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Avidya: Illuminating Biases On and Off the Yoga Mat

Are you aware that we see the world through our own unique lens? That we have all developed some mental shortcuts that lead us to see things in a certain way? It's a universal human trait, and it's called cognitive bias. But here's the twist: how we perceive reality isn't always as accurate as we'd like to believe. In the world of yoga, this very phenomenon has a name - Avidya. Avidya is a Sanskrit word which refers to ignorance, illusion, misconceptions, misunderstandings and incorrect knowledge. Avidya is the opposite of Vidya, which is true knowledge, and it's precisely this very 'truth' that lies at the heart of spiritual and mindfulness practices. It is the truth of reality which we are trying to uncover - and that involves acknowledging how our perspectives influence our perception. Recognizing our cognitive biases becomes crucial as we embark on a journey to unveil truth. Join us as we explore these biases, grasp their presence in our lives, and our yoga practice and above all, equip ourselves with the tools to conquer them.

Confirmation Bias:

First up on our voyage through cognitive biases: the confirmation bias. Imagine it as your cherished old blanket, warming you with familiarity. This crafty companion guides us toward information that cuddles up to our existing beliefs, while gently nudging away anything that doesn't fit. We've all snuggled under this bias blanket at some point!

In a world brimming with information, our minds possess a natural inclination to gravitate toward ideas that align with what we already believe. Our minds tend to seek out information that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs, looking for evidence that confirms what we already think is true, rather than considering all of the evidence available. We're seemingly blissfully unaware of this tendency, often requiring an external perspective to help us see beyond our own.

Consider a scenario where you're researching a new dietary trend. You're convinced that a particular diet is the healthiest choice, and as you explore articles and testimonials, you're drawn to those that echo your beliefs. You might unconsciously skip over studies that present a more balanced view or raise potential concerns about the diet. You even start to surround yourself only with people who follow the same diet and have the same beliefs as you, and you stop hanging out with anyone who eats or thinks differently. By focusing solely on information that confirms your initial belief, you inadvertently reinforce your existing perspective.

Anchoring Bias:

Picture this bias as an invisible anchor that latches onto your thoughts. Just as an anchor keeps a ship rooted in one spot, anchoring bias has the power to tether our decisions to the first piece of information we encounter. In a sea of choices, we latch on to that initial information, using it as a reference point to gauge everything that follows. Whether you're shopping for a yoga retreat or negotiating a job offer, the first number you encounter often becomes your mental anchor. Subsequent prices, salaries, or options are evaluated in relation to this initial figure, even if it's arbitrary.

Let's say you're searching for a new yoga studio membership. The first studio you visit offers a monthly fee significantly lower than what you're used to paying. Although this lower price might not truly reflect the market, it now becomes your benchmark - your anchor. As you visit other studios, even those offering reasonable rates, better services and overall value, you might find yourself subconsciously comparing them to the first price, influencing your perception of what's affordable.

Or imagine being in a yoga class where the instructor announces a challenging pose at the start. Your initial reaction might be influenced by the idea of the tough pose, and this could shape your entire practice. However, if the instructor presented the same pose after a series of progressively difficult poses, your perspective might shift, and the once-daunting pose might seem more achievable.

Availability Heuristic:

Welcome to the intriguing realm of the availability heuristic, where our minds thrive on quick decision-making, often operating on autopilot. This cognitive bias propels us to make judgments based on information that easily springs to mind or that we've been exposed to frequently or recently. (Advertising and marketing adore this one!)

One great example of this is the widespread fear of flying. Although statistically flying is one of the safest modes of transportation, whenever there is a rare event of a plane crash- the media will be sure to sensationalise it - making it stick in our minds. And yet even though other forms of transportation are far more prone to fatal accidents, our minds get fixated on these high-profile incidents in aviation. Hence, we find ourselves fearing planes, despite the fact that statistically, we're far more likely to experience an accident while driving in a car. The availability heuristic lures us into worrying more about rare, media-covered events than about the everyday risks we face.

Consider the realm of yoga and the images that flood our social media feeds. We're bombarded with snapshots of svelte, graceful models effortlessly contorting into intricate poses. This visually striking representation becomes the mental anchor for what yoga is, and we start associating the practice solely with these impressive postures. In reality, yoga is a holistic journey encompassing physical, mental, and spiritual aspects, yet the availability heuristic leads us to fixate on the readily available but unrealistic imagery that doesn't accurately represent how an average yogi or yoga practice looks.

Overcoming Biases: Moving from Avidya ( illusion) to Vidya ( truth).

Becoming the Observer: Witnessing the Biases

Much like meditation encourages us to observe our thoughts without judgment, becoming aware of our biases requires self-reflection. Pay attention to moments when you're making quick judgments, whether it's about a new yoga pose, a colleague's behaviour or that item you are researching to buy.

Seeking Diverse Perspectives: A Cure for Bias

Diversity helps broaden our outlook. Challenge yourself to explore different schools of thought. Broaden your information sources. Engage with people who hold varying opinions or beliefs, and make an effort to understand their perspectives.

Questioning and Reevaluating: Your Bias Buster

Start questioning your assumptions. Ask yourself why you're drawn to certain people or situations and why you may react in a certain way. By consistently questioning and reevaluating, you may start to notice when you are under the cloud of illusion and bias or when you are seeing things clearly as they truly are. Ask yourself if you are making decisions based on automatic responses or deliberate choices.

Practising Non-Attachment: Embracing Change

In yoga, we're taught to practice non-attachment, and this philosophy beautifully applies to overcoming biases. Allow your perceptions to evolve, embracing the ever-changing nature of your thoughts and beliefs. Cultivate a mindset that welcomes growth and transformation. When you release the need to cling to a particular viewpoint, you free yourself to explore a richer tapestry of ideas and possibilities.

Our minds are complex landscapes, and biases are like hidden corners we're just beginning to explore. While our minds are impressively efficient at processing vast amounts of information quickly, this efficiency also has its downsides. In yoga philosophy, we encounter the concept of Avidya which warns us about the ignorance that clouds our judgment, but to fear not, for clearer skies are attainable. The first crucial step is recognizing these biases that cast shadows on our perceptions. By embracing the yogic principles of self-awareness, openness, and non-attachment, we embark on a journey to gradually untangle these biases and gain a clearer, more compassionate perspective on the world and move towards Vidya.

Remember, it's not about banishing biases altogether, but rather about acknowledging their presence and actively striving to rise above them. As we navigate the intricate tapestry of our minds, let's remember that the journey itself is a beautiful, transformative practice.

Stay curious, stay open....

Amy Fitta

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