, compassion and mindfulness we seem to be perpetuating a system no different than high school athletics and I’m not just talking about yoga as exercise."
So I decided to investigate and talk to more people about it. I studied a lot of Brene Brown’s work on shame as well as looked into communities of yogi’s that unwittingly adopted the same model as a corporate environment.
You might think I’m going to start with slamming social media and ‘visual representation over solid content’, however, the more I examined yoga culture in the West, the more social media moved further down the list. In fact the modern western yoga world was already the perfect environment for social media to thrive and create even more divide and judgement. Judgement, shame and lack of self worth was there to begin with.
I broke my observations down into 7 different sections to show the layering of how we ended up where we are today. Too much for one “sitting”, I’ve created 7 parts to this series so that we can have a deeper look at the how’s and why’s and also discover what we can do to change this at a grass roots level in yoga communities around the world.
In this first part of the series, I’ll introduce you a little bit more to my own history so that you can see the lens with which I view modern yoga. I then take a look at how Western society’s adoption of an Eastern philosophy was already setting us up to create a hotbed of judgement.
Despite being born and raised in a conservative part of Southern California my family’s religious or spiritual practice was Advaita Vedanta. I had a rather eccentric Great-Grandfather who was a follower of Swami Vivekananda in the early 1900’s via the Vedanta Centre of Southern California.
We spent two days a week at the centre and I was introduced to philosophy via the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Yoga Sutras as told through the lens of Vedanta. While many people think this is extraordinary, growing up it was just what we did. Meditation was always emphasised and while I knew the word ‘Yoga’ from a very early age it was never associated with asana. Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga were the phrases that I knew and understood with a great familiarity.
It’s important to note that my parents weren’t particularly adamant that my sister and I take on these philosophies as our own. While my father tried very hard to emphasise the importance of meditation (tough for a youngster who wants to just dance around the back yard) he always encouraged us to explore our own ideas about God and spirituality. This is what I now recognise as unusual. While the foundation of knowledge was there and we were encouraged to learn, we were also told to go to church with our friends' families when invited so that we could make our own decisions as we got older.
My first introduction to asana - a marriage I could not quite understand
When I was introduced to asana it was much later in my mid twenties. It was presented to me to help with bad knees after years of dancing. This was back in the early 1990’s and yoga was still very much a mystery for most people. Of course I had no issue with the yoga world and was actually surprised when, after my first Iyengar class, all we did was make shapes on sticky mats. I didn’t really concern myself with trying to marry up my understanding of yoga as a whole concept and philosophy with what was happening involving blocks, belts, chairs and other props. For me, it was just an interesting development that really helped my knees. I never thought of telling anyone in the class of my upbringing because it just seemed so removed. In reality I haven’t spoken hardly at all about my upbringing in public.
Hinduism vs Asana
Years later, after ending up an asana teacher in the Ashtanga lineage I moved to India and lived there for 10 years. It was during this time that I began to understand the difference between what is culturally Hindu and what is spiritually a practice. Many people don’t realise that very few Indians practice asana. Most of the Hindus in India would consider themselves Bhakti/Bhaktas as they worship the gods and goddesses in the lineage inherited by their families. Many of them don’t meditate either and so it is a very different lens with which they view yoga when they decide to learn more about the Hatha approach. Perhaps, like me, it is in addition to one’s spiritual practice, at least in the beginning.
Finding the right marriage of asana and the spiritual practice
After studying more of the Tantric philosophies I began to understand how Hatha Yoga can become a practice of fully embodied meditation. An exploration under the skin and into the connection of self. Something that allows us to enhance our connection to the divine alongside sitting meditation, pranayama and finding our compassion for self and others in this world. I finally married up by spiritual background with my current occupation.
"from where I stand, I have a very different view from the average Western practitioner"
Without going into fuller details about my history (I’ll leave that for another blog if anyone is interested) it is important to note that, from where I stand, I have a very different view from the average Western practitioner. I haven’t “converted” or been mesmerised and lured by Eastern mysticism as an antidote to a Christian-Judeo upbringing. I often feel like an outsider in most of the modern posture based yoga world. It is only now, since I have a few opinions arising in the current climate of the yoga community at large, that I felt it was necessary to give background and explain why I see things from a much bigger picture than most.
The West is a Judgement Based Society
I think the largest factor in judgement in our modern yoga world is that if you have grown up in the West (and even many places in the East that are now more modelled after European and American idealism) you’ve been living with judgement in order to gauge self worth. It was always going to be enormously difficult to absorb another cultures ideals within a spiritual practice without subconsciously superimposing what we were already living with.
Whether you realise it or not our measure of self worth is currently based on our productivity (If we’re doing a lot of stuff, we’re good people). In current times, exhaustion is a status symbol. This seems crazy but look at how we’ve set up our lives for convenience to only be outwitted by the system itself. The more convenience you have the more you should be able to get done and now with our lives being so visible via social media, you better show how much you are doing, getting done, planning to do, and talking about how efficiently you got it all together to do in the first place. This may sound like I’m talking about the average Mum of 2 or a corporate climber, and while this is true, I’m also talking about the average yoga teacher and practitioner.
"We are a judgement based society. And wherever there is judgement there will be shame, guilt, lack of self worth, fear of not fitting in or not belonging. We cannot help but compare ourselves to others. It is how we organise our society from the beginning. "
We are a judgement based society. And wherever there is judgement there will be shame, guilt, lack of self worth, fear of not fitting in or not belonging. We cannot help but compare ourselves to others. It is how we organise our society from the beginning. In school we are taught if you work hard, you’ll get good grades and only people with good grades and degrees get to do amazing things in life. In sports at a very young age you have to be tough to win, you have to do better than everyone else to get on the team or win the tournament. You have to keep striving to do more in order to get the best results or else you have failed. In most cases (of course not in all) our failures at school, sport, or in the family environment can set us up for a lifetime of dealing with lack of self esteem. Many people that are drawn to the yoga practices initially come to get “relief” from the pressures of society that are put upon us. We seek the antidote to this "out of balance" system through yoga, yet we have brought all of that same baggage and liberally spread it throughout yoga studios everywhere.
How did we get here?
Sadly, it goes back thousands of years. Mostly, but not solely, to our religious backgrounds and how societal structure was organised around “the good and the bad”. In many Christian faiths you were “born in sin”. Catholics and Jews weave guilt and shame into the very fabric of their belief systems. Even the Buddhists will tell you that you are suffering and you must continue to suffer (for many lifetimes!) in order to become free. Go back even further, in Pagan times, if something went wrong with crops or battles it meant that you had angered the gods and therefore, someone had to pay via a sacrifice. These are all fear tactics in order to control behaviour in societies. It’s most likely embedded in our DNA by now.
It makes sense, then, that as our societies progressed we let this underlying current of fear-based judgement ride alongside with the modernisation of everything. In the last 50 or so years yoga has become more accessible to the West, and with it, that draw away from the old mentality towards a self connection. But perhaps we never had a chance to really examine clearly this foundational filter/background. The hippie movement of the sixties was so important. They challenged these “norms”. But change like that doesn’t happen overnight and it’s time that we look at what we are representing as yoga and paths towards freedom. Are we integrating the old beliefs into our new ideas?
The 'achievement mentality'
The current practices, in the name of yoga, are more often based in the achievement mentality.
Keep refining the poses.
Practice more and you’ll get better.
Longer hamstrings equals more extreme poses, equals a better yogi.
If you can do handstands in the middle of the room you are “advanced”.
If you practice everyday you are absolved of all your sins.
Or whatever belief systems we have underlying.
"The yogi that can hold their breath for 5 minutes must have more insight into something deeper, right? Well, no. And that’s the problem"
And it perpetuates into the other realms of the practices. I’ve often heard students ooh-ing and ahh-ing when they find out someone wakes up at 5am to meditate every morning (wow, they must be so much more spiritual than us!). The yogi that can hold their breath for 5 minutes must have more insight into something deeper, right? Well, no. And that’s the problem.
The practice is not in the asana - it's in the awareness!
The practice is never in the doing, it’s in the observation. It’s in the awareness (you’ve heard me say this a million times). Hopefully when we encounter awareness practices, we begin to notice and take a step back and pause. We need to examine how we approach our practice and ourselves. But because we have this desire and expectation to judge and be judged, we focus on the doing automatically. And bless everyone who is desperately looking for the connection beyond the doing and hitting their heads against the wall because most of the yoga outlets are still focusing on the external examination.
What is probably the most concerning outcome are those students who say to me “I try so hard, but I just can’t do more practice or meditate or breathe, I’m such a bad yogi”. It breaks my heart. They just haven’t learned what yoga really has to offer and how simple those gifts are. And as the Tantrics were so adamant to proclaim “they are accessible to everyone”. And yes, while yoga practices are more accessible to people worldwide than ever before in history, it is time to redirect what the focus is on. This is going to take a huge shift for people and many teachers in particular who are unwittingly perpetuating judgement in their classes on a daily basis.
What can we do now?
First of all, notice. Notice, as a practitioner do you sit in self judgement? Do you compare yourself to others? Do you have moments of feeling “not good enough”? Where does that come from? As teachers we need to examine our language and what are we really trying to teach. Yoga isn’t about getting your trikonasana right or having your toes in line with your knees. If that has been your focus then step back and ask yourself “why”? If we are working in the Hatha world that has come to us via the Tantrics, then we need to start asking what things feel like, instead of being concerned about what they look like.
"If we are working in the Hatha world that has come to us via the Tantrics, then we need to start asking what things feel like, instead of being concerned about what they look like"
In the next installation of this series I’m discussing how taking on board Eastern philosophies and practices while failing to ask questions added fuel to the fire of judgement in the modern yoga world. Our biggest mistake was we assumed we were being led into something ancient and foolproof…..