Yoga is one of the oldest practices in the world, dating back at least 5,000 years. At the heart of the practice is the idea that yoga and meditation are a path to forget the self, to reorient to a bigger and more compassionate view of the world. And every day, millions of people--more than 20 million in the United States alone--participate in some kind of yoga activity (even yoga with dogs).
So you'd think there'd be a lot of healthily ego-deflated, non-narcissistic individuals walking around, right?
Lots of yoga, lots of ego
According to a new study from the University Mennheim in Germany, yoga might not be the ego-quieting cure we'd like it to be. Researchers recruited 93 yoga students and evaluated their sense of self-enhancement over 15 weeks. To do this, the team asked students how they compared to the average student in their class, had students complete a narcissistic tendency inventory and administered a self-esteem scale. After practicing yoga, the students showed higher self-enhancement through these three measures than when they hadn't done yoga in the previous 24 hours. And as reported by Olivia Goldhill for Quartz, a second study focusing on meditation produced similar results.
Did the original yogis get it wrong?
While it's possible that Buddhists really did get it wrong when it comes to ego quieting, Goldhill asserts that there's probably a simpler explanation--many Western yoga and meditation practitioners don't truly stay focused on reducing the self. Instead, the approach is almost a 180 shift toward the internal. While 79 percent of practitioners do give back to their communities, they still focusing on what they personally can gain from their sessions (e.g., reduced stress, better health, improved attention and creativity). In fact, the top five reasons for starting yoga are all self-oriented (flexibility, 61 percent; stress relief, 56 percent; general fitness, 49 percent; improve overall health, 49 percent; and physical fitness, 44 percent). Rather than concentrating on how they can improve the world, they concentrate on how they can improve themselves.
But...but....self-improvement...that's the lifeblood of the professional
This study doesn't at all suggest that business leaders have to stop doing yoga or meditation. But if Goldhill is correct, then we might have to rethink our perception of what yoga and meditation really are. In their original design and intent, they are not for you (the consumer view). They are for us (the steward view). And what we see as the major benefits (e.g., stress control) should be side effects of the primary goal, which is to make what is around us better and to understand our connection to everything. To put it another way, self-improvement and thinking about others are synonymous.
It might be that the Western mispractice of yoga means that we always have to go back for a fix. Stress out, do yoga, feel a little better about ourselves, get steamrolled by life, repeat. If we get back in touch with yoga's true roots, however, then we are proactive rather than reactive. The practice changes our entire attitude and philosophy, which alters what we allow to stress us out in the first place. While we always can return to the practice to learn and change even more, this is a much more permanent solution.
But how do we get back in touch with the original intent?
Look two paragraphs back. See that shift in pronouns? You versus us? Latch onto that. This isn't the time for "I"-based affirmations. For example, instead of thinking "I have the power to ____", say something like "________ needs me to ________" or "________ has given me the ability to _______" This forces you to acknowledge that there's something bigger than you, even as it maintains a focus on the goal and confirms what you can do. Even something like "I hear birds and the wind" can be rephrased to "The birds and the wind are talking to me" or "The birds and the wind are calming me down."
2 pitfalls to avoid as you get back on track
Yoga and meditation can be fantastic tools for a better life. But to get the maximum benefits, we must be careful that we're not falling prey to the overwhelming commercialization of the practices. For perspective, a 2016 Yoga in America study showed that practitioners spent $16.8 billion on yoga classes and products. Study the masters, not the sales associates. It's also worth noting that the bulk of yogis (72 percent or 26.4 million) are women. This reveals the Western perception of yoga as feminine, which creates a barrier to the ideal of everyone using the practice to become better. See what the world and others need from you as a person, not as male or female or anything else. With this kind of open mind, nothing can hold you back.