Imagine going to a new yoga class. Maybe your attention is instinctively drawn to one negative aspect of the new teacher. Maybe it’s something she/he said, something you heard about them, or the way they walk or look (yes, we are drawn to those impressions!). Often, we stay with our initial focus, arriving at a generalised opinion of that person based on this one particular negative aspect. It seems that we are wired to notice negative things first, maybe as a survival mechanism which scans our environment for possible dangers.
Do you filter out the positives?
Or take this example: Recently, I attended a continued professional development course for yoga teachers. As I was listening to the course leader, I noticed that all sorts of critical thoughts criss-crossed my mind: What I didn’t like about the presentation, on what point I disagreed, what was missing. I have to admit that this happens occasionally when I am at a course or workshop. It came handy once when I was working in business in a journalistic role and had to be able to pinpoint contradictions and inconsistencies. On the other hand, this tendency can be counter-productive because it can distract from the essence of our experience. It can spoil an opportunity to learn.
The widening awareness technique
Having noticed our negativity, we can consciously make the effort to widen our awareness. This is a technique, I frequently use in Yin Yoga classes and workshops. When working with yoga poses, this technique can help ensure that a pose is a full-body experience without too much attention on one particular detail. But it works brilliantly in everyday life, too, as a way to release negativity and narrow thinking.
Imagine preparing for Eye-of-the-Needle Pose. First you lie on your back, feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Next, you straighten one leg, bend the leg, placing the ankle just above the knee of the opposite leg. Then, you draw that knee towards the body, holding the thigh with your linked hands. Eye-of-the-Needle Pose will stretch the outer hip and gluteus. As a result, this is where your attention will be drawn to first.
Now, consciously feel the sensations in the hip associated with the stretch. Also, consciously register any associated judgements like ‘I really don’t like that feeling’. Next, allow yourself to relax into the stretch, letting go of unnecessary muscular tensions in that area. Focus your mind on your breath rather than your thoughts. And finally, widen your awareness to include the whole body: You can do this by consciously scanning your lower back, legs, feet, hands, arms, shoulders, head, face, the whole body. How does that help you relax, deepen your stretch, expand your understanding of the pose, and feel good?
Using different filters
Going back to the example of the new yoga teacher: Before rushing into judgements it can be useful to use above Widening Awareness Technique in this context. After you have noticed the negative aspect, stay with it for a moment. Acknowledge the thought, no need to push it away. Then relax, focus on your breath and let go of any associated strong emotions. Next, consciously try to identify a positive aspect of that teacher. Whatever it may be, there will be something! And finally, identify at least 5 neutral aspects. As a result, can you make your assessment more nuanced? How does that change your emotions and your reactions/behaviours towards your new teacher?
Avidya – ignorance
Avidya – ignorance – is one of the five Kleshas described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as sources of stress and suffering. You could say that zooming into negatives and failing to perceive positives and neutrals is a pattern that keeps us ignorant. It undermines our ability to see the bigger picture, to understand people, situations, and ultimately ourselves. Techniques like the Widening Attention Technique can help us keep an open mind and nurture positive habits.
“Ignorance is the basis of all other afflictions, whether they be dormant, slightly developed, occasional, or active.”
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.3