It’s a common belief that meditation and yoga are practices will make you more selfless and increase your empathy toward humanity. But a new study in the journal Psychological Science disputes the idea that the wellness practices “quiet your ego” and give you a humbling sense of your overall place in the universe.
Researchers at the University Mannheim in Germany and the University of Southampton in England recruited 93 yoga students and measured their feelings of self-enhancement over a period of 15 weeks. They did this by asking participants how they compared to other students in their class, rating how much they related to narcissistic phrases, such as “I will be well-known for the good deeds I will have done,” and assessing their levels of self-esteem.
On the whole, students were found to have higher self-enhancement an hour after their class than those who hadn’t done yoga in the past 24 hours.
The researchers then duplicated the study with 162 people who practiced meditation and found that they got similar results. Participants who had recently done meditation were more likely to agree with statements such as “In comparison to the average participant of this study, I am free from bias.” So rather than quieting the ego, the study found that yoga and meditation tend to actually inflate it.
“Ego-quieting is a central element of yoga philosophy and Buddhism alike. That element, and its presumed implications, require serious rethinking,” the paper reads. “Moreover, ego-quieting is often called upon to explain mind-body practices’ well-being benefits. In contrast, we observed that mind-body practices boost self-enhancement and this boost—in turn—elevates well-being.”
The researchers note that the idea that yoga and meditation make you more humble runs contrary to the self-centrality principle, which states that “practicing any skill renders it self-central, and self-centrality breeds self-enhancement.” This explains why that guy in your yoga class who shows up every day is so self-righteous and thinks he’s better than everyone else because he doesn’t drink alcohol or eat meat.
Not that the practice itself is necessarily at fault. The researchers themselves note that the way we do yoga and meditation here in the West isn’t in keeping with Buddhist principles, since the activities are geared toward easing anxiety and making you more physically and mentally flexible than they are about making you a self-less and spiritual person. It’s also unclear if yoga and meditation actually boost your ego, or if the people who take part in these practices (like the vegan creative genius), are simply more likely who have an inflated sense of self. Not to mention, people who suffer from low self-esteem could use an ego boost.
Either way, both of these practices can have enormous health benefits. Recent studies have found that practicing yoga can boost your brain health and alleviate depression. Other research has recently found that doing just 10 minutes of meditation per day can help people stay focused and attentive well into old age. And Tai Chi, which is often referred to as meditation in motion, has been found to significantly increase the brain’s metabolism and improved recovery rates in leg muscles for older adults.
So go on and do yoga and meditation. Just don’t get a big head about it. And if you’re looking for a great getaway in which to experience these practices, check out The 7 Best Luxury Fitness Vacations you can take this year.
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