It’s not just you. Everybody has one: a little negative voice in your head that provides running critique (in varying degrees of harshness) of what you’re doing, and “helpful suggestions” of what you should be doing instead. Sometimes the voice mimics an authority figure—your mother, a teacher from your past, the foreman of a faceless jury that’s been put together to pronounce you guilty of a heinous crime, like enjoying cake. Or it may just be a vague feeling that a specific activity, or the course of your entire life, is wrong.
Being an intelligent creature, you’ve figured out that this negative inner voice is fear. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an entire book, Big Magic, about this. Yes, we all know (big sigh) that fear is ancient hardwiring in our brains, designed to keep us away from fang-y animals and other threats to our lives. We’ve gotten the memo that this very old hardwired fear manifests in our modern brains as discouragement: Don’t do this. Don’t try that. Don’t do anything new. Just sit quietly in your don’tness.
We’ve heard it, and we get it. The question is, what can we do about it?
For an ancient problem, go to an ancient solution: Yoga. Not the physical, headstand, twist-your-body-into-a-pretzel Yoga. I mean the spiritual, turn-your-thinking-around Yoga. The life path full of tools that, even though they were devised thousands of years ago in India, are totally relevant and user-friendly today.
Brief explanatory tangent: In the Western world, the word “Yoga” is synonymous with exercise. But Yoga is actually an umbrella term for eight components of a spiritual path that is not religiously specific; it’s all-inclusive, in the same way as Buddhism. Only one part of Yoga, Asana, has to do with physical exercise. The rest is all goals for living well and doing good, and the tools to get there. And these Yoga tools can be used for So. Many. Things. Like quieting that critical little nag in your head, for one.
There are three Yoga tools that can help you shush negativity and cultivate a more positive voice in your head:
- Svadhyaya, or self-study. Don’t take negative thoughts at face value. A closer look underneath internal criticism will reveal your brain being overly cautious in a well-meaning and seriously wonky effort to save you from perceived, imagined danger. Remembering that helps take down your negative thinking’s street cred—we’re not dealing with facts, but fake news—so you can go to the next step.
- Satya, or truth. Get honest. Is the thing you’re doing, or trying not to do, really unhealthy? Is it going to hurt you or someone else, or are we talking about (big sigh) the ol’ fear of failure thing again? You may find another part of the truth: that this negative thought is something one of those authority figures (Mom, teacher) said that has been remembered long enough to have morphed into a belief. Again, that doesn’t make it a fact. Take a moment to feel your mind blown by your Satya. Whoaaaaa… Now proceed to step 3.
- Maitri, or kindness. Science has proven that negativity can lower your body’s immunity, while more optimistic, positive thinking actually boosts it. And whether you’re talking about dogs, kids, or men, criticism generally doesn’t do diddly for inspiring healthier behavior; positive reinforcement does. Make a conscious shift to encouraging thoughts. Say to yourself what you would say to your best friend or your child.
Yoga may not be limited to physical fitness, but this broader definition of Yoga, as a series of actions for better living, is kind of like exercise too. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it takes effort to get results. Put it into practice, though, and you’ll soon be able to bend your negative thinking into a more flexible, resilient, and happier Yoga mind.
Suzan Colón is the author of Yoga Mind:Beyond the Physical: 30 Days to Enrich Your Practice and Revolutionize Your Life From the Inside Out.