Ivory Magazine why yoga and mindfulness is not always a feel good industry in mental health

Yoga is not about bliss

In Spirituality by Ivory Magazine6 Comments

Yoga has a corner market on feel good words.  I recently had a massage therapist tell me we were both in the ‘feel good industry’.  But yoga isn’t all about feeling good.

The promise of ‘enlightenment’ tends to make us think we will be more spiritual, and this somehow means we’ll be a little less freakish about time, our kids, our money.  There is truth to this.  Yoga can show us how good it feels to be alive.

But yoga will also show us exactly how badly we feel.  Usually, when honest emotion starts to come up, students leave.  They skip class or decide yoga wasn’t what they wanted.

They say ‘it’s not working any longer’.  The emotion itself keeps them away; they’re ‘not in the mood’, ‘too busy’, or ‘too depressed to move’.  They will  – trust me, this is real – feel guilty for feeling so crummy when others are just trying to get their savasana on.

This doesn’t indicate that the yoga isn’t working, but that it is.  The end isn’t this negativity, this disappointment, but negativity is part of the path, and it has to be gone through if you want to understand it, to understand yourself, at all.

If you don’t, you’ll be shutting down half of your experience of life, and probably the best strengths you’ll ever find.  If you don’t, you’ll continue to skip, overcompensate, repeat, and lull.  You’ll segue irritation into nicety, stuff it, and it will erupt later as rage toward an intimate or yourself.

Most of us have spent the majority of our lives stuffing and repressing our feelings, rationalizing them, avoiding them, or sublimating them into exercise, food, cigarettes, television, shallow relationships.

Women are taught not to feel anger because it’s not nice, not feminine (or too feminine and bitchy, emotional, hormonal and out of control).  Men are supposed to feel competence, all the time.  In our efforts to feel better, many of us start shutting it off, wholesale, in favor of pop psychology or easy spirituality.

It’s called spiritual bypass.  It’s an attempt to avoid painful feelings, unresolved issues, or truthful developmental needs with such words as ‘everything happens for a reason’,  ‘god’s ways are not our ways’, or ‘choose happiness’.

There will be a yoga class, someday, online or at your local studio, where your teacher will start singing. She’ll say ‘exhale’ as if there’s something orgasmic about it.  She might allude to the goodness of your heart, your hamstrings, or the light inside.

If you are like me, this may make you clench your bandhas like a fist.  There may come a day you lower down into child’s pose, “sweet, receptive, safe” child’s pose and feel nothing but boredom, irritability, and dis-ease.  You keep lifting your head off the mat, looking at the clock.  There may come a day your brain starts swearing at the lovely yoga teacher saying something vapid about love in your newly blossomed chakra.

Here is the thing.  Yoga is not about bliss, but about honesty.  Spirituality is not certainty, but the longing of the heart.  Enlightenment is not ‘letting go’ of bad feelings, but understanding them, what they’re doing to us, and how they are expressed in the body.

Non-harming and forgiveness are not about feeling generous or big enough (bigger than and condescending), but knowing the difficulty of right actions and assuming responsibility for the difficult.  Forgiveness often comes directly out of acknowledging how bloody bitter we are.  Love is not joy, all the time. Sometimes, love hurts. Love is raw.

Yoga is a love story.  Not the fluffy, romanticized love story, but the real one.  The kind that leaves you changed.

Emotions are doorways, ways in.  The goal is not to exist without shadows, to become so spiritual we no longer feel fat, bored, envious, or impatient.  The goal is to swallow hard as we take on willingness to go into the dark.

Because yoga asks you to work with both your body and your mind, the inevitable result is going to be messy.  There will be times the body itself will start in on anger, hot and fast, trembly, without the reasoning mind having a clue what is going on.  There will be days the boredom or loneliness seem so sharp they may actually wound.  There will be five thousand ways your mind will tell you it isn’t worth it, it won’t work, that love is not real.

Yet, yoga has probably already given you a clue to this.  You’ve probably already felt how love – whether it be romantic or ethical, compassion, right living, making a solidity of your name – is the only thing that is real.  The highest and best in human beings is subtle, mysterious, and tied directly to the shadows.  Life is both unbearably cruel and devastatingly sweet, often at the same time.

The shadows will show up.  Go there.  Apathy, acedia, what Christian mystics called desolation, existentials call despair, moves when we move toward it.  It isn’t the passage of time that heals us, but the passing through experiences.

There are hundreds of things telling us to ‘get over it’, to ‘think positively’, or to ‘let it go’.  Be wary of these as the roadside distractions that they are.

Yoga is the love story where in things fall apart.  God moves away, often at the same time he takes away the ground.  First goes this, then goes that.  Gone are the thrill of the first months of yoga class, the ease of learning something new every time you walked in the door.  Gone is the schedule that allowed you class three times a week.  Gone is the strength in your shoulders, the ability to keep on a diet.  Gone is the confidence of conversion.

And then a small movement in the heart.  And then two.

By karin

Ivory MagazineYoga is not about bliss


  1. Vickie

    This is beautiful. I have never read anything like this before. Insightful and helpful. Thank you.

  2. Raymond-Kym Suttle

    I can’t agree with a lot of this article. Firstly ‘sometimes love hurts’ – if it hurts then you’re not feeling or coming from a place of love but a place of fear instead. ‘Love hurts’ is a pop-song, drama-based relationship idea. It comes from the erroneous belief that passion, lust, dependency & jealousy are part of a great love story. But if you truly Love someone, your feelings for them bring you joy. The second you’re not feeling joy then you’ve moved into fear-based thoughts & actions.

    Aside from this, the experience that the writer seems to have had of people leaving a class rather than deal with their emotions indicates poor teaching skills. A great teacher may well elicit challenging emotions through a good class, but provides a space in which students feel safe to release them & stay; I have often had people cry in my classes & come to me afterwards & express simultaneous surprise & relief, and the experience of feeling better for the release.

    My point is that emotions may come up but as soon as you label them ‘negative’ emotions, you imply that it’s better not to feel those emotions. On one hand this article says ‘express these difficult repressed feelings’ but on the other hand the language implies that there is value in releasing them through a challenging process.

    I argue that yoga absolutely is about bliss. It’s about the bliss of coming into a space where it’s ok to feel fragile, bored, distracted & allow the teacher to lead you to a better state. I always encourage laughter in my class because if you’re not enjoying the class & having a good time, you’ve missed the point of coming. No matter how awful your life is when you come to class, a good teacher will ensure you will feel better when you leave.

    Part of the problem is teachers who either don’t have the skill to facilitate this transformation, or they take themselves too seriously & in doing so lead people to believe that yoga is a very serious practice for of reverential focus & silence. You are more likely to be focused & attentive & engaged in a class if you’re actively enjoying it!

    I encourage my students to be like young children emotionally – feel a feeling, let it out, move on to the next one. Cry one minute, laugh the next. Feel it & release it, rather than feel it, mull it over, ruminate, hold onto it, let it fester… In other words, if you’re not having fun in yoga, that’s hours of your life wasted.

    The best way to release past hurts, etc, is simply too focus on things that have nothing to do with those past hurts, i.e. Be on the present – the past only exists in the present if you think about it in the present. We can only think about one thing at a time. Think about your breath & you can’t think about your shitty childhood…

    And, you can practice yoga & benefit from it as an atheist. I have no belief in God but I have a belief in a joyous life that spreads joy to those around you.

  3. Seb

    I find this article spot on. The comment that Raymond-Kim gives is to me again a confirmation that yoga is being ripped apart in all kinds of directions and in the end misses its core. I don’t recommend yoga anymore to my classes because of this.

    “The best way to release past hurts, is to focus on things that have nothing to do with these hurts.”

    I’m sorry but that’s not releasing, that’s ignoring. Try to teach your students forgiveness and love. I guarantee your students much better results and less psychological damage in the long run.

  4. Raymond-Kym Suttle

    Seb, I’m very clear in my comment that I’m NOT advocating ignoring feelings of hurt. I say it in quite a few ways that one absolutely needs to feel the feelings and express them rather than bottle them in – because that’s ignoring them, hoping they’ll stay buried and never have to be dealt with. The line you quote from my comment refers to the fact that a great many people attach their identity to the events of their lives, and trauma or hurt seems to define a lot of people. If you spend your life obsessing about what happened in your past that is so awful then you’ll never move forward and you’ll always define yourself as a victim of your past.

    Your statement that my comment confirms that “yoga is being ripped apart… and in the end misses it’s core” is baffling. I thought the core of yoga was to facilitate personal growth, awareness and unity. You have no experience of my class, my teaching and my 30 years of experience. I have been responsible for dozens of people becoming yoga instructors themselves and I’ve experienced the joy of seeing people leaving my class connected and joyful too. If that’s “ripping yoga apart” and “psychological damage’ then I’m delighted to be guilty of your accusation.

    There’s also the issue that yoga, like language, society and civilisations, is constantly evolving. And a good thing too – I’ve been to some Indian teachers who have injured people with bad teaching skills and believing that there is an unchangeable way that yoga “should” be leads to stagnancy and dogma rather than expansion and exploration.

Leave a Comment