Can Negative Emotions Benefit Our Yoga Practice?

“Today the sun is shining and I am grateful for this beautiful day #sunshine #yoga #goodvibes”.

“There’s so much attention given to negative news that sometimes we let that negativity overshadow all of the love in the world #positivevibes #love #yoga”.

“Open your heart and see love everywhere. The world is beautiful #grateful #yoga”.

After a few minutes scrolling through my Instagram feed, I’m bombarded with captions like this. I’m not being sarcastic — these are all real; vapid and vague quotes saturate the online yoga community, claiming the world’s ill-will can be cured with one giant hug . It’s the type of insipid optimism only afforded to a privileged few.

“suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience; one that can facilitate our emotional development.”

Western yoga is obsessed with positivity; teachers often preach 24/7 love and light to their students, encouraging them to let go of negative emotions in order to reach a higher plane (ok, now I’m taking the piss). Somehow, they’ve entwined spirituality with happiness; strengthening the, frankly absurd, sentiment that you can’t be a yogi unless you possess an all-encompassing joie de vivre . They skim over the fact that suffering is an unavoidable part of the human experience; one that can facilitate our emotional development.

Anger, sadness, lethargy… they all serve us in some way and it’s usually these kinds of difficult emotions that precede change; unhappiness in a relationship can spur you on to find new love, outrage at an unethical company could kick-start a social revolution and resentment towards a job might lead to a new and exciting career path. All this possibility is born from pain, so why do we try and avoid it at all costs?

When we run from negativity, our growth is stunted; how are we supposed to learn and develop when we’re stuck in a perpetual, bubble-wrapped childhood? Challenging situations give us a chance to critically think and they require strength, perseverance and, above all, hope. Sometimes we muddle through the tough-times unscathed; sometimes we end up inconsolable after two bottles of Pinot wondering where it all went wrong. More often than not, I fall into the latter camp I’m so basic ; but even then, at the very least, I have an experience to learn from. God bless silver linings.

“It turns the practice into an exclusive club for the elated elite.”

If you are one of these “live, laugh, love” turmeric latte guzzling types, your avoidance of the real world spiritual development is none of my concern; you do you. But I reserve my right to get hella mad when this collective thought process alienates people from starting yoga. It turns the practice into an exclusive club for the elated elite. If you aren’t sporting a permanent Joker-worthy grin, you can forget about joining.

This attitude doesn’t scream “yoga”, does it? However, it’s the message influential figures in the community, whether consciously or subconsciously, are reinforcing every time they post an infuriatingly trite, inspirational quote. When these leaders and teachers gloss over the grittier aspects of life, they promote the idea there’s only one way of living as a yogi; it’s clean and censored, full of scented candles, gratitude lists and laughter (if one more person tells me to “inhale love, exhale fear”, I’m going to lose my shit). Their lives are apparently endless bliss and if their followers or students experience anything different, then they must be doing it wrong.

When I first started yoga, I was bulimic and depressed. I was as incapable of positive thinking as I was piking into headstand. Classes weren’t easy; when I stepped on my mat, I didn’t experience a state of pure relaxation; in savasana, I wriggled around uneasily, struggling to contain my whirlwind thoughts; meditation and pranayama seemed impossible because my anxious brain buzzed belligerently no matter how hard I tried to calm it. Basically, I was no fun at a party the furthest from inner-peace you can imagine.

“there are people out there, more immersed in the online community than me, who are struggling to maintain the illusion of perfection while falling apart inside.”

Since then, I’ve worked through my emotions and overcome plenty of obstacles; I’m now a somewhat balanced individual. But things could have been SO different; what would have happened if I followed in the faultless footsteps of all those famous Instagram yogis? Would I have grown so much if, instead of facing up to life’s difficulties, I painted over them with impeccable poses and a phoney grin? Thankfully, I have an amazing teacher who preaches inclusivity and acceptance of the highs AND lows, so I never had to find out. However, I know there are people out there, more immersed in the online community than me, who are struggling to maintain the illusion of perfection while falling apart inside.

Yoga isn’t about escaping pain; it’s a tool to manage pain. It doesn’t require its practitioners to be happy all the time; it’s actually about accepting both positive and negative emotions as they come. Some people say the glass is half-full and others think it’s half-empty; yoga believes the glass just IS. Likewise, anger and conflict have rightful places in any practice as long as they’re well-thought-out and measured in their delivery. If we didn’t get appropriately pissed off, how would we stand up for ourselves? More importantly, how would we stand up for others?

I’m not telling you to become an incessant kill-joy; on the contrary, I’m a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. Changing our perspectives, so we focus on the good things in our lives, has the ability to hook us from despair and drag our weary bodies to brighter places.

“More often than not, in the beginning, you’ll feel frustrated, angry and impatient with your progress.”

However, people tend to hone in on peace to the detriment of the harder-to-stomach stuff. Peace is easy to talk about; it’s the hard work it takes to get there that people don’t want to address. The grisly truth is that yoga isn’t always a pristine and pleasant practice. More often than not, in the beginning, you’ll feel frustrated, angry and impatient with your progress. The combined efforts of asana, pranayama and meditation can dig up deep-seated and painful emotions. Much like any therapeutic process, it’ll get worse before it gets better.

Originally published at https://ashleighmayesyoga.com on September 17, 2019.

My name’s Ashleigh — yoga teacher and mental health advocate.

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