top of page
  • Writer's pictureBrandy Berlin

Yoga & Critical Thinking

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Given the proliferation of manipulation and abuse that has been going on since the beginning of the modern western yoga industry, Yoga Alliance’s new Elevated RYS 200 Standards are a positive step toward addressing some of the many previous problems. The new requirements do include “The Ethical Commitment consisting of three elements: an updated Code of Conduct, a new Scope of Practice, and a responsibility to Equity in Yoga.” But, one glaring element the standards lack is an awareness of the importance and applicability of critical thinking.

This is a serious problem in an industry ripe with numerous dubious knowledge claims about the nature of life, health and reality - claims with real and serious impacts on people. 

For example, ‘Yoga Humanities’ requires schools to cover the major yogic texts like the Sutras. But, there is no guidance at all about HOW facilitators deliver that content.

Given that most yoga teacher trainers do not have a background as professional educators, the tendency is to tell the yoga teachers-in-training WHAT the Sutras are and mean. This is called didactic learning. It’s a classic model of education where knowledge is transmitted directly from the teacher to the student.

When not handled with a boatload of awareness, students simply receive information. They are told what to think based on what the teacher thinks. This method of teaching can bypass critical thinking because the expert’s truth becomes the students’ truth when no other options are given.

When not handled with a boatload of awareness, this can slide the toggle towards manipulation because yoga teachers-in-training are often in altered, more receptive, brain states during these sessions.

When not handled with a boatload of awareness, it can send a subliminal message of “Trust me, I’ve been doing this awhile and know this stuff. No need to think about it or question it — or me.” Even, “What I’m telling you is part of our lineage and this new knowledge means you now belong to a sacred thing. Doesn’t that feel good?”

“Yes, yes it does.” (Says your subconscious.) And also “Ewh, yuck — but I don’t exactly know why.”

The subtle, insidious hijacking of our students’ autonomy happens ALL THE TIME, kills creativity and creates an opening for potential intentional or unintentional manipulation. This is the method used to educate and indoctrinate the entire workforce of the British Empire to do its bidding. And it’s still very much in place today. 

(Want the skinny in the educational indoctrination and manipulation check out this TED Talk by Sir Ken Robinson with over 76 million views and/ or if you prefer this RSAnimate version Changing Education Paradigms.)

How we educate all students matters. Think about it. How often were you told WHAT to think? How often were you taught HOW to think (including HOW your mind works) — and then were asked to apply that skill and give your opinion and reasons on important shit that matters?

That’s a world of difference, my friends.

Cuz folks who want to control, control by controlling our thinking. That’s a lot of control.

What if instead we started taking control of our own thinking? What if we learned about thinking itself, how it works, how the mind works, so we can come to our own deconstructed then reconstructed — and still limited — conclusions?

Well, cuz that’s dangerous.

And what’s even more dangerous is people thinking they are thinking for themselves when they really aren’t.

Welcome to the Year of our Lord 2023.

In the age of Internet Education, there is a LOT to wade through. We are absolutely overwhelmed with places to “educate ourselves”. We are drowning in information and crawling into life rafts we label knowledge. And yet the information keeps lapping over the edges, and we keep trying to bail out the boat, tossing out both the real and the false in an attempt to just stay afloat. It’s survival mode - survival brain - and that’s not a great place to engage in structured, rational thinking let alone decision-making.

When an organization or program like Yoga Alliance does not include critical thinking skills as a central tenet of their curriculum requirements, it raises red flags for me. I’m hoping by bringing this up it might do the same for them. They may say I’m a dreamer…

In full disclosure, my opinion on this topic is directly influenced by my being a high school teacher for several years in the International Baccalaureate Program. “ From their website:

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a global leader in international education—developing inquiring, knowledgeable, confident, and caring young people. Our programmes empower school-aged students to take ownership in their own learning and help them develop future-ready skills to make a difference and thrive in a world that changes fast.”

First developed so diplomats' kids would have a consistent curriculum as they moved between countries, it strives to create global citizens capable of critically thinking about a global community. The ‘keystone’ class for high school Juniors and Seniors is called Theory of Knowledge (TOK):

As a thoughtful and purposeful inquiry into different ways of knowing, and into different kinds of knowledge, TOK is composed almost entirely of questions.

The most central of these is "How do we know?", while other questions include:

  • What counts as evidence for X?

  • How do we judge which is the best model of Y?

  • What does theory Z mean in the real world?

Through discussions of these and other questions, students gain greater awareness of their personal and ideological assumptions, as well as developing an appreciation of the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives.

And I had the great honor, privilege, and responsibility to teach this course while the IB Programme existed within the Redmond School District at the International School of the Cascades in Redmond, Oregon.

It was perhaps the sweetest spot of my entire teaching career — and TOK was the beating heart of my experience.

As a teacher, I embraced my studentship with my students as we examined the nature of truth together. TOK gave us all critical thinking tools, and we played with ideas together like they were toys. Some ideas were more fragile than others — ideas linked to identity and belief and family stories and shame. 

We used the tools to sift through the vast array of knowledge claims made by everyone with a face, including our own. We analyzed the strength and limitations of the sources of information and determined that criteria should be used before it passed the gates into bonafide knowledge as justified true belief.

It was a mind bender and shaper to say the least. At the end of class we would often find ourselves googly-eyed with questions and wonder. The intention was not actually to draw conclusions as much as to “Encourage an interest in the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of living as individuals and in communities, and an awareness of personal and ideological assumptions, including (our) own.”

Hence, the reason I believe it's crucial to apply this skillset to not only the yoga and wellness industry, but really ALL things. Cuz there are a lot of charlatans out there making knowledge claims - really harmful claims - and rather than simply jumping to believing one or the other, what if we had a process to digest it and decide for ourselves what to keep and what to leave behind?!?

So, that’s what I am going to do. I am resurrecting  for the modern for the curious yogi some critical thinking tools free on my website. My desire is to inspire and be a resource for those who want to integrate CT into how they leading teacher trainings and or studio teams.

In the meantime here’s some outstanding articles on “The Yoga of Critical Thinking” to get your juices flowing:

8 views0 comments
bottom of page