September 12, 2017

A Yogi in Mourning Amidst a Culture of Positivity.

“Find your bliss.” “Practice with joy.” “Feel good in your body.” “Positive vibes only.”

In between postural cues and reminders to breathe consciously, these phrases echoed repeatedly throughout a yoga class I attended recently.

Don’t get me wrong—as someone who touts the power of positive thinking, I’ve likely shared some iteration of these affirmations before, perhaps even during or after my own yoga classes. But on this occasion, I wasn’t feeling particularly joyful. My monkey mind was quite active, and bliss felt nearly impossible to achieve. The teacher’s words, though well-intentioned I’m sure, didn’t sit well.

A few hours earlier, I learned a family friend—the husband of one of my private yoga clients—had just died from a difficult battle with Parkinson’s Disease. As I moved through waves of grief, the consistent reminders to “feel good” and “practice with joy” felt a bit isolating.

Was this sad-feeling, slow-moving yogi welcome here?

Though I may not have known it at the time, the class was exactly what I needed, and I thanked the teacher for the space she provided. I left feeling better, but something had struck a chord. I couldn’t shake the feeling that our growing culture of positivity might be somewhat harmful to our health.

I questioned if our fascination with “positive vibes only” was unknowingly segregating the very people who could really benefit from a welcoming, non-judgmental practice environment—one unconcerned with whether we had found our bliss yet or not.

I’m not saying positivity doesn’t have its place. In my own life, the elimination of self-deprecating thought patterns has been quite transformational. But the culture of positivity promoted by some in the Westernized yoga world and new age community seems to have overshadowed an essential piece of the human experience.

Without taking the time to observe our dark shadow side and the way our emotions manifest physically, it will be difficult to identify the root of our issues. By encouraging the suppression of emotions—whether consciously or not—we’ll have a harder time achieving a universal bliss-filled state, both on and off the mat. No mud, no lotus, as the saying goes. Observing the patterns of the mind and body might not be the primary goal of everyone’s yoga practice. But if more exploratory space were added to both slow and fast-moving classes, it could at least be a secondary benefit.

The day I learned of her husband’s passing, my student invited me to teach a small group session with her family. Though I had learned several valuable lessons during my own “yoga in mourning” experience, I felt somewhat intimidated by the thought of leading a class of grieving family members. What could I offer this group that hadn’t been offered to me?

The answer was a combination of gentle pranayama and asana—a class that offered time to observe ourselves just as we were on that day and connect more deeply to our physical, mental, and emotional bodies. We felt sadness and anger. We felt confusion and exhaustion. It was authentic. It was painful. It was both an individual and communal practice—fitting for a Jewish family on a Friday afternoon at the start of Shabbat.

While a class entitled “yoga in mourning” might not fill up a yoga studio, perhaps there is a lesson or two to be learned from our practices that day.

We arrive on our mat seeking to be present with what is—even if what is isn’t what we want it to be. We try to take that practice out into our daily lives, releasing control, detaching from outcomes, and observing ourselves and each other with as little judgment as possible. Though we will certainly “feel good” again, if, in the moment we set foot on our mat, we are experiencing something other than joy, we should be offered the opportunity to feel into that fully and to practice with the bodies, thoughts, and emotions with which we arrived.

We’ve got to feel it to heal it, so to speak; to empty out the heavy to make room for the light.

I am a full proponent of positive thinking, but life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies. There must be space for ourselves and each other to examine the dark shadow side of our human experience, including in our yoga practice. It’s critical not only for our individual growth, but also the collective growth of humanity.

The power of a well-intentioned “good vibe tribe” is undeniable. But let’s ensure that those who aren’t feeling the “good vibes” quite yet are also invited to be a part of it.

Yogis mourning. Yogis rejoicing. Let all be welcome.


Author: Liz Getman
Image: Courtesy of Allison VanDenend
Editor: Catherine Monkman

Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Leah Sugerman

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Liz Getman