Is spirituality just a code for narcissism? For years we thought we were cynical bastards for mocking people who call stretching a religious experience. And yes: we were (still are!) jealous of yogis’ tight abs and toned booties. But also: our criticism is justified! Just ask science.
Yoga is supposed to be a 90 minute open-eye meditation that teaches you the self is an illusion. The better you understand this, the more enlightened you are. In theory, this is a thoroughly non-selfish and beautiful ideology.
However a recent study directly contradicts this, finding that contemporary meditation and yoga practices can actually inflate your ego. The University Of Southampton, (who published their findings in the Journal of Psychological Science), took 93 yoga students and evaluated their sense of self-enhancement over a period of 15 weeks.
First they assessed participants’ perception of self-enhancement by asking how they compared to the average yoga student in their class. Then they had take a test that identified underlying narcissistic tendencies (e.g. participants had to rate how deeply phrases like “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done” applied to them). Finally, as reported by Quartz, they administered a self-esteem scale asking participants whether they agreed with statements like, “At the moment, I have high self-esteem.”
“When students were evaluated in the hour after their yoga class, they showed significantly higher self-enhancement, according to all three measures, than when they hadn’t done yoga in the previous 24 hours, (Quartz).”
Similar results were obtained from a group of volunteers who practiced meditation. Which begs the question: were the participants doing these ‘ego-quietening’ activities wrong, or was Buddha a jolly old liar?
The former seems more likely. In fact, there’s a longstanding theory put forward by various academics that Western teachers of Buddhism, “Fail to practice with an eye towards the selflessness that should characterise the goals of these efforts,” (Quartz). Although yoga and meditation were originally intended as ways to calm the ego, many new-age practitioners do them with self-improvement as their main aim.
Which is fair enough. But as Andrew Hampson from Bad Yogi Retreats points out; you can’t have your enlightenment and eat it too. Also: just because yoga makes you feel good about yourself, doesn’t mean it makes you selfish…
“The way that I teach and the way that I practice is all about being ‘real’ and not being pretentious or arrogant about the postures you can do well.”
“And I firmly believe that anyone who strives for a healthy spine and a quiet mind is heading in the right direction spiritually,” he said.
“Saying there is only one true version of yoga is like saying there is only one true kind of music.”
“The bottom line is if you are moving your body mindfully, and breathing consciously then you are practising yoga. That’s it full stop! The name or style of yoga isn’t important, how sweaty or mellow the yoga is isn’t important … conscious breathing and mindful movement IS important!”, he said.