One of the foundational points of yoga and meditation is to let go of the sense of self and release the ego in order to attain nirvana, or bliss. Unfortunately, the modern practice could instead be causing the exact opposite.
Despite the best of intentions, practicing yoga and meditation may instead inflate the ego, according to a new study published online by the University of Southampton. A classical theory by US psychologist William James notes that practicing any skill creates “self-enhancement,” or ego. Although Buddhism teaches that meditation helps to overcome self-regard, James’ theory holds that practicing any skill makes it, in and of itself, egotistical.
To see whether yoga affected the ego, researchers followed almost 100 yoga students for nearly four months. After a yoga class they would answer questions about how they felt after having practiced, including how they compare to the average yoga student in the class, how they rated themselves following those classes, and evaluating a scale ranking their self-esteem. In a majority of cases, students who evaluated themselves within an hour following a yoga class had higher views of themselves compared with when they had not taken a class.
Next, the researchers wanted to see how meditation stacks up next to the ego. Over the course of a month, a group of more than 160 meditators were asked to also evaluate themselves on statements like, “in comparison to the average participant in this study, I am free from bias.” Again, researchers saw a higher level of students perceiving themselves as above the others immediately following a meditation practice than not.
“Evidently, neither yoga nor meditation quiet the ego; instead, they boost self-enhancement,” wrote the authors.
Of course, there are some limitations to the study. For example, many yoga or meditation classes aim to facilitate a higher value of self-worth, acceptance, and confidence. It could be that students were merely reflecting the purposeful intention of the class they were participating. As well, the results were self-reported, which means that students could have exaggerated how they felt following a yoga class in order to better align with what they thought the researchers were hoping to accomplish.
However, previous research has shown that there's no evidence meditating makes you a better, or more specifically compassionate, person. In fact, there's even an argument that by its very nature, meditation can encourage narcissism. But hey, it's 2018, and whatever gets you through, right?