Yoga, Magical Thinking, and Satya: What it Means to Be Truthful

An interesting article was just published on the agricultural minister of India’s nonsensical reaction to extreme drought, climate change, and decades of industry abuse of natural resources (which is not just happening in India, but everywhere; for example, the World Bank has predicted that two thirds of the world will be without access to clean, fresh drinking water by 2025). Apparently, according to the agricultural minister the solution to solve the drought is to engage in “yogic” farming:

“In several recent public appearances, Singh trumpeted a government plan to promote ‘yogic’ farming, a technique he says will ’empower seeds with the help of positive thinking.’ At meeting of farmers and agricultural scientists in Delhi last weekend Singh said that ‘farmers should give vibrations of peace, love and divinity to seeds to boost growth and make plants resistant to pests.” Mind you, farmers have been committing suicide over a crisis that is increasingly out of their control to solve. And the solution he’s proposing is good vibes and positive thinking.

I think the fact that this article and the minister cited is proposing “yoga” as a solution to serious material problems speaks to a common trend in the practice to focus on romantic, imaginary solutions of “vibes,” “energy,” and “manifesting” that usually completely ignore industrial practices and other structural causes that contribute to the numerous social problems we have to deal with in our daily lives (including, in this case, the changing climate and extreme drought facing Indian agriculture that farmers are trying to deal with the best they can on their own). Remski has discussed this trend as “magical thinking” in yoga, but I think it’s worth discussing more deeply since it’s still widespread among yoga culture. For those who don’t realize, it’s not necessarily inherent to the practice. In fact, much of what we think of today as “magical thinking” in yoga (vibes, energy, manifesting, yoga intuition, call it what you will) doesn’t actually stem from the classical yoga tradition at all, and entered into the practice in the early twentieth century through cross-fertilization when many prominent gurus were influenced by American new age spiritual traditions like mesmerism, whose adherents were the primary target market for their talks and workshops (for more information, see De Michelis’s book).

For those who think it’s inherently “yogic” to engage in this type of thinking, I challenge you to really consider what it really means to have a practice of satya, or truthfulness, which is one of yamas, or guiding ethical principles of yoga philosophy. How can we be truthful to ourselves, and about ourselves? I think that’s an easier question for us to address, because we are often encouraged to think egotistically about ourselves–focusing on ourselves–in Western societies where individualism is a foundational ideology of our society. But perhaps the harder, and I would argue more important question is this: how can we be truthful to our societies, and about our societies? Do such romantic “solutions” actually fit with the practice of yoga?

I understand that such ideas can be empowering (in the short term) and are often more comfortable than other approaches, but in general trends to rely on “mythical” solutions rarely encourage people to engage in concrete action to change things. (Just manifest! Put out good energy and all will come! …But really?) If, on the rare occasion such suggestions do encourage actual action, these type of solutions often don’t think critically about how our ability to engage in particular actions is structured by the social systems we inhabit and are embedded within, in other words, how our actions are constrained by forces that are often largely out of our control (for example, poverty; research has indicated social mobility is at an all-time low in America, so good luck “manifesting” a substantial change in your financial circumstances today, especially if you are poor; chances are, it won’t help much). Many of the issues we are facing today as a global society (increasing inequality, poverty, climate change, drought, food and water shortages, and so on) are related to social structures we have built that are no longer serving us effectively, largely because our systems have been increasingly subject to corporate influence in ways that put profit over the rights and well-being of actual people. As yogis, what is our responsibility to speak truthfully about these issues, and to seek to uncover the truth about these issues however uncomfortable it might make us? What is our responsibility to acknowledge privilege, and speak openly, candidly, and truthfully about oppression? Because the truth is this: meditation and asana, as lovely as these practices are, will not solve the problems we are facing today. What we need is a deeper practice of yoga that goes beyond magical thinking and mythical solutions to consider what it will really take us, all of us, as individuals and citizens to change our selves, our societies, and our world for the better.

Rather than face the difficult task of changing dysfunctional systems in order to effectively combat things like climate change, we are encouraged to “manifest” solutions on an individual level (individualism, much?). Meditate! Pray for rain! But got forbid we hold big industries accountable for the unsustainable and harmful ways they engage in business. We shy away from these bigger issues, and from holding ourselves accountable to the ways we perpetuate these industries and systems in our own daily lives. We are only encouraged to address these problems on a personal level, because frankly it means that industries and governments never have to be held accountable (read: engage in costly changes that would actually solve these problems). Industries profit off of individualizing larger problems; for example (one of many I could have chosen), food industries profit off the individualization of obesity, because it gets them off the hook from changing the products they make or the ways they advertise. Instead, it’s up to us to get healthy (even though we live in systems that actively discourage us from doing us), to love our bodies (even though we experience thousands of messages telling us our bodies are never enough), to earn a living (even though real wages have been stagnating in America since the 1970s and income inequality is only growing), and so on. But don’t worry! According to magical thinking, just do some stretches, meditate, and the solution to all our problems will magically manifest itself! Sure, you may have more confidence to navigate an inherently broken and unsupportive system, but ultimately you’ll never really solve those problems, because you can’t address underlying structural causes with individual solutions of “manifesting” and “vibe.”

Look, don’t get me wrong here. I’m all about the idea of energy and the power of manifesting. In fact, there is some support to the power of magical thinking. But the key word there is some, and some is not nearly enough. When we break things down, according to physics (and yes, I have a B.S. in physics from my undergraduate education, so I do know what I’m talking about) everything is energy. That’s true. Einstein’s famous theory, E = mc^2 isn’t a joke or meaningless symbols; at the core of us, as matter, we are energy, we are energetic fields, and we are affected by such fields daily. But what is critical to realize is that those energy fields are typically much weaker than other, more relevant physical, social, economic, cultural, or historical forces in our lives. So just trying to “manifest” something without actively working here, in our social, economic, and cultural worlds, to actively produce the result we desire or need is usually not going to be very effective. It’s only when we combine our intentions of manifestation with actual action (and a firm understanding of the worlds we are moving within) that we are able to achieve effective results. Ultimately, I would argue the practice of yoga (as more than asana) requires us to be truthful with ourselves about what will actually solve the problems we are facing, and the truth is that’s unlikely “magical thinking.” The practice of yoga requires that we think deeply about what actions will work given the social, economic, and cultural factors at work around us. It requires us to think about what actions are the best in terms of other ethical principles, like ahimsa (compassion, or non-harming). The only way we can guide our actions effectively (to manifest what we need or desire) is if we understand the world we live in, and ourselves, deeply. The only way we can be sure our actions will not cause unintentional harm and will actually be effective in reaching our goals is if we seek truth, however uncomfortable or difficult it might be. And that is where magical thinking fails. It’s the comfortable, but inherently flawed solution to the majority of problems we deal with in our lives and in our world.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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3 thoughts on “Yoga, Magical Thinking, and Satya: What it Means to Be Truthful”

  1. I’m in tears reading this because you speak to a practice off the mat that hardly gets mentioned. All the meditation and asana in the world assist in levitating & won’t lift up the people and societies who make up the planet. We all share responsibility to do create a better future. It’s not what one yogi can do alone but what we as a collective conscious can do for each other. I think it’s said best to “think globally act locally. ”
    Thank you for the encouragement to live in my truth despite what society or culture says is appropriate. Speaking from a place of honesty and compassion, thank you Amara.

    Like

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