Yoga gossip. No matter how big our small our yoga community is, it seems there’s always some sort of buzz. We are competitive beings, after all. There’s a tendency to want to elevate ourselves, and often we do so by comparing ourselves to others. But is this a skillful way to participate in community? Have you ever found out that someone in your community has expressed opinions about you behind your back?
When students ask my opinion about another teacher in town, I’m deliberately vague. First, with the plethora of teachers 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 any particular 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. She is not a person who would engage in idle yoga gossip. She told me about the incident out of concern for my welfare. On the other hand, I was aware that the teacher had a reputation for 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 longtime student of mine, how many others had he said similar things to?
Seeking Higher—and More Neutral—Wisdom
With some hesitation, I called my teacher, Pujari Keays, 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. It’s not part of my skill set. 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 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 spoken opinions might also get back to me. I needed to talk to him so that he might be more careful about 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. Refraining from gossiping—along with refraining from untruthful, harmful or needless speech—is one aspect of what the Buddha called “right speech.” When we engage in yoga gossip—or gossip in general—the subject 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.
I try—and am not always successful—not to speak about anyone who isn’t present. But like any ethical guidelines, there are grey areas. Sometimes it can be necessary, and even helpful, to discuss another person who is struggling with a caring friend. Speaking out of concern for someone who’s in distress, with the intention of finding a way to help, is not the same as gossip. This kind of discussion intends to lift a person up. Gossip has the distinct purpose of bringing someone down.
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 yoga gossip doesn’t feel very good. Dissing others just spreads the poison, and reinforces the pattern of gossiping about others. 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?