Why yoga is about self-inquiry, not self-improvement

self-inquiry versus self-improvement

Embrace who you are right now

As long as our orientation is toward perfection or success, we will never learn about unconditional friendship with ourselves, nor will we find compassion. – Pema Chödrön

Ugly duck syndrome

The famous fairy tale about the ugly duckling that turned into a beautiful swan is familiar to many of us and a metaphor for the process of transformation.

Many of us have “ugly duckling syndrome”; we believe on some level we are not good enough, not acceptable as we are now, and that we will only become satisfactory when we have met a certain criteria, often of our own devising.

It’s no surprise then that the self-improvement industry is booming. Whether here in Germany, or the US, or nearly anywhere in the Western world, life for many is essentially a self improvement project. The basic assumption is that who we are now is not good enough, and that we must become a better version of ourselves. We create an image of this version and then we direct our efforts towards becoming that.

This results in constant striving – the pursuit of an ideal self. It takes an enormous amount of energy.

Trusting the process

An alternative approach to self-improvement is self-inquiry. Yoga and meditation are concerned with this rather than self improvement. Self-inquiry means looking inside and seeing what is there and making friends with it. It’s about getting to know yourself as you are now and then applying the methods and techniques distilled through generations of yogis to deepen that insight and understanding, without knowing where this will ultimately lead.

The ugly duckling didn’t push and strive to become a beautiful swan. It happened as a matter of course, naturally. So too the process of spiritual transformation. Rather than having a fixed image of who we should become, the process of self-inquiry requires we drop this image and instead look deeply into who and what we are. By doing this sincerely, the rest takes care of itself.

Getting it mixed on the yoga mat

Affirmations are like screaming that you’re okay in order to overcome this whisper that you’re not. That’s a big contrast to actually uncovering the whisper, realizing that it’s a passing memory, and moving closer to all those fears and all those edgy feelings that maybe you’re not okay . Well, no big deal. None of us is okay and all of us are fine. We are walking, talking paradoxes.

― Pema Chödrön

These two approaches – self-improvement and self-inquiry – can get mixed up on the yoga mat. Many people apply the self improvement approach on the mat which misses the point of yoga’s capacity to heal and transform.

It’s essential to realise we are already okay where we are, with all of our aches and pains, with all of our “bad habits”, with everything we bring to the mat, we are already okay. Even if you feel broken, that’s okay, that’s part of your story, honour that, inquire into it gently. It’s not something you need to fix.

Making room for what’s there

self-inquiry versus self-improvement

Healing comes from letting there be room for all of “this” to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. – Pema Chödrön

The way yoga transforms and heals is by allowing things to breathe. We do this by giving ourselves the space to look deeply into ourselves and what’s going on for us. We become aware of them and tend to them gently and with a kindly curiosity.

This gives all the things alive in us the space to go through their natural processes. It might be grief. Maybe laziness. Whatever it is, however we are, however our body feels and is, we meet it all with acceptance.

We accept our tight hamstrings, our shaky arms, or back injury. We don’t fight against them and see them as wrong or unacceptable. Can we sit with our body and our personal story – our upbringing, whatever happened to us, maybe an accident – that our body now carries? Can we sit with that in peace and with grace and embrace and inquire into it without wanting to change it or improve it?

Self acceptance grows compassion

By taking this approach of self-inquiry and self acceptance we build our compassion for ourselves and through this our compassion for others. We can understand other people’s anxieties, their sadness, their joys and hopes.

Like the ugly duckling, we realise we were always beautiful and perfect and always will be. We become fully authentic. And from this place, we can be of real service to others.