by Julia Febiger
Nerd alert: I recently listened to a webinar by Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist who is a research professor at Stanford. As I was listening to Dweck talk about her research on mindset as it affects K-12 education, I could not help but think about how mindset also pertains to yoga.
Much of Dweck’s research has focused on the idea that there are two types of mindsets: growth and fixed. A person with a growth mindset believes that intelligence can be developed, whereas a person with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is static. Research by Dweck and others has shown that mindsets are predictive of things like motivation and achievement. Anecdotal research by yours truly suggests that mindsets are predictive of things like Bakasana and wheel.
During the webinar, Dweck mentioned having visited a school in Chicago where the mantra is “Not Yet”. I love this concept. At this school, kids do not fail their tests or their classes. Instead, they have not mastered the concepts yet. From the perspective of both a student and now aspiring teacher of yoga, I think this mantra is doubly important. Plus, I am pretty sure this is the underlying theme of most yoga studios.
What fascinates me about yoga is witnessing the perceived impossible become possible time and time again. I am not speaking for myself alone, but for the effect this practice can have on all of us. This is essentially growth mindset in action, where the relationship to one’s mental and physical practice is malleable.
To facilitate a growth mindset, Dweck tells us that school teachers can offer what is called effortful praise — or praise centered on the process instead of the end-goal. Here, the transfer to yoga is seamless. Yoga is built on the premise that everything is changing, and teaches us to greet the vicissitudes of life with an open mind and heart. We do this first by practicing patience on our mats where the point is not when you kick up into Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or handstand, but the fact that you are willing to get on your mat and try.
In the practice of yoga, we are constantly reminded to stay present during the process itself. Our teachers reinforce the importance of staying awake, especially when we are struggling. This is why our teachers congratulate us not when we stand up into Vrksasana, or tree, but rather when we fall out of the pose. By committing to a path that embraces impermanence we are already en route to cultivating a more beneficial mindset, regardless of what we end up applying it to.
It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a tradition dating back for centuries has embedded components of what researchers are just putting their fingers on, statistically speaking, as edifying principles today. After all, much of today’s social science research is centered on scientifically proving what we already know to be true. Speaking of which, perhaps one day I will come to know the universal truth. Until then, I suspect that I will continue to encounter poses and mindsets that will challenge my patience and my practice. But instead of beating myself up or giving up by saying that I can’t do a particular pose or maintain a yogic-thought to save my life, I can remind myself that I simply haven’t learned how to hold that pose or master that mindset today. At least not yet.