Thursday, November 8, 2012

The toxicity of the yoga culture of niceness

Radioactive Warning: There is quite a bit of toxic content in this post. Read at your own risk. If you have just finished your practice, you might want to wait a little before you read this post: The last thing I want is for you to be prematurely and rudely shaken out of your post-practice blissed-out mood.  

    [Image taken from here]

After talking so much politics on this blog over the last week, including endorsing Obama and bashing Romney (gosh, am I glad Obama won; one can only imagine how vulnerable a Chinese yoga blogger who is not even a permanent resident of this country would be in the face of a conservative censorship-happy administration...), I just haven't been able to get my mind off politics. Politics, it turns out, is not something my brain can just turn on or off like a light switch. So, in the last 36 hours since Obama won re-election, I have found myself trolling the internet for all kinds of news related to the election... Oh, and by the way, this just in: Obama has won Florida! Not that he needed the state to win, but it still feels good, especially because I lived in Florida for 8 years when I went to grad school at the U of F.

Anyway, let me see if I can steer the conversation towards something more yoga-related. Well, let's start with this: Over the last few days, I have been thinking quite a bit about Matthew Remski's recent Elephant Journal article, in which he points out that much of the yoga community is in a state of malaise when it comes to taking a stand on any significant political issue. Remski points out that when it comes to politics, many yoga people either adopt:

(1) An "etheric-dissociative posture" ("Be fully in the present moment, achieve a collective leap of consciousness, and worry not about who takes the White House or how rape is defined. Because when you are truly in the present, all of these problems are only illusions....");


(2) A "flaccid polite posture" ("It is totally okay whoever you vote for or whatever policies you champion, so long as you vote, and do it in a mindful/yogic way.").

From my on-and-off yoga teaching experiences over the years, I have had some experience with (2), so I'll say a few things about this (which is not to say that I don't find (1) problematic, but I try as much as possible on this blog to speak only about things that I have experience with).

I have noticed over the years that many yoga studio owners tend to adopt the flaccid polite posture towards students and clients. Which, I guess, is understandable, if we look at things from a purely business point of view: In most things in business, it is usually prudent to adopt a lowest-common-denominator stance, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like politics. You don't want to alienate or possibly even offend potential customers and lose business. So you adopt the lowest-common-denominator position, one that cannot possibly offend anybody ("It's good to do your civic duty and vote, no matter who you vote for", etc.). In so doing, you also create a culture of niceness within your business ("Be nice to everyone. Don't talk about politics, religion, or sex, because talking about these things often upset people, and make you look less 'nice'--not to mention lose customers.'").

Most of the time, this lowest-common-denominator culture of niceness works just fine. Customers/students come to classes at the studio and get their yoga fix. You get to teach yoga and make a living and pay your bills. Everybody is happy. But there are a couple of problems with applying this lowest-common-denominator-culture of niceness to running a yoga business:

(A) There are certain political positions and policies that one simply cannot support while claiming to be truly yogic at the same time. For example, it is impossible to "mindfully" redefine rape without violating Ahimsa, or "yogically" claim that climate change is a hoax without violating Satya. Well, maybe you could in the good old days before Superstorm Sandy turned the streets of New York City into a scene from some B-grade sci-fi movie...

But I digress. What I'm trying to say is this: As the recent elections have hopefully shown, there are certain political positions and policies that no amount of mindful-yogic-sugar-coating can or should make palatable to any yoga practitioner worth his or her yogic salt. Faced with somebody who spouts such, uh, nonsense (got to call a spade a spade, you know...), a studio owner or teacher has to either speak up and risk offending the customer/student, or continue to be "nice" and risk being truly unyogic.

I haven't done any surveys in this area, so I have no hard data as to how most teachers and studio owners "on the ground" actually respond to such situations. But I get the sense that many teachers and studio owners faced with such situations toe the niceness line, smile, and just "act yogic". After all, the reality is that we all live in a capitalistic society. Money is king, and it is even more king to yoga studios, who need the revenue flow from students to survive. And we all know how competitive and cutthroat the yoga business can be, beneath the facade of niceness.    
But perhaps somebody could respond to all this by saying, "Look, what do you, a crazy yoga blogger who's only taught yoga on-and-off, know about the business of yoga? People need to pay bills, and yoga studio owners and teachers are people who are just doing their best to make a decent living. Why don't you cut them some slack? As for those people who want to redefine rape or continue to believe climate change is a hoax, well, that's their problem. You can't change everybody's mind; to each his (or her) own."

Well, fair enough. If this whole niceness thing were merely a matter of individual conscience and nothing more, I would be quite happy to leave things at this. But in fact, this lowest-common-denominator culture of niceness is really only the tip of the iceberg. I think that, in many yoga studios, this culture masks an underlying toxic environment, one which lurks just beneath the surface of niceness, waiting to ensnare the unsuspecting and naive student or even teacher.

(B) What do I mean by toxic environment? To illustrate, let me share a personal story. First, a little background story is in order. At this studio I used to teach at, there was a student, an older gentleman who seems to me to be a man of independent means: I never actually asked him upfront what he did for a living, but he owned some land, and he always talked about working on his land and then coming to as many yoga classes at the studio as he pleases. And he only eats organic and never drinks anything that is in a plastic container. All of which led me, rightly or wrongly, to conclude that he had enough wealth set aside somewhere to not have to worry about the sorts of things (going to work, etc.) that most of us ordinary folk worry about.

This gentleman also had a rather interesting disdain for higher education: Over the course of a few conversations I had with him, I learned that he believes that all higher education is basically a waste of time and money, and that people would be better off and would learn much more just by living on the land and learning "organically" from living on the land.

Which is all well and good, so far. His views and lifestyle are probably not in the mainstream, but hey, it takes all kinds, right? What is not so well and good is that he has this rather annoying tendency to make his views and values known to others in a way that is... annoying. I can't think of another word to describe his behavior, so I'll just describe some examples of his actual behavior towards me. First, he has this annoying tendency to pick on the fact that I, a PhD student at the time, was in higher education, a field which he considers to be a total waste of time and money. And he tends to pick on this fact in public settings within the studio environment, in which I cannot call him out without appearing snarky and "not nice". For example, he once came to my class. While waiting with a whole bunch of other students for my class to start, he started chatting with the student on the mat next to him, who happened, as luck would have it, to be a fairly attractive middle-aged brunette... oh, did I tell you that he also has this tendency to chat up and "prey on" attractive women between 3 to 30 years younger than him when he comes to classes? Think Ogden the Inappropriate Yoga Guy, but add twenty or thirty years to his age.

Anyway, at some point during their conversation, he remarked to the brunette, in a voice loud enough for the entire studio to hear, "Oh, do you know that Nobel is a PhD student and has been a student all his life? Which means he's never had to make a living in the 'real' world..."

Boy, did that hurt. And, as I said, I couldn't think of a way in that moment to call him out on his inappropriate remarks without disrupting the atmosphere of yogic niceness that was supposed to prevail in the yoga class environment (not that it hadn't already been polluted by his remark). And the rest of the class was apparently too "yogic" and "nice" to dare to say anything to contradict him. So I had to grit my teeth (and in the process, make my already tightly-gripped bandhas even more tightly-gripped) and just try to continue the class as if nothing had happened.

A few more such incidents happened between him and me during my tenure at that studio. Finally, one day, I just couldn't stomach it any longer. After class, I walked up to him and told him that I didn't find any of his remarks about me funny at all. And then I said to him, "Look, if you are so yogic and mindful and all that, why can't you be mindful of what comes out of your mouth?" (A little background info: He also claims to be an avid practitioner of mindfulness meditation.) That one remark pretty much killed the relationship between us (not that it was all that healthy in the first place). For the rest of my time at that studio, there was always this strained air around us whenever we came within three feet of each other. But well, what needs to be said, needs to be said. What to do?


So what is the moral of my personal story? On one level, the answer is: Not much. In every environment in which there is human interaction, people are bound to download their neuroses on one another. So there is a sense in which every "normal" human environment is toxic, or at least has the potential to be.

But on another level, I think this says something about yoga studios and the culture of "yogic" niceness that is found in many such places. I think it is safe to say that if somebody had made such inappropriate remarks in any other everyday environment--say, in the office, or in a coffeeshop--it would be considered normal for the person at the receiving end of these remarks (in this case, me) to get upset and directly call the offender out on such unacceptable behavior. Furthermore, in many workplaces, there are procedures in place for workers to seek redress for such offenses: I'm not sure where exactly this would fit, but I'm quite sure that these remarks can be made to qualify as harassment of some kind or other if they were uttered in a conventional workplace setting... which also suggests that the yoga industry is woefully behind the corporate world in having mechanisms in place to protect its workers/teachers; or maybe being "yogic" and "nice" is supposed to be protection enough?

In any case, what I'm getting at is this: Could it be that the culture of niceness in many yoga studios may ironically be making the environments at these studios less yogic, by giving people who would otherwise be called out for their inappropriate behavior a screen to hide behind? In other words, could the yoga culture of niceness be a breeding ground for unyogic toxic behavior?

Well, you may want to think about investing in a reliable gas mask before you make your next trip to your favorite yoga studio...              


  1. not exactly on point, but related....A yoga practitioner i knew in a non-yoga context liked to point out that he at least did not kill animals (because he was a vegetarian). But when a school that our children attended closed and the teachers were left with no severance and no jobs, he forgot to be outraged about that (and didn't protest or contribute to their support as some of us did). My point, I guess, is that if your "niceness" is limited to the traditionally approved behaviors (vegetarianism) and you are not willing to be outraged/activist when people in your community are treated badly or in need, that's not really very nice, nor very yogic. We need to dig deep intellectually and emotionally as well as physically to translate our yoga practices into a good life. I guess "flaccid politeness" is sort of like walking through a practice, rather than truly working at your edge and practicing. Anger is necessary for humans along with niceness, just as strength is necessary along with flexibility. Good post, I liked it. S

    1. "Anger is necessary for humans along with niceness, just as strength is necessary along with flexibility."

      Very well said. Your example is actually very illuminating: I myself went through a phase of feeling superior just because I was a vegetarian living in an environment where almost everybody else eats meat (and lots of it too; I live in the upper Midwest). It took me a while to notice that I was feeling superior, and that my self-perception of superiority was tuning me out to the very real problems that people around me were going through. So yes, I totally relate to your example, because I have been totally guilty of it :-) I guess it helps a little now that I practice mostly at home and don't trumpet the fact that I practice yoga for all the world to see; I like to think this had helped me to see things a little more clearly.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post. If one of my students had spoken about me in the way the gentlemen in your post spoke about you, I would've simply looked at him and said, "Remember Ahimsa - do no harm." In my opinion, it would've been a way to stop toxic behavior without doing further harm in the process. I would've treated it as a teachable moment, if you will. Of course, it's difficult to think that clearly when we're flustered.

    Teachers should teach. Not pacify egos.

    1. Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, it certainly could have been a very teachable moment. I also think it's more than just about being able to think clearly; a lot of it is also about what we Ashtangis call "holding the space" and creating this space where words (both the teacher's and the student's) come from a place of truth and non-harming, rather than from a place of ego. That, I think, is probably the only way to really teach and not pacify egos. And I'm still working on being able to do this, both in my presently-non-existent yoga teaching career, and in my college classroom teaching.

  3. Really good post Nobel, and thank you for sharing. Once I had an incident where I was treated pretty badly by a studio owner at a place where I had taught 2-3 classes per week for almost 5 years. I was quite angry about it, but in my communication with him I kept it extremely professional - dealt with him as I would have done with one of my clients ( at the time I taught yoga part time, and was working in the corporate world full time) and called him out on his lack of professionalism and business ethics. He basically replied - well this is not like a real business, you have no real rights so I can run this studio whatever way I want. Needless to say I never taught there again, nor have I even set foot in the studio since, preferring to spend my hard earned cash in studios and on teachers who actually give a sh*t about other people. I wish him well, but I dont need to be around him.
    But my point is that when telling my own teacher that I felt bad about being so angry over the whole situation he said that it was normal to be angry, that I should feel angry about it. The key was not to spend time feeling guilty about being angry as it is a legitimate emotion and feeling. Allow yourself to be angry. And also not to hold on to the anger. Decide how the experience is going help you shape you life choices in a positive way.
    I've tried to stick to this advice as much as I can......

    But you know, there is one universal truth. Some people you meet are just a**holes. :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing too. I think your teacher is right. Anger doesn't neccessarily translate into a violation of Ahimsa. Very often, it can serve as a sort of "radar" that alerts us to some kind of Ahimsa violation that is happening in the environment: Think, for instance, about Rosa Park's refusing to give up her seat on that bus, and the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott. The key, I suppose, is to keep working on using anger as fuel to help us practice the yamas and niyamas more effectively in the world.

      Sometime last year, I wrote a few semi-tongue-in-cheek posts on this blog about whether there is a place for assholism in yoga. Here's one such post:

  4. Hi Nobel,

    This is an interesting post. I have been thinking about this a great deal as I plan to write a series of posts about the Yamas and Niyamas. I think it is perhaps simplistic to say that yoga teachers stay quiet due to money. Most yoga teachers do not make that much money and if they were purely motivated by finance would probably choose a different career. I realise this very lack of money could motivate someone to not stand up for themselves or their beliefs but I would have thought it was more about being ethical or being a "good yogi "at least this is my own experience.

    Are you saying that yoga teachers should tell everyone what their political beliefs are and try to convince others to follow them? I am not sure this is appropriate. Ethics and politics are not black and white, right or wrong topics. They can seem like they are to the people who hold them which is what makes them such dangerous topics. I prefer to practice ethics mostly be doing what I believe is right and then answering questions to anyone who is curious.

    I agree that there are times when views need to be challenged when they are made. So if someone makes a comment towards me or a member of my class which I consider rude, racist, sexist, etc. I will challenge it but I think this has to be done calmly. Getting angry at someone else's anger only breeds more anger. I would rather teach understanding. This is challenging sometimes.

    In relation to the situation that you found yourself in at the yoga studio. I am sorry that you found this mans views hurtful. I find it useful when someone gets to me to remember that I am allowing that to happen. As in he could have said what he said and and it could have not bothered you at all, you may have even found it amusing. It sounds like he was trying to annoy you and this probably would have broken his pattern. That said if I did feel hurt by such a comment, I would have said something. Maybe a quiet word with him to say that you found his comments hurtful would have taught him a great deal. I think it is right that such incidents aren't dealt with in the same way as they are dealt with in coffee shops etc. Our practice should help us to deal with situations without escalating them. I agree that feeling angry but not doing anything is not helpful either. We must however practice ahimsa when dealing with these situations if we are to work for a better world.

    To be able to stand up for ourselves, others and the planet but to do so in an ethical way, that is much harder than any asana. As I have said I have been thinking about this a lot recently and I think it is real challenge!

    Sorry for the long comment, you make some interesting points and I clearly need to start writing about this on my own blog.

    1. Oh, Helen, I forgot to add that I look forward to reading whatever you have to say about these issues, if and when you write about them on your blog. I will be sure to add Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool to my blogroll.

      For my detailed response to your comments here, see below.

  5. A few comments. First off, being a third party supporter all of my adult life, I see both the Dems and Republicans as holding numerous toxic, unyogic positions. The latter may be worse, but neither party holds up under any level of scrutiny. And so to me, it seems more important that folks engage in grassroots action, and/or are willing to lobby elected officials and hold them accountable for the kind of ethics that bring a better world. As such, I think it's more about issues, and being willing to - when appropriate - engage in discussions about issues that impact us all. As opposed to voting, which in this age of the corporate money flood, is less and less effective as a tool of change.

    Helen, while I agree with some of your caution around anger, I'm also convinced that there are times when things need to move beyond a few quite words or attempts to promote understanding. The thing is, in my view, to not make everything personalized. Demonstrated anger about how racism, environmental destruction, classism, etc. impacts people, including yourself, sometimes wakes people from their slumber. It's not about calling someone a racist or sexist, for example, but expressing fully the suffering that is caused. The thing is that these issues are collective. Reducing them to the individual level does nothing to address their systemic nature. Even if "I" recognize that I'm getting hooked by anothers' oppressive comment, there's still a systemic legacy behind that comment which goes far beyond me or the other person.

    This lack of awareness or engagement with the systemic level of social/political issues, and how yoga teachings may be applied to such situations, is a major weakness of the yoga studio culture in my view. When practice is mostly about individuals feeling better, or being friendly with each other, or not offending each other, the individual and collective shadows never get addressed. So many of these yoga teacher scandals have, in my view, come in large part because folks aren't, for whatever reasons, wrestling together with issues like sexuality, sexism, gender, power, etc.

    What is ahimsa, not in theory, but in practice? I think it's a lot more dynamic than we think.

  6. I think I agree with what you say but also I am not sure if what you told your student was appropriate. I understand he hurt your ego but who cares if he said that about you. Maybe if you have approached him in a friendly way and tell him that his comments hurt you, it would have been better and he might have realized what he said, given his background of being a person who enjoys nature, etc. I guess it is goog to get angry but at things that are more relevant, such as unfairness, for example.

    1. "I guess it is goog to get angry but at things that are more relevant, such as unfairness, for example."

      Hmm... but what if the thing that I got angry at (in this case, the student's remarks) is itself a manifestation of something bigger and "more relevant", i.e. a systemic legacy of oppression, as Nathan puts it in his comment above? What if the only way to awaken that person from his slumber is to use my anger to provoke him?

      I'm not saying that I definitely did the right thing. Just thinking aloud here.

  7. Helen and Nathan,
    I think I'm going to respond to both of your comments at the same time, since you both brought up similar themes.

    Helen: Thanks for your long and insightful comment. I don;t quite know how to begin to respond to the many things that you have brought up, so I'm going to just quote certain things that you say, and respond to them.

    "Are you saying that yoga teachers should tell everyone what their political beliefs are and try to convince others to follow them? I am not sure this is appropriate. Ethics and politics are not black and white, right or wrong topics."

    No, I'm not saying that yoga teachers should tell everyone they come in contact with what their political views are and try to proselytize to others about their political beliefs. This is probably inappropriate. But I can't help feeling that, at least in the yoga scene in this country, the pendulum seems to have swung to the other end. Many teachers and studio owners I have come into contact with seem to go to great lengths to put forth this sanitized suburbia-friendly version of yoga; the message seems to be that it doesn't matter what you do in your personal life and what political beliefs and values you hold: So long as you come to the mat and practice, "it's all good."

    The trouble is that it's not all good. Sure, there is a sense in which ethics and politics is not black and white, in that there is no one one-size-fits-all action or policy that is the correct action or policy to adopt for every situation.

    But there is another, more fundamental sense in which ethics and politics *is* black and white. For instance, telling a woman who got raped that she "asked for it" is always wrong, no matter who says it and how it is said. Denying science and claiming that climate change is a hoax is also always wrong, no matter who says it and how it is said. If yoga teachers do not find a way to speak up for these things and other things that matter, they risk becoming (excuse the language) spineless and toothless purveyors of a "nicey-nicey" culture. I don't think this is something that Guruji or Sharath would approve of.

    I'm not saying that one should necessarily be abrasive or confrontational when taking a stand on these things; for instance, I think that Kino does a really good job of taking on stand on these in a way that is clear and unambiguous without being confrontational. I also agree with you that it is always best to find ways to respond to ego displays and Ahimsa violations without escalating the level of anger in the environment. And I think this is where the practice comes in; while being able to do fancy asanas is no indication of what kind of person one is off the mat, I think that many of the things that our practice teaches us on the mat (bandhas, pratyahara, etc.) can teach us valuable lessons about how to move from our spiritual core in handling conflicts and tricky situations in day-to-day life.

    Nathan: I think at least some of the things I addressed to Helen are also relevant to your comments. What you say about the systemic nature of oppression which often manifests itself in our day-to-day individual conflicts is very true and insightful. I'm not sure I have a way of systematically addressing this systemic legacy, but I'll keep reflecting on this.

    1. One thing I notice when people bring up social and/or political issues within a practice context, is that extreme fears start arising amongst others. The sense that it's going to become all about politics, and listening to rants from teacher X or student Y. Or that the relatively peaceful environment they're studying in will now be a battleground for all time to come. While it's possible this kind of stuff can happen, it's not likely.

      I also think there's a general aversion to conflict that is part of the sanitized yoga culture Nobel points to. Interpersonal challenges between students and/or between the teacher get massaged or swept under rugs. Politics and other "loaded" topics get downplayed or are simply never spoken of. It all becomes about how people struggle with driving in traffic, or about letting whatever is troubling you go and feeling blissed out for a little while.

  8. Nobel,

    What if this man who was making hurtful remarks about you had been making them about another student in the class, and not you? Would you have said something earlier? Would it have been easier? Sometimes we don't know what to do when something harmful is directed at us, especially as the teacher, and especially as the yoga teacher, when we are trying so hard to look perfect, when in fact, we are all broken, or we probably wouldn't be here. Sometimes, it's no big deal to be angry, and to make it know, and to not be perfect b/c the greater the gap between that image we want to project, and the person we are, well, it just gets harder and harder to maintain that, and eventually we fall--those facades do nothing but hurt us.

    As far as whether yoga teachers should or should not say in terms of politics or right and wrong, this week, during all the fb election madness and cruelty--at least on my feed, which includes lots of South Georgia, small town people who otherwise are nice people, but when it comes to politics seem to think it's okay to let the rage and hatred out--well, the Buddhist teacher Karen Maezen Miller said--It's time to stop preaching and start practicing--and she also at one point said something like it's not our job to tell anyone how vote, but it's my job not to==b/c who they vote for relates to their path. I kind of liked that. Also, there is so much self-righteousness on both sides--the need to look good and moral and just and smart. Both sides say the same things about the other--that the other side is not moral or is ignorant or is not awake. I hear it all, and the comments are very very similar. Anyway==food for thought. I don't understand how anyone could believe that a woman brings on rape though, or that some god decides it's his will that someone should get pregnant from a rape. So it does get tricky and complicated, and I have battled within myself when to stand up and say something when someone says Obama is the antichrist. It's so hard to know what to do at times. Good questions you bring up here.

  9. One more thing from yoga teacher of years ago--certified ashtangi--never gave a rat's ass about being good. Not one bit. At the time I practiced with her, I'd just come out of therapy for several years with a therapist who worked so hard to be good, and put that off on me--and during that time I worked terribly hard to be perfect, to never judge ect. In the end, my yoga teacher who was not good and did not care to be actually turned out to be better/kinder/gentler/warmer/less judgmental than the therapist who would strive and strive for goodness. She's been such a good example for me and such an influence--actually both women were--but what my yoga teacher taught me is to relax with trying to be perfect or trying to be an example, etc. It was an important lesson to me. It was also surprising.

    1. Thanks for your long and insightful comments.

      "What if this man who was making hurtful remarks about you had been making them about another student in the class, and not you? Would you have said something earlier? Would it have been easier?"

      Something tells me that it would have been easier in this alternate situation. As you point out, many yoga teachers try (probably too hard) to look perfect as the "spiritual authority" in the room. When one is playing the role of "spiritual authority", it is relatively easy to stand up for others, because standing up for others comes with the role. But when something hurtful is directed at one who is playing this role, this hurtful thing is perceived as something that threatens to shatter that role, and one is often at a loss as to how to respond naturally and effectively to it. At any rate, this is my view.

      Yes, there is something about trying too hard to be perfect; I think B.K.S. Iyengar calls this "punching above one's weight." Too many people in the yoga/spirituality business do this. Actually, the first full-time Ashtanga teacher I studied with (as in, he's authorized, and teaches only traditional Ashtanga at his own shala) also never gave a rat's ass about being good or perfect. He basically just spoke his mind about everything; he pissed quite a few people off, but many others (including I) love him for being the way he is. I don't think it is a coincidence that your experience and mine are similar in this regard. I think what it comes down to is that full-time Ashtangis see themselves first and foremost as students (or either Guruji or Sharath); this being the case, they are totally alright with not being perfect.

      As for politics... well, here's how I see it: While name-calling and finger-pointing and endless preaching is not a good thing, there are times when one needs to stand up, make oneself heard, and say what needs to be said. I think election time is one such time, even if--as Nathan points out above--it is increasingly difficult to make a difference through voting, with all the big money and whatnot. And during non-election time, lobbying and having continuous conversations about important issues that affect us all is also important to making a difference. At any rate, this is my two cents'.

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