Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

deliver us from seriousness

We ended last week’s entry with a discussion about the importance of laughter within the context of relationships. I feel that we can easily extend the results to apply to all types of relationships, whether they are social, professional, or educational. In my own field, people who attend yoga classes have been expressing to me that they often find the atmosphere disappointingly impersonal. I’ve spent my career attempting to remedy this in my own little way, which I find distinctly fulfilling. Providing a human context for my teaching, often through varyingly successful degrees of humour, gives me far more satisfaction than teaching somebody how to do a perfect downward-facing dog. 

This is one of the most valuable things I learned from my teacher Alan Finger. From the first class I had with him, I found Alan’s jokes genuinely compelling. I can’t attribute their draw on me to any notion that they were always particularly funny; nevertheless, people laughed anyway, and this seemed to make the process of meditation a whole lot easier. After years of research, I am beginning to understand why. 

It was he who taught me the virtue of balancing the left and right brain hemispheres via alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) for the purpose of facilitating access to the meditative state. He equates the left-right hemispheric balance to the yogic practice known as pratyahara: a withdrawal of the senses to a state of internal attention. Creating an inward atmosphere in which the senses cease to distract you from your inner life facilitates introspective types of meditation to a remarkable degree; therefore, if balancing the two sides of the brain can elicit such a condition, this certainly provides a boon to those who want to use meditation to explore their own proverbial depths. EEG studies have indeed shown a correlation between nostril dominance and contralateral brain activity, so it seems logical to posit that a breathing exercise such as nadi shodhana might create a balance between the two hemispheres. 

Several years after learning this phenomenon from Alan, I encountered research that showed that laughter accomplishes the same thing. The reasons for the effectiveness of Alan’s humour in the classroom suddenly became much more clear to me. In addition to the obvious social benefits of helping a group of people feel at ease with each other, his jokes repeatedly prime the two brain hemispheres into momentary states of equilibrium. Perhaps as a result, when the time comes for the alternate nostril breathing techniques that lead into the meditation, students may find the balanced brain state (and therefore, the meditation itself) more accessible. This is part of what makes his classes feel so special.

Yet humour provides another, perhaps more obvious, purpose: it serves as a safeguard against the temptation to take ourselves too seriously. The 21st century’s favourite experimental psychologist, Nobel Laureate and academic dreamboat Daniel Kahneman, has given the world a looming heap of evidence to demonstrate certain insights about how the human mind tries to solve problems. Kahneman authored Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book which contains the essence of Kahneman's paradigm-shifting studies (and which someone should make required reading for all human beings). Comprehending of the importance of Kahneman’s work involves understanding his main metaphor: that there are two “systems” involved in carrying out all human decision-making. For the sake of simplicity, Kahneman dubs the dynamic duo in question: “System 1” and “System 2.” 

System 1, the “fast” thinking system, takes care of the vast majority of what you do each day—it functions (and so efficiently as to be invisible, in fact) when someone asks you to name the capital of England or the sum of 2 + 2. It makes driving a familiar route home feel effortless. It takes advantage of well-worn pathways in the mind in order to provide you with pre-packaged, readily accessible information.

System 2, the “slow” thinker, takes care of more challenging questions. It activates when you need to supervise your own behaviour, and when you are required to give a greater amount of your focus to the task at hand. Think about what happens when you are looking for an address in an area you have never been to before. It requires so much attention that you might even lower the volume on your car stereo! Your mind also employs System 2 when you need to do things like hold a long list of items in your memory, or mentally multiply large numbers. Kahneman provides the following quintessential example, and it works best if you genuinely play along, without the use of external aids like writing instruments or a calculator.

What is the product of 17 x 24?

Due to Kahneman’s extensive experiments, we know for certain that a number of physiological changes occurred in the time that you were working on that problem: your muscles tensed, your heart rate and blood pressure increased, and your pupils dilated—all measurably. Kahneman’s work on System 2’s pupil-dilating effects alone deserve a bit of extra attention. He and his late research partner, Amos Tversky, focused cameras on the eyes of their subjects while posing just these types of questions and found the correspondence between the degree of pupil dilation and the amount of effort put forward within the working memory to be measurably precise. The exactness of this event even allowed the experimenters to see the exact moment when their subjects either gave up on the task or found the answer, because the pupil promptly contracted back to its starting point. 

Of course, the overlap between mind and body can be such that effects easily turn into causes. Kahneman demonstrates this very point with research that shows the upshot of deliberately recruiting some of the physical processes of System 2. This kind of research has been done in a variety of manners; Thinking, Fast and Slow sites one study in which subjects are asked to perform complex cognitive tasks whilst holding a pencil in the mouth in two different ways: (a) gripping the length of the pencil between the teeth, forcing the face into a “smiling” state, and (b) pursing the lips to hold one end of the pencil, making the face into a scowl. The second option mimics the muscular tension in the face which occurs during a System 2 operation. Kahneman’s data demonstrates that deliberately making a System 2 scowl actually helps initiate System 2. In other words, mentally completing 17 x 24 (408, by the way) happens more quickly when you’re face is tense than it does when you are smiling. This knowledge might come in handy if you are hoping to avoid rushing to any hasty judgements while you shopping online for insurance options—holding the end of your pen between pursed lips might help engage the slower thinking required for making such complex decisions. 

However, I would argue that most of us make System 2 faces in situations that simply do not call for that type of thinking. When I am teaching yoga lessons, for example, I am often amazed at how hard people’s eyebrows seem to be working for no good reason at all. In the case of those who are new to the practice, it is completely understandable: they are simultaneously hearing, processing, and attempting to embody large amounts of new information. From what I have observed in my time as a teacher, brand new yogis are far more likely to sweat than those who have more yoga experience—and this holds true even for yoga newbies who have a high level of physical fitness. For the beginner, a yoga class becomes a full-body System 2 experience; hence, the increased muscular tension, heart rate, and blood pressure that happen as a result of extra mental work are more likely to cause sweatiness than the physical challenge of the yoga poses themselves.

Here’s an example that you’ll be able to relate to even if you don’t practise yoga: Can you recall a situation in which you had been less than truthful with somebody? Ok, now can you recall the moment at which the person in question caught you in the lie? There’s a tiny possibility that you immediately came clean; however, in all likelihood, you had at least a few moments of pause. If you can remember that circumstance clearly enough, you probably recognise that a supreme, Book of the Revelation-style battle between the forces of good and evil took place inside your skull. As you searched for what to say, you attempted to determine whether it would be better to tell the truth (And for whom would it be better? For you or for the other person?) or to continue the lie by allowing any or all of a multitude of cover stories with varying degrees of plausibility fly off your tongue. 

Yet these things happen not only in the brain, but throughout the entire mind-body organism. Your eyes certainly dilated in that moment. It’s not anything you could control, which probably caused you to look away, even if briefly, from the person you had lied to. (I have a hypothesis that this is the reason we have evolved to be incapable of looking somebody in the eye when we are lying: Human beings can read each other’s minds to a shockingly accurate degree just by watching each other’s eyes. A slight, even barely consciously perceptible, dilation of the pupils would be far too great a tell in such a situation. So Mother Natur[al Selection] has probably helped us become slightly better cheaters by encouraging us to interrupt the gaze of another when System 2 activates. Another theory very well may be that, as I have spoken about in previous posts, the amount of brain activity which lends itself to the recognition and interpretation of human facial features is so great that having facial information within the direct target of vision might slow down certain cognitively challenging tasks. I suspect that the two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.) But while you certainly won’t remember your pupils dilating suddenly, you might very well recall your heart starting to pound, a sudden flash of heat, and maybe even a glistening of sweat on your skin. Scientists refer to the slight perspiration that happens during the stress response as skin conductance because it makes your skin a better conductor of electricity. This is precisely what a polygraph (lie detector machine) measures in order to catch people fibbing with such precision. All of these effects are the very physiological changes that the research of Kahneman and Tversky correlate with System 2 in action. And all this happens measurably when we do such complicated calculations “only” in the mind. Combine these processes with the business of your body making movements and shapes that it has never before encountered, and beginners can certainly be forgiven for making facial contortions for a sizeable section of the yoga class.

Over time, as people become more familiar with the poses, the structure of the class, and the whole idea of being on a yoga mat for the first time, the need to employ System 2-style thinking diminishes considerably. But I have noticed that many yogis still look as though they are performing some kind of complex mental calculus when they are doing simple sun salutations. My Ishta Yoga training manual contained a large number of pages which deconstructed each individual pose in terms of common cues to use in order to help people discover the actions required, the various body parts to pay attention to, and common “misalignments” in which yogis might disturb the balance of the poses or possibly hurt themselves. The training taught me that, in addition to watching out for collapsed inner foot arches and hyperextended elbows, ensuring that the facial muscles do not work too hard is an essential aspect of the āsana. Daniel Kahneman’s research has connected the dots for me as to why: the “serious” yoga face replicates an aspect of the System 2 process, which can easily launch the rest of the system into action. The resulting mental concentration recruits an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and muscular tension. In other words, seriousness on the yoga mat tends to engender a sense of stress and constriction throughout the body. 

Physical tension leads to restricted movement. If the "serious" yogi attempts to push herself through the tightness which her seriousness has created, she will often find that the body either pushes back against her intentions or yields to them in a way that ends in injury. Conversely, a sense of emotional lightness and jollity tends to have the opposite effect on the muscles of the body: greater freedom of movement, more ease when stretching, and possibly even a better sense of the body’s actual pain thresholds, making injury less likely. And, true to my overarching theme, what we can say about the body can often be said about the mind as well. This is precisely why, even in the case of meditation, trying too hard just gets in the way. 

Excessive seriousness in spiritual pursuits has always seemed suspect to me. When I was an adolescent, I decided to read the entire Bible from front to back, just in order to have a better understanding of what was clearly a very important book. The Good Book shocked me in more ways than one: in addition to realising that a lot of what my Texan compatriots claimed about Christianity seemed far more ambiguous when reading the scripture in full, I also found it completely disappointing that its pages did not offer the reader a single joke. Granted, in the context of any system or practice, I certainly recognise the importance of earnest commitment; without investing time and energy into something, you are unlikely to experience any benefits. However, it is clear to me that taking ourselves too seriously almost invariably proves counterproductive—particularly when it comes to a modality like yoga or meditation where the purported purpose is to provide us with a greater sense of ease.


...and the whole world laughs with you