On ‘Gratitude’ in Yoga: A Critical Perspective

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the USA (and may all my US friends have a joyful one). This post is not about that though, it just seems like an opportune moment to blog about some thoughts I have had for a while now on the subject of ‘gratitude’. No person could surely ‘be against gratitude’ right? That would be an untenable position. But here’s the thing; I sometimes have to work hard at not audibly groaning when yoga teachers mention the word ‘gratitude’. Does that make me a bad person?!

Let me explain myself; I do actually believe gratitude is a wonderful thing to practice. In my second blog post on this subject, ‘On Having Enough’, I will talk about how I do just that. But today I want to probe into why it is that the word is so seemingly omnipresent wherever yoga teachers congregate. I would happily be corrected, but to the best of my knowledge there is no ancient Indian yogic text that specifically describes a process for the practice of gratitude per se. Equanimity and contentment yes, but gratitude? So perhaps something else is going on. Something sociological. Perhaps like street talk? It seems many yoga teachers like to use the word ‘gratitude’ a lot. Almost as frequently as they use that other word ‘abundance’. It’s part of the lingo. A lingo that others have felt compelled to question and poke fun at with tongue in cheek. Hang around in a yoga studio long enough and you’ll perhaps pick it up too. You’re quite likely to become unconsciously conditioned. And that is surely an irony for a practitioner of yoga.

I came across a great word about the process of this unconscious conditioning last year at Uni. That word is ‘habitus’. For anyone interested in a more academic take on it, (all two of) you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote on the subject in relation to my yoga practice.  The basic gist of habitus is this; in all social contexts one operates there are unwritten and invisible ways of behaving and speaking that individuals pick up and take on. You might look at Prime Minister’s Question Time at the House of Commons in the UK Parliament and think why on earth do they behave and speak like that? Chances are though that if you became an MP, you too would be saying ‘Hear Hear’ when one of your party speaks and be ‘Yah Booing’ the other side within a matter of weeks. Not because any one would tell you to do it, but because that context would pervade you and act upon you. If you want to ‘fit in’ and gain ‘social capital’ you have to play by the invisible rules. Another example would be the taking on of a certain way of walking down the street within a tough neighbourhood. The ‘neighbourhood’ of the yoga sangha (community) is no different. Certain phrases and ways of being get picked up, overused and can become stereotypical. The genesis of my inner groan, I think, might be stirred by an encounter with cliche. It might not be the most elegant response on my part, but I am working on it.

6 Comments

  1. Adam, I would love to read your comments on the word ‘yogic’… now I can really hear you groan .. 🙂 Bridget xx

    • Hi Bridget, Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I am pleased to report that the word ‘yogic’ doesn’t even bring me close to a groan! Are there any words in our world that make YOU groan?! Ax

      • That surprises me, ‘yogic’ makes me groan, it is so overused as to not have any definite meaning, and so it can be allowed to change its meaning according to the convenience of the user.

        • Perhaps that might be because the very word ‘yoga’ itself has no one fixed meaning? The word is an empty vessel and the meaning is actively contested for. It has meant so many things to different people over a period of thousands of years. That’s why so many teachers have fun on yoga teacher training courses asking the question ‘What is yoga?’. I think I remember right in saying that one of our lecturers told us that one of the very first uses of the word ‘to yoga’ meant ‘to migrate’. i.e you upticks, put all your belongings on your animals and migrate to a new place. Do you have dogs? If so, you could strap a few of your (small) possessions to them, go for a walk and when people stop and ask you what you are doing, you can reply ‘I am doing authentic yoga’! 😉

  2. Interesting post and essay Adam! I also drew heavily on Bourdieu’s concept of Habitus in my dissertation. Your blog brings back memories 🙂 Vanessa

    • Thank you Vanessa! And thanks for taking the time to read this post. Bourdieu’s work is not the lightest read, is it?! In the words of my American lecturer, ‘he’s just so French!’

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