March 8, 2013

Facing the Yoga Mean Girls.

Source: via Kathleen on Pinterest

Are there mean girls in yoga?

Unfortunately, in the 15 years that I have been practicing and teaching yoga, I have met my share. Not the kind armed with an expensive hair cut or wearing the latest Coach handbag, but the kind with messy hair tied back in a pony tail, mala beads wrapped around their forearms, and an angel face that glows soft from pranayama (breathing techniques) like fresh peaches.

They are not hung over from pomegranate martinis but instead buzz from daily sun salutations.

How could a practice grounded in mindfulness and based on ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (honesty) also have a backstabbing bitchiness that rivals the hallways of hormone-laden junior high?

Maybe its because in yoga you are trying to get rid of the ego by confronting it; you are also doing difficult things such as moving into poses that challenge limitations. You’re aspiring not to harm yourself while also not letting yourself down. It’s very strange and an interplay between effort and humility—it is a fine balance.

Because yoga is “good for us” we seem to have this fantasy that the practice of it will not create anything negative. But anytime there are human beings and bodies and physical challenges that involve strength, beauty, stamina and will, there will be the risk of jealousy, lying, cheating, physical and psychic injury.

The idea that yoga will somehow exempt itself from this because it comes from Eastern philosophy and thought is kind of naive.

I am also a yoga studio owner and hire yoga teachers. On the outside, a yoga studio can seem like a Zen and beautiful place to be, and mostly it is, but not always; sometimes what goes on behind the curtain is not without its stains and bruises.

My first blatant incident of experiencing yoga viciousness was with another teacher. She left my studio to teach elsewhere claiming that I was hiring “newer” teachers and their lack of experience discredited my studio’s reputation and hers. She was correct that some of these new hires were fresh out of yoga teacher training (a training that I had led) but in my mind, they were knowledgable, dedicated and passionate about yoga—I knew it wouldn’t take long for them to become confident.

Sobering to me was this particular yoga teacher seemed to have conveniently forgotten she was without any experience when I had hired her a year earlier—but I never did point this out. I was uncomfortable with confrontation and besides it wasn’t wrong for her to want to move on. Teachers move on all the time, especially in our urban setting, where new yoga studios pop up like lemonade stands.

What was out of line were her actions a year later, when I was in the process of buying an established yoga studio in a nearby town. She sent all nine teachers at the yoga studio I was about to buy a two page letter, single spaced, stating what a selfish and lousy yoga studio owner I was. She claimed it was her yogic duty to inform them of my shortcomings.

Pretty unbelievable.

This was about eight years ago, and when I look back at the situation, what was more revealing to me than the teacher’s bad behavior was my reaction to it.

I did nothing; I did not face the mean girl. I did not call her and say, “You had no right to do what you did and I am hurt and angry.” Instead, I remained silent and hoped the teachers would come to their own conclusions about me and see her letter as the actions of a bitter and ungrounded person.

I tried to wrangle for control over my uncomfortable feelings of hurt and betrayal and self-talk my way out of them. I told myself she was crazy, that I was being sensitive, and this ridiculous situation shouldn’t warrant any of my energy. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t be having a particular response, it didn’t remove the underlying emotional experience.

Instead, it created a large gap between what I was telling myself and what I was actually feeling.

One time, a yoga teacher that I let go for repeatedly calling out sick at the last minute had her best friend, also a yogi, call me. When she identified herself on the phone, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach; there was no way this was gonna be good.

“Hey Anne—I am calling you because I want you to explain to me how you had any right to fire Georgia?”  Her voice was a bit slurred like maybe she was drinking.

“Umm, I don’t think I should be discussing my decision with you,” I replied.

“You know,” the friend’s voice got louder, “When I first met you I thought you were jealous of Georgia’s body and her yoga.” Her voice became a scream. “I was right. You are a fat and miserable bitch.”


I wanted to crumble into small pieces of shame, but instead my response was to go numb. Besides, where could I go with this?  Nowhere to go on the outside, so I went inward and layered harsh criticism on top of what was already a painful situation: I must be at blame for this.

Ashamed to have been called fat and miserable, I lashed out at myself. It was true that Georgia had an amazing body and she was one of the most flexible yogis I had ever seen. But this had nothing to do with why I fired her—there must be something deeply wrong at my core for others to perceive me so negatively.

I must be a freak, because people so easily lash out at me.

I didn’t call back the mean friend or the yoga teacher, Georgia, whom I suspected put her up to it, or at the very least, had given her my unpublished home phone number. Instead, I tried to pinpoint what I had done wrong to cause the situation. Searching for the cause of a problematic situation can help us to rise above the difficulty, but it can also create a strategy where we our constantly surveying ourselves for our shortcomings.

What this does is add a layer of shame onto the difficult feelings; now, we are ashamed for having the problem to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong; sometimes we need to take responsibility for things that don’t go so well. I’m not suggesting that there is never a time to investigate how we might “do better” in the future. It is when this becomes the primary coping mechanism that it does more harm than good. It is when our faultfinding replaces the process of acknowledging our hurt feelings that we aren’t doing ourselves any favors.

The final straw for me to change my ways with how I deal with others who don’t play fair was when a yoga teacher, who was also one of my best friends, opened a yoga studio down the road from mine. She planned the whole thing while she was teaching daily yoga classes at my studio.

Every day, as we worked side-by-side, she neglected to tell me she was opening a business in direct competition with mine. She was never gonna tell me, and when I found out through the gossip mill, it stung like a bitch slap across my face.

With the deception and duplicity still burning on my cheeks, I asked her about it. “I understand the need to do your own thing.” I said. “But what I don’t get is why you didn’t tell me.”

I was hoping she would explain her actions and this would make me understand and take away my pain. But her reply was, “I owe you nothing.”

Those were her final words to me and in the silence that followed I felt the depth of her disconnect—it also made me sad and angry.

We had shared thousands of hours of yoga and cups of coffee together; we knew each others dreams and secrets. She had the cutest freckled face and gave the best hugs and yet she didn’t think I deserved decency or honesty. I was torn between wailing like a wounded animal and pushing her down my studio stairs.

Instead, I told her to leave. That was it. ” Just go.”

I wish I had said more.

But her betrayal was my moment. And how I needed that moment; I was over 40 years old and still couldn’t speak up to the mean girls. My whole life there had been mean girls; I have two daughters who will also encounter their share of cruel and contemptuous behavior and I needed to change the pattern for them as well as me. Children observe and notice how parents deal with difficulty—my choices now will shape theirs later.

Instead of blaming myself for the betrayal of my friend and yoga teacher, or turning to my common default setting of “I’m not good enough,” I decided to go to my yoga mat for guidance. While in a pose, the goal is to breathe into and feel all of our sensations and feelings, not to be held hostage by them, transcend or avoid them.

An honest yoga practice seeks balance, stays in conscious contact with our current experiences, and makes healthy choices around them. It’s about having compassion for this imperfect human condition, accepting that life is a never-ending process and requires the occasional growing pains.

These days, yoga has given me the skills to know what to do when mean girls show up. I have made it my practice to deal with difficult personalities and situations swiftly, firmly and compassionately the moment they arise. It’s not easy for me; I would rather minimize their behavior, look to myself for the cause or retreat. In the past, I hoped the problem would go away, but I know now it most likely won’t.

I have to deal.

When confrontation needs to happen, I call upon the strength I find in Warrior One, the grace that arises in Dancer and the open heart and throat I feel in Fish. I let the emotional tones of all three poses mix together and trust that the right words and actions will come.

And so far they have.  I have had plenty of situations to test it out since the fateful day I told my best friend to leave—no one has died and no one has written nasty letters or called me names.

What’s also remarkable is that since I have made it my practice to deal with difficult people and situations, I have had less of them; there is something about confronting your fears that makes them go away.  Maybe I passed some type of life test or maybe the mere act of speaking up and confronting difficulty has changed the way people react to me.

One thing I do know is my life is no longer filled with a long string of mean girls, but is filled with wonderful, strong, funny, courageous and beautiful woman and they keep coming. Each one a gift.

I know now I was unable to fully appreciate all the amazing woman around me when I gave over so much power and energy to the ones who were judging, using or competing with me; I was the one who robbed myself.

Recently, I was drinking a cup of tea with a newer female yogi friend; she is one of the gifts who had recently showed up in my life. We were saying goodbye, as she was moving to China for three years. She believes difficult people come into our lives so we can learn something we need to know in order to heal and then they move on—a few years ago, I would have thought she was drinking a bunch of new age Kool Aid but now I think she is wise.

What if there are no yoga mean girls? Maybe Rainer Maria Rilke had it right:

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

What if there are no yoga mean girls and we are all just princesses waiting to act with beauty and courage.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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