Praise in Yoga
“Children are domesticated the same way that we domesticate a dog, a cat, or any other animal. In order to teach a dog we punish the dog and we give it rewards. We train our children whom we love so much the same way that we train any domesticated animal: with a system of punishment and reward. We are told, ‘You’re a good boy,’ or ‘You’re a good girl,’ when we do what Mom and Dad want us to do. When we don’t, we are a ‘bad girl’ or a ‘bad boy.’”
-Don Miguel Ruiz, on how praise can be used to condition humans to desired behaviors
How do you feel about praise in yoga? When you’re in yoga class and your teacher tells you “Good job!” it probably feels awesome! From childhood, we look to praise to tell us we are on the right track, and that we're getting the approval of those we wish to please. It’s a common way of interacting with one another. But just because something is commonplace doesn’t always mean it’s ideal.
When I started practicing Ashtanga yoga, I noticed right away that praise wasn’t as much a part of the culture as it seemed to be in the Bikram yoga community from where I’d come. At first, I wondered where all my accolades were. Perhaps I wasn’t doing the postures right? After a while I finally got the message: “doing it right” and pleasing the teacher wasn’t necessarily the point.
Learning to do yoga without a lot of praise really had a huge effect on me. It made my practice less about my ego, which previously felt gratified to be known as a good asana practitioner. It lessened my motivation to please my teachers, which caused my personal motivations of self-growth to strengthen. The work became more about humbly reflecting inward than the outward appearance of the asanas. While I still love being praised from time to time (who doesn’t?), I am grateful I don’t get a ton of it. For me, practice is more effective and meaningful the more I am anchored to my internal experience.
Going back to Don Miguel Ruiz’s quote, praise and punishment are commonly used to condition others to behave in ways that please us--whether that's convincing your child not to throw food while dining out or encouraging your spouse to do the dishes more often. You could argue that some of that is necessary for society to run smoothly, but in some ways it robs people of their autonomy. It's nice to think that in yoga, we can escape that system, at least for a short time, and regain some sovereignty. We definitely need our teachers to guide us, but we don't need to win their approval--that's not what our teachers want from us anyway. It’s not empowering to shift ourselves to get the approval of others. What's empowering is to examine our inner intentions and ask ourselves if what we are doing in the yoga room, or in life outside the yoga room, is right for us. And if we are given enough space to turn inward during yoga practice, we get to know our true selves more deeply and develop the discernment to know when we're on our own right path... or at least getting close :)