on times when yoga doesn't help.
Yoga can cure anything. That’s a thing right? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it on the internet, maybe even at Barnes & Nobles. Somebody shared an article about it on Facebook and it had tons of likes. It's definitely real. I’m sure of it.
If you’ve read the infamous Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar (you’ve probably at least skimmed it) then you know that by the glory of yoga and say, by doing inversions for example, you can cure your anemia, your infertility, persistent headaches, annoying insomnia, and I can’t quite remember what else is on the list, but I know it’s very long. Headstands will solve my Iron deficiency? Hallelujah, because eating spinach, or red meat, or cooking with cast iron certainly aren’t reliable enough sources.
I’m not here to burst your yoga bubble, clearly I subscribe to a similar lifestyle, but I am here because of a pinterest-esque image I saw shared on my Facebook feed recently. It read: “Meditate Don’t Medicate” and I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. To be fair, “Yoga” shoulders a great burden. Many of us come to the practice with expectations that we will be transformed. (and in only 40 days!? whaaaat, that sounds awesome!) We hear about the contentment, the peace, the bodily ease, and then we see the current Yoga sphere which has quite a nice sheen to it. It’s just a bit glossy, shiny and bouncy, and it wants to tell you that everything will be okay if you just unroll your mat. If you just breathe. If you just handstand. or just think happy thoughts. or just buy these pants. I like pants. I like happy. Okay, yeah this sounds good lets do it!
We ask a lot of this practice.
help me calm down. make me stronger. help me focus. clear up my acne. cure my IBS. help me lose 10 pounds. fix my marriage. get me a promotion. help me have a baby. make me comfortable in my own skin. make me a better person. please. pretty please.
Some of it is marketing, some of it is stress relief, some of it is the inevitable positive effects of simply moving your body on a regular basis. Yes, some of it is certainly real. But we often show up to the practice with the expectation that it will just do it’s work. Practice and all is coming right? With the exception of a few specific practices - Forrest Yoga’s work with trauma is a great example - most current practices aren’t very good at actually addressing anything in particular. There is a lot of Kumbaya and chakra cleansing but what happens when that doesn’t work? When a strong meditation and pranayama practice don’t bring balance? Or when the issues are chemical? When it’s simply not enough? What about when yoga doesn’t, can’t, or simply shouldn’t, cure?
There is a distinct stigma that comes with mental illness. There is a layer of shame that often accompanies grieving. As if we should just be happy or that we should just get over it. That anything less than ideal doesn’t deserve our headspace, or any space for that matter. Why exactly is it that we think that we should be able to cure everything anyways? What is it about yoga that makes us believe that we are somehow supposed to be able to rise above it all? How have we gotten to a place where it is acceptable to posit that a simple sequence of 5 yoga poses will rid your body of cellulite (mostly genetic by the way) or that practicing twisting postures will detox (also, not a thing by the way) our bodies of mysterious toxins. Teachers instruct their students, and because this is a truly impactful practice, they subsequently inform their students lives with spiritual bypass rhetoric about trusting the universe, relinquishing control, or being exactly where you were meant to be.
The problem with this yoga cure-all/let it go/positive thinking rhetoric is that phrases like “Meditate Don’t Medicate”, or “Everything Happens for a Reason” are minimizing. Telling someone who just miscarried that “God/The Universe has a plan” or that “at least they know they can get pregnant” is to gravely minimize their loss. It takes away their permission to grieve. Similarly, proselytizing about meditation to someone who suffers from clinical depression is not only disrespectful to their reality, it is downright dangerous. Sure, deep breathing techniques may have a profound effect on managing asthma attacks, but I’m not going to recommend that you toss your steroid inhaler out the window. because that would be irresponsible. and stupid. and I’M NOT A DOCTOR.
Of course, this kind of prescription isn’t just limited to yogis. Most of us don’t know how to explore the vulnerable tough stuff so we relinquish the responsibility of dealing with it, or actually being present to help someone through it, with empty language like this. Whether we realize it or not, we are attempting to comfort and rationalize without actually acknowledging someones deeply personal experience.
But here’s the thing, we are not going to somehow infect each other with misfortune just by talking about struggle or loss. Acknowledging injustices, injuries, or mental illnesses will not jinx us. Hardships are not contagious, yet we treat them as if they are something to be quarantined and sprinkled with magical-thinking fairy dust until (hopefully) one day they disappear. It’s this same sort of superstitious rationale that makes us believe if we always sit in the same lay-z boy recliner each Sunday that our favorite football team will finally win the Superbowl. Employing this illogical and magical thinking has convinced us that talking about something will finally make it real or somehow change the outcome.
My plea is to wholeheartedly give ourselves, and others, permission to be less than happy. less than healthy, and less than perfect. permission to be angry. or sad. to be depressed or anxious. permission to feel shattered. permission to be diagnosed and be open about what that means. everyone deserves permission to experience a full range of feelings. and permission to deal with what needs dealing with, to find the right solution for each individual. Working through the mud and muck usually requires a bit of help. Whether it be pharmaceutical aids, therapists, or modalities outside of ourselves and our all-mighty yoga practice.
Of course the practice can help, there is no disputing that, but this exclusionary view of it can also hurt. Yoga rightly deserves some credit, but it is certainly not a one-size fits all replacement for open dialogue, clinical healthcare, or psychotherapy.
It seems essential, maybe now more than ever in the world of internet-experts, to check the boundaries of our expertise and our capacity as influencers. It requires us to take a calculated look at the expectations we’ve put on this practice versus the very real limits of its reach. Yoga may be one piece of a larger wellness pie, but without the whole we risk starving ourselves and our communities of the very real support required. Let’s remove the idea that yoga is purely prescriptive, or that it even needs to be.