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]
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...