As a long time yoga practitioner and teacher, I have spent many years studying what makes us flourish as human beings. Rather than waning as the years pass, I’ve found that my passion for self inquiry and human development grows stronger as time moves on. While yoga has been a part of my life for what feels like forever, a few years ago I experienced a longing to expand my studies and teachings beyond the mat, beyond yoga to something that felt a little ‘linear’ in thinking, less metaphysical and more scientific in nature. Although some may describe yoga as a science, in western academia it often isn’t defined as such. So, I returned to school for two years to complete a Diploma in Coaching at Cambridge University and a certification in Positive Psychology, which qualified me to teach Positive Psychology interventions and exercises.
While mainstream psychology has traditionally focused on what is going wrong with a person, on their weaknesses and disease, Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that posits we must pay equal amounts of attention and importance to what is going right. The principal claim states that the study of happiness, fulfilment and well-being is as deserving of study as illness, dysfunction and distress. Furthermore, the absence of depression is not happiness. Studies have proven that spending all of our energy on eliminating our weaknesses and disease does not mean that we will be happy once it is eradicated. At best this may bring us to functioning but still far from flourishing.
What Positive Psychology Is Not
To be clear, Positive Psychology is not ‘happiology’ nor is it merely ‘thinking positively’ as its name might suggest. While happiness is one of the interests of Positive Psychology, it is equally concerned with topics such as resilience, strength, states of flow, curiosity, relationships, purpose and engagement. It is not to be confused with untested self-help, the Secret, chakras, mudras, kriyas, new age philosophy, vision boards or ‘you-can-do-it’ motivational speaking. These methodologies are not bad or ineffective, but they do not equate with Positive Psychology, which is first and foremost a science. This study offers nothing that has not been tested; all is based on extensive research and studies.
The Permission to be Human
So, how can Positive Psychology help us with our yoga practice? From its core pillars of meaning and purpose, strengths and virtues, engagement and achievement, there are a plethora of fascinating concepts and bodies of research that can help us both on and off the mat. One key concept is to give ourselves the ‘permission to be human,’ a teaching of leading Positive Psychology scholar Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.
When our expectations don’t match our achievements, this can oftentimes bring about deep unhappiness. Far from trying to tell us to ‘just think positively, look at the bright side of things’ or ‘don’t worry, be happy’, Positive Psychology provides tools to manage our unhappiness and build perspective, acceptance and resilience rather than suppressing negative feelings. When we don’t give ourselves permission to “be human” and experience the whole myriad of negative emotions, we prevent ourselves from experiencing the full spectrum of positive emotions. Positive Psychology studies have shown that when we get good at suppressing the bad feelings, we unintentionally get pretty handy at suppressing the good ones, too!
Furthermore, the permission to be human doesn’t excuse bad behaviour or actions; rather, it acknowledges that it’s human to experience a full range emotions, negative and positive, subjective to the situation. For example, if your friend were to be hired to a job you both wanted, it’s only natural to experience a sense of disappointment or jealousy. However, if you were to stop speaking with them, speak ill of them or wish upon them to be miserable in their new post as a result of your negative feelings, then this is the problem. It’s not what we feel that can be a problem so much as how we act upon those feelings. When we allow ourselves to be human we can sit with negative emotions much easier and see them for what they are, temporary emotions and not fact.
Positive Psychology During Yoga
I am always amazed how hard students can be on themselves when trying a completely unfamiliar sequence or pose! Students often approach me before class to report they aren’t feeling great and apologise in advance if they “don’t do so well,” as though there is prerequisite level of skill or happiness required to practise. Giving yourself the permission to be human allows you to approach your practice as who you are and not who you wish you were. It allows you to approach your practice from where you are, not where you think you should be. It invites you to be experimental and childlike, rather than sulky and childish.
So, the next time you step on the mat, try this simple Positive Psychology concept of giving yourself the permission to be human. Approach your practice honouring whatever it is you may be going through that day without apology, excuses or feeling the need to change. Have fun!
Mercedes Ngoh Sieff is the founder of Yeotown Health Retreat in Devon. She is a passionate Vinyasa Flow Yoga teacher, practitioner and certified Positive Psychology Coach.