Yoga for non-toxic positivity
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how negative our feelings or dire our situation, we must maintain a positive mindset. This involves denying feelings like anger, fear, disappointment and any other emotions we consider “bad”. By pushing away and avoiding uncomfortable feelings, we bypass how we process the world. Our emotional reality isn’t validated, and instead we live in a state of denial. It’s not a good place to be.
Denial protects the ego
Denial from a psychology perspective, is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a “defence mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem, or with reality, is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.” Anna Freud suggested that this defence mechanism prevents feelings of anxiety, ultimately protecting the ego from distress.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali tells us that much of our unhappiness comes from trying to protect the ego in this way. He says the kleshas, or afflictions, are at the core of all our suffering, and it starts with the misunderstanding of who and what we are. We believe we are just our ego, the body, mind and personality self, instead of being connected to something greater. Therefore, we protect the ego (especially from pain or distress) as though it’s a matter of life or death … because it is. If we believe we are just the ego and the ego dies, then so do we. The party is over. Thus we end up bouncing between raga (attachment) and dvesha (aversion), attaching to feelings we like and pushing away the ones we don’t. The constant moving away from and rejecting bad feelings while attaching to and preaching “good vibes only” is at the heart of toxic positivity.
Embracing the dark side of the ego
This is why working with accepting and loving the ego wholeheartedly is so important. Learning to embrace the big feelings in equal measure to the good feelings, especially in formal practice through meditation, is a great place to start. Witnessing all our thoughts and feelings regularly and practising equanimity while we observe them teaches us to love every part of ourselves — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Downside of denial
The silencing of, or inability to express, negative feelings such as grief, sadness, disappointment and anger can have dire consequences for our mental health and wellbeing.
Ignoring those emotions means we are dismissing our reality and covering up our experiences. Research has shown that people who avoid challenging emotions end up feeling worse. Conversely, acknowledging and accepting negative feelings may actually be more beneficial to a person’s mental health in the long run.
The well-known and densely populated city of “busy-ness” is a great place to hide from all those big feelings. There’s so much focus today on being productive and busy that we find ourselves running around in circles with no time to worry about how we really feel. Often, though, suppressing unwanted feelings prevents us from discovering profound and valuable self-knowledge. Patanjali prescribes svadhyaya, or knowledge of the self, as one of the most important yogic practices. Perhaps sadness or loneliness shows you that it’s time to make practical changes in your life. Making those changes could ultimately be the most productive thing you do — and your ticket out of busy-ness city.
The antidote to toxic positivity
Fortunately, the antidote to toxic positivity is practical and accessible in every moment, wherever you are. The process of mindfulness will foster an ability to sit with our experiences free from judgement and accept things as they are.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
First, we need to wake up and pay attention. This means seeing what’s in front of us instead of living in a constant state of distraction. When Kabat-Zinn says “on purpose”, consider taking skilful action in each moment.
Our thoughts and actions are no longer unconscious. We are not sleepwalking, rather being purposeful in where we direct our attention and choosing to place it on the reality of what is happening now. Once we witness that reality, we try to stay free from judgement and let the experience just be. This is how we nurture acceptance.
In order to embrace and accept our reality, we observe our experiences and feelings without needing to label them “good” or “bad”. Acceptance is not apathy; it’s just seeing things clearly. It doesn’t mean you are paralysed and don’t take action in your life. It’s the opposite. You start taking more skilful action.
Ahimsa, the primary practice of yoga and Buddhism, is the understanding that compassion comes before anything else. Minimising the experience of those around by preaching toxic positivity isn’t an act of service: it’s an act of disempowerment, and in its extreme state, a form of gaslighting.
To be able to sit with someone’s big, negative feelings or painful experiences is an act of service. When in doubt, when you’re unclear what to do, ahimsa always wins.
“Vitarka-ba-dhane prati-paks.a-bha-vanam” or “When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think of the opposite.” ~ Yoga Sutras 2.33
(translation by Sharon Gannon and David Life)
This verse is a very powerful invitation by Patanjali to interrupt the whirling mind when it is disturbed, to break the circuit and try to see things in a completely different way.
Patanjali tells us in Yoga Sutras 1:2 that the whirling of the mind moves in a rotational way. Thoughts go around and around and we can get stuck on a loop. Flipping our perspective can be liberating. It acts as a circuit breaker, allowing the mind to snap out of a negative state and look at things in a completely different way. The power of perspective is unmistakable. We’ve all felt how taking a short holiday can shift our perception. The thought or feeling is still there when we return, but sometimes just turning things on their head for a moment offers some clarity.
Another antidote to toxic positivity is gratitude. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming. We experience pain, suffering and loss and can often have big feelings. We can be in experiences like that and still practise gratitude. It doesn’t mean pushing the sadness away or feeling guilty because someone is worse off than us and forcing a smile. The negative emotion can coexist while also being grateful for all we have. We can have the sun and rain all at once.
Shifting your perspective yoga practice
Practising inversions is a great way to turn things upside down to get a new perspective. They can teach acceptance in honouring exactly where we are in the process. Here are some poses that are great preparation for some of the more advanced inversions. Feel free to add on if you are experienced and have those asanas in your practice. (demonstration photos below)
First, choose a seat and listen to the sounds around you. Try not to add labels to the sounds; rather experience them all as simply sound vibration. Sense the air around you and any physical sensations. Watch your breath. Take in any smells and tastes. Feel it all. Notice thoughts and feelings as they come up and let them rise and fall. Experience the world around you exactly as it is, free from judgement.
Child’s pose (Balasana)
Knees together, press the buttocks back to heels. Reach hands forward and lengthen the side body and spine. Anchor the buttocks firmly back on heels or block. On an inhale, keep the seat anchored but come to fingertips and crawl the hands forward, lengthening side waist and spine a little more. On an exhale, place the palms back down. Place the forehead on the earth or block.
Standing forward fold/Intense stretch pose (Uttanasana)
Feet hip-width apart. Equal weight across four corners of the feet. Soften the knees. Catch outer elbows and allow the whole upper body to hang. Take a few breaths. Then place hands on shins, lift chest so spine is parallel to the earth for half-way lift. Get longer through the side waist. Lift navel up. Keep this length: as you exhale take hands behind calves, and fold forward, extending the legs without locking the knees. Lift the quad muscles up away from knees. Shoulders away from ears, shoulder blades sliding down back. Take 10 breaths.
Downward dog to three-legged dog (Adho mukha svanasana)
Come to all fours. Set hips above knees, hands shoulder-width apart, the wrist line just in front of the shoulder line. Feet hip-width apart. Tuck your toes, extend legs, hips high. Ground heels and knuckles down. Climb hips high. Take five long, calm breaths. Knees down for Child’s pose for a few breaths. Then extend legs once more. Lift the right leg up to the sky, keeping the hips even. Five breaths. Lower knees into Child’s pose for a few breaths. Then the other side, lift left leg for five breaths.
Come to all fours on hands and knees. Set hips above knees. Place forearms down to the earth, elbows beneath shoulders and wrists in line with elbows. Press the forearms, wrists and palms down. Feet hip-width, tuck toes and extend legs. Quads lift up. Front body hugs in. Resist gravity by pressing the earth away. Shoulders away from ears. Soften the front ribs. Take five to 10 breaths depending on how long you can hold. Lower knees to earth and press back to Child’s pose for a few breaths if you need to. Stay in Dolphin or lift the right leg up to the sky, keeping the hips even. Five breaths. Lower knees into Child’s pose for a few breaths. Then the other side, lift left leg for five breaths.
Legs up the wall (Viparita karani)
Lie on your back, with legs up the wall. If hamstrings need a bit of love, put a pillow or folded blanket under the pelvis or shuffle away from wall a little. Elevating pelvis also gives a lift, so the heart is slightly above the head. Palms face up. You can stay here for as long as it’s comfortable or set a timer for five minutes. To come out, bend the knees and roll over to one side, pausing for a few breaths, using hands under head as a pillow.