When students ask my opinion about another teacher in town, I’m deliberately vague. First, with the plethora of teachers (100 or more) being trained annually in various local trainings, I no longer know 99 percent of the teachers in town. Second, even if I do know the teacher about whom they’re inquiring, I don’t necessarily know how the student and teacher might connect. I encourage them to find out for themselves if another teacher might have something valuable to teach them. My response is always, “Check them out. See what you think.”
This very thing happened a few years ago when a committed, longtime student asked me about a well-respected teacher. I encouraged her to try out his class, and she came back with a story to tell. Note: For purposes of literary ease, I will call the teacher “he,” but the teacher I refer to here is not necessarily male.
My student, “Lily” (not her real name) enjoyed the class. The teacher’s communication was clear, inspiring and challenging. Lily felt that the anatomical cues were sound and helpful. After class, the teacher—noting Lily’s obvious competence—asked her about her yoga experience. She told him she’d been taking my classes for eight years. Upon hearing this, the teacher scoffed and said, “Well, now you can start doing real yoga.” Lily was horrified, and was so turned off by the comment that she decided not to attend the teacher’s classes again.
I’ve known Lily a long time, and know her to be a person of high integrity. I knew she would never make up a story like this. On the other hand, a student of the teacher’s once told me that even though he was quite knowledgeable, he had an arrogant streak that sometimes got in the way of his teaching.
The story really bothered me. If the teacher, who was considered an authority in the community, was willing to talk dismissively of my teaching to a student who had obviously connected with my work—for a long time—how many others had he said similar things to?
Seeking Higher—and More Neutral—Wisdom
With some hesitation, I called my teacher, Pujari, to ask his advice on how to handle the situation. I hesitated because I had a feeling Pujari was going to suggest I do something uncomfortable. I was right. Pujari is rarely adamantly directive with me. Usually, he helps me arrive at solutions by asking questions. But this time he was emphatic: I had to call the teacher and tell him what I’d heard.
As an introvert who rarely has the perfect response at the ready in difficult conversations, I am not a fan of confrontation. I don’t do confrontation well. I am a ponderer; I need time to ruminate on my responses. In confrontations, I most often freeze. It’s not until I've thought about things for a day or two that I can see clearly enough to communicate what I need to.
So I resisted Pujari’s advice, at first not intending to do it at all. I just couldn’t. But as the months wore on, the incident kept gnawing at me. I couldn’t think about the teacher without getting angry. Every time I heard something positive about him I experienced an internal eye roll, or worse. I was poisoning myself. Finally, I realized that Pujari was right. I needed to talk to him.
I called the teacher one afternoon. I was surprised and a little scared when he actually answered. I told him the story as my student had told it to me. I said it with as much respect and neutrality as I could, conveying to him my concern. He politely denied it. I didn’t push it—the initial confrontation had been enough for me. And it’s quite possible, I reasoned, that he’d said the offending words in passing and didn’t remember saying them; it had been more than six months, after all. After a little more cordial chit-chat, we said our good-byes.
It was then that I realized why Pujari had been so adamant that I confront the teacher. It was not so that I could get in his face and extract an admission or an apology from him. It was because I needed to let him know that his words had gotten back to me. His dissing me did not occur in a vacuum. What I needed, more than an apology or an admission, was for him to know that any future dissing might also get back to me. I needed to talk to him so that he might be more careful with his words in the future.
As teachers, our words are taken seriously by our students, for better or for worse. When we express negative opinions about our peers, we damage not only our peers, but ourselves in the process. Refraining from gossiping—along with refraining from untruthful, harmful or needless speech—is one aspect of what the Buddha called “right speech.” When we gossip about someone, that person has no opportunity to give his/her side of the story. All that gets expressed is our own opinions and projections that may or may not be accurate.
Gossip is not the same as speaking out of concern for someone. It is also not the same as confiding a story to a close friend or mentor in order to figure out a skillful way to resolve an issue. When we gossip, we spread rumors or opinions about someone simply for the sake of spreading the news.
I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of talking in not-so-supportive ways about teachers or styles I don’t prefer, in conversations with close friends. At the time, I may have felt a bit superior by diminishing another teacher, but really, in the long run it doesn’t feel very good. Dissing others just spreads the poison, to ourselves more than to anyone else. I remain vigilant with my own opinions, attitudes and words.
Does your community have an active yoga gossip machine? Have you ever been the object of a peer’s negativity? How did you handle it?