Saturday, June 9, 2012

Walled Gardens

Last year, I signed up to a 300-hour teacher training apprenticeship program in a new up-and-coming school in Santa Monica. I should not have, I had nothing like the sufficient time available in my schedule but I knew a number of the teachers at the school personally and the owner charmed me. He promised that he would do everything he could to make my experience really fantastic. I had the impression that there were things I could learn with this man - his wit, his sense of humor, his laid-back approach to the practice. It all spoke to me of places in life that I, with enough instruction or patience, could one day arrive. It spoke to me a place that I did not inhabit, a walled garden, a sanctuary. I wanted to live there.

Fast-forward a year and the final, guillotining communication from him that severed my contact with this studio echoes with condemnation of me as a person.
"I am sure you are angry ... it is your anger that prevented me from discussing the [DELETED] matter with you and kept me from quickly responding to your demands. You scare me and you have for a long time."
Here, the walled garden was now protecting its serenity, through force.

When I was still in the program back in February, I was going through a rough time. I had met someone at the studio who I had developed strong feelings for. Those feelings were not reciprocated, however, and there followed several weeks where the woman I liked was not attending class. I sent her texts: "Am I the reason you're not coming to class?". "No, no, I'm having roommate issues" came the replies. Something was wrong and I wasn't sure what. I finally came to the realization "No, no, you are the reason she's not coming to class, (you stupid douchebag)" and I immediately left the program, informing her voicemail that I was going and it was now OK for her to return.

During this time, I felt pretty low. The feeling of rejection surrounding the entire experience was traumatizing. I wanted to talk to the owner of the studio about this and maybe ask for a partial refund of the money I had spent to sign up. No dice. He was slow returning my emails or calls. After 6 weeks of waiting, I got angry and told him so. It all degraded even further from there. I wrote a strongly negative review for the studio online and the owner posted a number of quite hurtful, dismissive rebuttals and then sent his final email to me (partially quoted above). He said nastier things in this mail, some of which were deliberately intended to be hurtful, coercive, threatening even. I was quite careful not to make my communications personal (either private or public), but even then, he obviously interpreted the whole event as an attack on him.

I think back on this interaction and furrow my eyes in perplexed confusion. As a business owner, his handling of my participation took a perfectly straightforward situation requiring a little humanity and turned it into something really nasty. Some of the things he did were things I consider both egregious and unethical.

Why would someone apparently committed to the pursuit of yoga treat one of his customers so badly? He seemed genuinely frightened of the 'negative energy' that I had suddenly introduced into his world. I think that he felt that he was fighting for his livelihood against someone who he couldn't empathize with or understand.

All of his actions were geared towards excluding my 'issues' from his life. He initially ignored my requests for communication. When I posted my review, he tried to have it taken down. He then attempted to silence me by discrediting me and then his final communication has the tone of an act of violence: an emphatic rejection of me as a person. Naturally, this had a strong impact on me. I thought that perhaps that it might have had a traumatizing impact on him too, but no, he only really cared about the negative 'one-star' Yelp review I posted about his studio online. When I published this post, I also took down the review since now, it's time to move on.

As he wrote in his email to me, I scare him. Perhaps the purpose of yoga is to make people happy, and it's natural to attempt to preserve a space of happiness around ourselves. It's natural to attempt to avoid negativity, and to shy away from people with issues. We hang out with people we like, we avoid people we don't. It's simple, right?

Well, no. To paraphrase some Sanskrit (and hopefully do justice to millennia of ancient wisdom), yogic philosophy describes the four essential causes of suffering as egotism (asmita), desire (raga), revulsion (dvesha) and our own fear of dying (abhinivesha). These can all be bundled together so that each is a different expression of the same underlying root: a misperception of reality (avidya). Dvesha is related to this fear of negativity. The act of pushing away and ignoring the things that we recoil from prevents us from engaging powerfully with them. One might say even, that it is the basis of hate, of non-acceptance, of cruelty.

How do we learn to mistreat people? We start by distancing ourselves from them.

It seems that we think of 'happiness' as an idyllic walled garden: peaceful, tranquil, and full of gorgeous, happy, perfect people who never cause problems. Here, negativity can feel a little like a smelly homeless man mumbling quietly to himself in a corner. Most people just stay the hell away from him. Some people want to tidy him up a little and maybe make him a little more palatable for everyone by giving him some new clothes and a bath perhaps. Some people want to chuck him out, make sure he doesn't ever come back and attempt to eradicate any trace that he was ever there. Now, that's dvesha in a nutshell.

A little compassion goes a long way. Negativity is usually based on some sort of unresolved trauma. Even aggressive, argumentative, upsetting negativity is worthy of an ear just to listen to. In fact, people who are upset often only want to be heard and understood. Some of the most profound moments of communication I've had in my life were with people who were angry and shouting. When I was able to hear what they were actually trying to tell me, the whole situation usually transformed in a heartbeat. Sadly, that has not always been possible and, God Knows, I've been on the other side of that situation, saying how I feel, trying to be heard, but using a tone or a timbre that frames the conversation in a way that prevents the other person from hearing me. I'm sure that this is what happened with my experiences at the studio.

The defenses of these little walled gardens of human perfection are cold, hard and sharp.

Even now, I value my negativity, my shadow, my 'issues'. It serves as a barometer to gauge people's resilience. If someone can't handle a little honesty about a sticky point of conversation or the authentic expression of an emotion, what sort of person are they going to become when genuinely difficult situations arise? What will they do to protect their own little piece of perfection?

Life is as it is, negative and positive. For me, yoga is somehow to seek a sense of equanimity that treats the negative with the same respect and attention as the positive and isn't afraid of it. My personal challenge is certainly to understand the impact that my negativity has on others and be responsible for that impact (in some contexts though, I still assert that it's not unreasonable to expect a little courage, humanity and compassion from the people around you, especially in the context of something so personal as yoga). Having said that, there is a trend in the emerging multimillion dollar self-help and self-improvement industry towards the complete eradication of negativity. We are encouraged to try to build some version of the pristine, perfect, personal walled garden. These are now being sold as services, practices, tapes, books, courses, gurus (and yoga teacher trainings) as possible vehicles for you to transform your life into something beautiful, a place where you can strive to be perfect and happy: a walled garden all for yourself.

All I can say now, is 'Buyer beware'.
"Don't try to transform yourself.
Move into yourself.
Move into your human unsuccess.
Perfection rapes the soul."

- Marion Woodman quoted in Stephen Cope 'Yoga and the search for the true self'"


  1. As a small business-owner and yoga lover (and woman), I read your post with interest. The situation you found yourself in was awkward at the very least and also rather painful - rejection is one thing that never gets easier with age.

    However, I was very confused by your apparent belief that you could expect a refund for leaving the program early, despite no wrongdoing on the part of the school or instructor. It was your decision to leave, and it sounds like you did the right thing. That should have been the end of the story.

    This awkward situation was created by you, and you don't seem to want to take responsibility for it. Why didn't you keep your interest in the woman to yourself, at least until the end of the program? It seems totally inappropriate to have been texting her. If anyone has an argument for getting a refund, it would be the woman who stopped attending class in order to avoid the guy who wouldn't leave her alone.

    That aside, small businesses simply don't have the kind of cash flow that allows for easy refunds [that's why you get "store credit" in small boutiques rather than cash refunds - it sends our books into chaos.]

    The anger you ultimately felt toward the instructor is also confusing. It seems to me you are lashing out at him for the rejection and ego injury you experienced while in his program. After you didn't hear from him for several weeks, why didn't you just let it go? He's not your therapist or your brother, and probably has more than enough of his own problems (as do we all, right?)

    I hope you continue with your yoga practice, but do it for your own peace of mind, not to check out the cute girl in the front row. We don't go to yoga to meet guys, we want to focus inwards and REDUCE the distractions in our heads and our days.

    Very best wishes.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thank you for your comment, and I wanted to rewrite my response. The issues are still quite raw and trying to write about without a strong reaction coming out is a little challenging. My apologies for the strong tone.

      I appreciate your point, that this was largely caused by my feelings and my 'issues'. This is the whole point of the post. Why is it wrong to express feelings? To be human? To ask for support? To actually demand a little civility and responsiveness from a business you are a customer of?

      The 'walled garden' mentality is the one that takes no responsibility, it hides and pretends such things don't exist. In the walled garden, it's 'inappropriate' for me to show my feelings. It's inappropriate for me to ask for my money back. It's 'inappropriate' for me to post an accurate, fair description of my experience online. When I deal with people and they have real emotions, I actually allow them to have their feelings and will happily talk and listen about them. I guess this is the challenge for businesses, to treat their customers like people, not representatives of some ideal demographic or as a commodity.

      When the business is yoga (capital 'Y' meaning union, or totality, not just some glorified aerobics routine), there *has* to be a safe space for people to encounter their issues. The teachers that I respect are actually capable of providing that to everyone in the room, not just the athletes with the perfect bodies or people with no issues (as if such people really exist).

      Bear in mind also, that this 'safe space' should include men as well as women (and for your information, I've been practicing for 10 years and work to be scrupulous about the energy I bring to the room). I fell for this woman, not because she was a 'cute girl in class', but after we had actually gone out, socialized a little and I had discovered just how spectacular she was as a person. I admit, I lost my cool completely around her... and that was probably was 'too much'... but you know what, I'd prefer to be someone who actually falls in love in those moments than someone who was 'appropriate' all the time.

      I have to say, that I never really felt 'safe' in this studio, my perspective and my energy just never fitted ... I was too argumentative, too questioning, too much an outsider... So, the upshot was that I was taking a course that I had paid $2500 for and I was miserable. If I was the owner with someone like that in my business, I'd at least make an effort to take care of them. Instead, I got the treatment described in the post, which I think was based primarily on a completely overreactive fear around bad publicity and a callous dismissal of me as a person. For that to come from a yoga teacher who I had trusted was actually damaging, I came away feeling thoroughly disgusted with the whole yoga-business-complex. If this business process excludes people's real feelings and treats someone like myself (authentic, honest, kind, a little unorthodox and quite contentious) with contempt, then I stand by what I've written in the post: 'perfection rapes the soul'

      So, I hope that this gives you a little more context. The point of the post isn't really about the whole drama with the studio owner, it's more to do with the underlying idea of how people seek perfection as an avoidance of other people's (and probably their own) imperfections. I do appreciate your response and wish you well.

  2. Something that's good to keep in mind is that yoga messes with things. This can be seen in teachers and yoga's history:

    "Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here"

    Here's some quotes:
    "Science has begun to clarify the inner mechanisms. In Russia and India, scientists have measured sharp rises in testosterone — a main hormone of sexual arousal in both men and women. Czech scientists working with electroencephalographs have shown how poses can result in bursts of brainwaves indistinguishable from those of lovers."
    You're a scientist so maybe take these things into mind.

    I hope that helps,

    1. You don't need to be a scientist to know that a yoga practice involves a heightened sense of intimacy between yourself and the instructor and the other people in any given class. This just means that the risks of abuse are higher. It may itself be a lure for untrustworthy, or sociopathic people. The whole 'yoga and sex scandals' issue you raise is horrifying, not at all surprising and should be a great concern to anyone involved in the practice as a whole.

      In general, I'm pretty disappointed in yoga as a whole. It predominantly emphasizes a number of traits as its main virtues, none of which seem to carry weight from an authentic spiritual practice. These are:

      (1) Beauty. This appears to trump everything.
      (2) The 2nd sutra (chitta vritti nirodhah) seems to have migrated from 'controlling wayward and chattering thought' to giving up the process of thinking altogether.
      (3) The wholesale rejection of negativity (I imagine that this post is going to evoke exactly this sort of reaction)
      (4) Being cool within the 'scene' of rock-star yoga teachers and gurus.

      All in all, I can take it or leave it. There are some good, trustworthy teachers around, but there are a lot of bozos. Also, the more senior the teacher, the more likely there's some really dodgy stuff going on somewhere, too.