Examining Anger and Criticism in Yoga
Arbitrary Perceptions of “Negativity”
“My dear friend, I may be the victim of wrong perceptions, and what I write here may not reflect the truth. However, this is my experience of the situation. This is what I really feel in my heart. If there is anything wrong in what I write, let us sit down and look into it together”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
I overheard a conversation between two teachers at a yoga studio early into my teaching days. I forget the context of the conversation but one was clearly mad at the other about a critique of some kind. They veiled their anger under thick flowery language like wolves in sheep’s soft downy clothing but it didn’t stop them from making biting remarks. One of them didn’t like the other one’s “energy,” the other didn’t “feel” that her language was “yogic.” They spent about 5 minutes hurling Patanjali and Buddha at one another, which only increased the tension. I don’t know why they felt so compelled to try to disguise their anger and criticisms of eachother… but I walked away with the feeling that they wanted their calm to seem impenetrable… even if it was an illusion.
This passive aggressive tendency is a pattern that’s revealed itself to me over my years of teaching and I wonder why it is that we think that keeping our anger out of plain sight makes us any more calm, or any more enlightened. What I notice is at large, the yoga community arbitrarily will encourage unpleasant sensations like crying (it’s healing!), laughing (it’s releasing!), sadness (it’s a part of life!) I find it so interesting that yoga spaces in the west will make space for anything… unless it’s considered “negative” - like anger, criticism or plain ol’ not feeling positive or happy.
Negativity has become a yoga taboo. We’ve banished it as something to be “avoided”, “controlled”, “weak minded” or something that just makes us less than. The truth is we will encounter anger on the spiritual path. We’ll have times where we’re criticized in life. When we label things like anger, criticism as negative without fully considering their value or purpose we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to learn from them. So let’s examine them…
“When anger manifests in us, we must recognize and accept that anger is there and that it needs to be tended to. At this moment we are advised not to say anything, not to do anything out of anger. We immediately return to ourselves and invite the energy of mindfulness to manifest also,”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
Omitting anger from yoga spaces has lead to niche practices where angry yogis are encouraged to yell, swear, and scream their way to peace. While there’s a place for this practice in the yoga sphere, I wonder if anger need not be siloed out of sight in separate classes. If we can make space to be ok with feeling or being present around anger (instead of shoving it aside or identifying with it) we might learn why being around this emotion makes us so uncomfortable.
Anger, like all emotions, is trying to draw something to attention. As it relates to modern chakra and energy theory, anger is associated with fire. This comes up in our physical experience of anger (“hot under the collar”), our awareness by shedding light on what we need to work through, and getting us to act (“lighting a fire under our asses”), and then using anger to get us to change or transform out of our current situation (so we can let our anger go).
When we don’t acknowledge when something makes us angry - we’ll get stuck in our anger, identify with it, and in turn allow it to burn in the background eating away at us. We’re not “angry people” for feeling angry - we’re people experiencing anger for a time. Once anger has shown us where to move to, what we might need to work through, and act accordingly. While it’s true we need to let anger go so it doesn’t cause harm, we can’t rush ourselves or others to the “let go” stage. It needs to happen in its own time. While it’s important in some cases not to act from a place of anger, eventually - like anything we accumulate, we’ll need to deal with it. If we’re taught to avoid, we’re not going to deal.
I wonder if in the case of the yoga teachers above, if one of those teachers had acknowledged it - “Hey when you do x that really makes me angry because…” what kind of common ground or greater understanding they might have gotten to instead of seeing this emotion as making them a lesser yogi. Just because you feel angry sometimes, doesn’t make you an angry yogi!
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
– Winston Churchill
For my purposes here I’m defining criticism as “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work”.
A recent trend against criticism I’ve noticed in the teaching community is that there is “no wrong way to teach yoga.” Well… sorry I would have to disagree. If your students can’t understand your directions, aren’t safe or don’t meet your students where they’re at - that’s not the way to teach them. A much more accurate statement is “there are many ways to teach yoga” or that “there are as many paths to yoga as there are practitioners” or that “there is no perfect teacher”. Critique allows us to improve as teachers by seeing our teaching or practice from a different perspective.
As teachers, we are community leaders and we have to be open to what members of our community have to say in order to serve them. Shutting down criticism is closing off to a whole lot of opportunity to learn and improve by engaging in this dialogue and learning what communities need. Not to mention as teachers we command a certain level of power while leading a class and absolutely that power should get checked often and openly. While I approach teaching yoga as a highly subjective, personal, and practical artform - I realise that not unlike any art, taking a critical look at yoga will help you better understand it, yourself and your way of relating to it just by looking at it from someone else’s perspective.
That perspective shift doesn’t just apply to teachers either - I would highly encourage students to engage in critical thought in any yoga class to gain a bigger perspective. Instead of ending your questioning at “I don’t agree with this that or the other” or “that doesn’t serve me” see what happens when you delve deeper into “why.” Blindly following any teacher will leave you vulnerable to their limitations - you’re your own best teacher when you critique, reflect and question to gain a higher perspective and awareness of yourself.
In offering criticism, remember that your perspective is not an absolute either. Critique itself doesn’t make one party wrong and the other right but it can be a means of checking in on the perspective that you hold. Not necessarily identifying with what you’ve found - meaning you’re are not your flaws, mistakes or shortcomings. They’re a part of your story but not necessarily definitions of who you are. What do you as a result of becoming aware of your perceptions, limits and flaws - that’s a different opportunity for growth. Inoffering criticism you open yourself to it as well - which is of equal value to you as the one who you’re offering it to.
Criticism, and open questioning has been a common theme in traditional yoga dialogues - and I’m not saying that traditional is necessarily best but I am saying that questioning has endured for a reason - I believe that reason to be that it has allowed yoga to evolve. Questioning alignment in poses started as a criticism, questioning accepted philosophies started as a criticism. Different opinions aren’t bad - they’re just different. Let’s aspire to hold space for them.
What is it that we gain from keeping criticisms at bay and putting anger under siege? Is it the feeling that yoga is a cure-all from discomfort? Does it allow us to hold to an unchecked power for our egos? Are we afraid of the potential of anger to harm absolutely? I wonder if instead of avoiding or judging our anger and critical thoughts, if we used them as an opportunity to grow and transform what would we be able to gain?
What do you think? Do anger and criticism have a place in yoga spaces?