Traditional yoga isn’t just a form of exercise. It’s a personal, meditative practice that helps you become more connected, calm, and collected. Ultimately, regular yoga practice is meant to make you less self-centered and instead, bring you closer to enlightenment.
But a new study published in the journal Psychological Science found that practitioners of yoga are actually more self-centered.
So — what gives?
Well, I have some ideas about why yogis are so narcissistic. (Hint: $200 yoga pants won’t help you attain enlightenment.) I’ll tell you all about those ideas in a moment. But first, let’s discuss an appropriate approach to the sacred practice of yoga…
Shedding the ego
The ego is your sense of self-esteem and self-importance. In Buddhism, the ego is called Anatta, which means “illusion of self.” Anatta must be kept in balance to avoid attachments to desires and expectations. (In other words, the ego can make us think too highly of ourselves.)
The practice of traditional yoga and meditation is intended to help us shed the ego.
There are actually six traditional forms of yoga. And they all focus on entering meditative states.
Hatha yoga — the main form practiced in the U.S. — emphasizes physical approaches to meditation. In fact, it’s the only approach that uses physical postures, movements, and breathing. And in traditional Hatha yoga, breathing — a semi-voluntary reflex — is equally as important as voluntary physical movements.
But the version of Hatha yoga practiced in most places in the U.S. doesn’t even resemble the traditional form. Indeed, many yoga teachers and practitioners in the U.S. consider it a physical “workout” — rather than a spiritual endeavor.
This commercialization of yoga has even spawned a new ditzy corner of the gimmicky clothing market called athleisure. And business is booming. In fact, in 2017, for the first time ever, the sale of those ubiquitous, stretchy, black yoga pants outpaced the sale of denim in the U.S. (another nutty fashion fad, from the 1960s).
When I was a young man, I learned to practice yoga on a mat in the living room for free. But today, bicep-bulging men and scantily clad women pay up to $50 an hour to do a supposed sun salutation in exposed-beam industrial buildings. Especially in trendy neighborhoods in big, crowded cities.
So, is it any wonder that men and women in this elite segment of society — the only segment of society that can afford to practice this commercialized yoga — actually have an inflated sense of self?
Fueling the ego, not dousing it
For the new study, researchers analyzed 93 yoga students over 15 weeks. After practicing yoga, the participants completed surveys that asked them how much they related to statements like: “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done.” The students also ranked how much statements like “at the moment, I have high self-esteem” applied to them.
In the second part of the experiment, the researchers analyzed data for 162 people who practiced meditation over four weeks.
Turns out, in both cases, the students thought more highly of themselves than those who didn’t practice yoga or mediation.
The researchers claim the intended “ego-quieting” effect of yoga and meditation contradicts a universal psychological principle called self-centrality. (The “father” of American psychology, William James at Harvard first described the self-centrality principle in 1907.)
The principle of self-centrality states that practicing any skill renders the practitioner to become more self-centered.
But I’m not buying it.
If these folks practiced traditional yoga, they’d have vastly different results. They’d feel at ease, content, conscious, and have a strong mind-body connection.
Instead, they’re spending $50 an hour to look at themselves stretching in the mirror in overpriced spandex pants. Of course, they have an inflated sense of self!
The Dalai Lama wrote, “Buddha concluded that when we assert that the self exists independently, our innate sense of self-centeredness increases and solidifies. As a result, the lust, anger, pride, jealousy, and doubt that stem from being self-centered grow stronger and more ingrained.”
The bottom line
My point is this: In order to practice authentic, traditional yoga, you don’t need to join a Buddhist Monastery, on the one hand, or a modern yoga studio on the other hand (you know that posture). And you certainly don’t need to spend your time and hard-earned money outfitting yourself with trendy, fashionable clothing and equipment.
You can learn the sun salutation of traditional Hatha yoga from my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness and practice it quietly at home like I do. And it’s well worth the time and effort — as recent research shows traditional yoga offers healing benefits for many chronic conditions, including arthritis, depression, lung, and heart disorders.
Or, you may find that quieting your mind by simply sitting outdoors in Nature works just fine for you instead. There’s always a way to incorporate the practice of meditation in the middle of your busy life. No yoga pants (or panting) required.
P.S. For more on the benefits of traditional yoga and mindfulness, I encourage you read New World Mindfulness, a book I wrote with my colleague Don McCown.
“Mind-body practices and the self: Yoga and meditation do not quiet the ego, but instead boost self-enhancement,” Psychological Science (www.journals.sagepub.com) 6/22/2018
“There’s a monumental shift in American fashion — and it’s killing denim for good,” Business Insider (www.businessinsider.com)