Just like any other sphere of activity, asana has its share of drama and conflict. Perhaps milder than in other communities, but they still exist. Likewise, asana has people of all types, from wonderful teachers to disreputable frauds, though the latter are often bendy or charismatic enough to mask their true natures.
Last month’s post was a topic that has been brewing internally for years, as I gathered and reread so many examples of useless asana language. It also marked an important shift for me personally, as I publicly declared some of my own criticism.
It also precipitated an abrupt to change to something that wasn’t brewing for years, that I had never questioned: my public neutrality. Though I have always fumed over ridiculous web content and statements by asana teachers, I have never, while in the role of a teacher, criticized another teacher. Not even when I have known of unethical or inappropriate behavior. I always maintained a neutral stance, even when directly asked about someone I didn’t respect.
For example, I often hear comments like “I went to a class with [teacher who lies about his experience] last week and it was amazing! He’s such an incredible teacher.” My typical response has always been “I’m glad you enjoyed it. I have heard good things about him.”
My response, as far as I have observed, comes across as a positive endorsement. Yet it is actually not, per se. I rationalized my response in light of the fact that other people’s choices have nothing to do with me. I am genuinely glad when people find classes or teachers they like. And there is always both positive and negative feedback about anyone; no one is universally liked.
One of the limbs of yoga is the yamas, commonly translated as “restraints,” essentially meaning ethical practices. Among them is satya, which means truth. The motivation for my seemingly-positive-but-really-a-neutral-rather-than-harsh response has been that I always wanted to maintain honesty. Thus my answer, despite being misleading, is honest on a literal level. Those statements are true.
An easier option, which I have never chosen, is simply to agree without comment. But even if that person never knew my true opinion, I still wanted to answer “honestly.” But my alternative, seeming-honesty-for-the-sake-of-not-being-negative, is clearly not truth.
I have never wanted to gossip; my conscience has always objected. For example, even though I know of the identities of asana teachers who have gossiped about me, I have always maintained public neutrality. But now I realize that my “honesty” has been more about avoidance. I don’t suddenly wish to gossip, but I do understand honesty in a new way.
And so I hope to confront this tension more authentically. As much as I prefer neutrality, I have decided to reverse my policy of inaction. I cannot can be neutral in a non-neutral space. Moreover, in my efforts not to speak negatively, I have not been completely honest. A show of positivity by way of neutrality by way of honesty is not honest.
A few examples of my longtime silence:
- I first taught asana at a well-established studio in Atlanta. Due to politics (aka jealousy over the success of my classes), one of the teachers told the owner that I was encouraging students to attend a different studio (where I also taught) and dating my students. When he confronted me, I pointed out the absurdity of the first accusation and maintained my innocence about the second.
However, soon after I was fired, without a chance to teach a final class. Afterwards, the teachers told all the students that I had quit. This was before social media—I had no means of communication with my students or any other recourse.
No other recourse, except time and truth. A few months later, one of my former students found my classes at the other studio. She said she was really sad that I left without saying goodbye. I replied, “Do you really think I would ever do that?” I watched her face slowly change as she realized what had truly happened.
Other than that interaction, which I’m sure generated conversation with her and others, I have never spoken ill of that teacher, who has since begun to offer teacher trainings. But I’m no longer willing to be silent.
- I co-direct the only Mysore-only studio in the Southeast, Ashtanga Yoga Atlanta. Many other studios offer Mysore classes, but to my knowledge AYA is the only one that focuses completely on Mysore. A few years ago, a former student and friend opened a Mysore studio 0.2 miles away—in other words, within shouting distance.
She had the gall to note on her website that hers was the only Mysore studio in Atlanta. Worse, she also listed the yamas, which of course includes satya. An email was sent, for the sake of discussing the situation. She never responded.
Since then, she has continually trash talked me and my teacher. (People have mentioned this gossip, without any solicitation from our side, out of concern that we know.) Fortunately for us, a few years ago she suddenly closed shop and moved out of Atlanta. And yet, trickles of the trash talk continue. But I’m no longer willing to be silent.
- Last year a friend and student started a tumblr just before he traveled to India to study in Mysore. After his return to Atlanta, he took a class at another studio, where I have always known that the owner routinely steals the ideas of others and behaves unethically. He is, by the way, a teacher of the person in example #2. They had a falling out over personality conflicts (as I understand it—which is of course not the full story).
This teacher learned of my friend’s tumblr and then bought the domain name—meaning the same title, but without “tumblr” in the web address (which my friend did not own). Since then, he has posted his profound thoughts on yoga, including the top 5 postures for better sex. (Which, depressingly, was reposted on another yoga site, which mentioned the title of the teacher’s site.)
Meanwhile, my friend continues to post about yoga, sustainable housing, and communion with nature. The teacher who appropriated his tumblr name offers teacher training courses and promotes himself as a “mystic.” But one of the comments about the above-mentioned blog post is more accurate: “a gimmick by a shallow, commercially-inclined teacher.”
I know better, and I have certainly second-guessed my past silence with my friend. But I’m no longer willing to be silent.
In all, I’m not so naive that I don’t I recognize that unethical people are everywhere. Nevertheless, I’m still saddened by this sort of behavior—not just because it’s immature, but because it shows how deep hypocrisy can run in people who claim they are spiritually evolved. Yet again, I’m embarrassed to be in the same field.
These experiences have convinced me that I should share my authentic views, in appropriate contexts, about what I believe is unconscionable behavior—that which I know not from hearsay, but direct experience. But I also wish to maintain integrity, to respect differences rather than abuse or slander anyone.
So I have a challenge which I have avoided for many years: to express honesty and preserve kindness, both more fully. The distance between ugly honesty and hurtful gossip is often short. Though I used to equate any non-positive commentary as gossip, I have learned that statements can be more nuanced. I believe there is a respectful way to share disagreement, which hopefully will create a more authentic dialogue.
Using my same restaurant analogy, if you like a certain restaurant and I know the chef is lying about the food, my conscience would compel me to share. Not to control or manipulate you, but for the sake of my own honesty.
Dialogue around disagreement does not mean consensus. But dialogue allows individuals to be more fully informed and decide for themselves. Dialogue could also prevent inappropriate behavior from turning into scandalous behavior. Surely things would have turned out differently for John Friend if he had been in a culture of dialogue about disagreement.
In my early years of teaching asana, I was too afraid to criticize anyone because I thought it would prove me to be a poor example of a yogi. But at this point, I feel worse about silence than I do about my preference for neutrality.
I’m not going to suddenly generate gossip—no names on social media, for example. Nor will I simply retaliate negative statements about those who have spoken negatively about me. But if you ask me personally and you need to know—maybe you’re considering attending certain classes or hosting a workshop with a particular teacher—then I’ll tell you. I’m no longer willing to be silent.
SK © 2015