the strange state of yoga debate: gossip

Another week, another frustrated post in my news feed from a successful yoga teacher bemoaning the meanness of yoga gossip. A recent one from a New York yogi made me laugh when he suggested how gracious it was for a particular yogi to temporarily exit their state of Samadhi to share their wisdom about our insufficiency. The paradox of angry/condescending social media posts: the very people you may be complaining about may be thinking something similar of your post.

I think there are two things going on here. One is the competitive nature of an industry where one small business (yoga studios) could house dozens of small businesses (the contractually employed yoga teachers), and the other is the absence of a forum for yoga conversation outside our very small yoga enclaves.

Let’s begin with gossip, since gossip is, after all, always the easier form of conversation.

Historically, gossip served an important social function. Prior to the rise of modern media, even during the days of the morning and evening newspapers, word “traveled quickly” by being passed from neighbor to neighbor. Gossip forms bonds between the participants, demonstrating trust and knitting together a social network essential for survival and success. We know this from an early age: if the popular kids trust you with their gossip, you’re in! (This is not at all to discount the insidious effects of gossip as a bullying tactic.)

Gossip can also alert members of a community to important updates about an individual that helps them receive support faster, such as the death of a family member or the dissolution of a relationship. For yoga teachers, it lets us known similar personal updates about our peers, but also the inner workings of studios we may want to work for, and key pieces of advice for navigating self-employment.

In the yoga community, negative gossip manifests in three ways: within studios, between studios, and across teaching communities.

There are no yoga studio HR departments. Studio owners may have never managed a business or a staff before, and so policies, corrective actions and team building usually reflect the experience and skill set of the ownership. (The same can be said for how teachers manage themselves in relationship to the studio.) Gossip among teachers usually flows around business practices, because in most teaching communities, the owner(s) aren’t necessarily teachers/mentors of their team and may lack the tools needed to have compassionate, crucial conversations with their teachers or update their team. They would need to pay teachers every time they have a team meeting, because we’re not salaried, and many studios see this as an unnecessary expense when there’s email.  

Feedback for yoga teachers can be intensely personal given the nature of the work (it’s our employment and our life philosophy), and that’s difficult territory even for a skillful communicator.  Given the relatively high turnover rate at the entry level of teaching, it’s an ongoing challenge for studio owners to manage studio interests while developing teachers. The best way to mitigate studio gossip is to foster authentic, development-oriented community. A strong studio community typically neutralizes gossiping tendencies, because gossip arises in its absence as a form of social bonding and problem-solving strategizing.

There are a few teachers and owners who practice at other studios, but most tend to stay close to home or have their own teacher elsewhere. Studios are small businesses with unique challenges and overhead to pay for even at 2 pm in the afternoon when no one’s practicing yoga. (Except in Vancouver and London, where 2 pm classes are mysteriously popular.) Strife typically crops up between studios that feel they are competing for the same student demographic or share teachers. This is less of a concern in cities like London where it’s unthinkable to cross the city multiple times a week for class, but places like Ottawa where I live, it’s common for students to travel to their preferred space. Studio owners and managers usually gossip against others from a place of financial fear, the way any business owner might when a competitor opens nearby.

I’m always pleased to work for owners who acknowledge their leadership in the yoga community and focus on building a great business without knocking the work of others. It makes relations a lot easier on their teachers, too, since those teachers likely work in multiple spaces and may go on to open a studio. After all, if it’s your dharma to open a studio, it just as much might be someone else’s, too. Everyone has the right to open a business if they wish to, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

Attachment to how a teaching career “should” look and financial security fuels the most gossip among teachers. As mentioned, yoga teachers are contractually employed without security, and there are pros and cons to the arrangement for both studios and teachers. Teachers try to mitigate that insecurity by teaching the right amount of classes for their budgets, and if they develop a following and can be choosy about when they teach, gradually jockeying their schedules closer to more desirable hours. (What constitutes desirable is subjective: some teachers love being at the studio for 5:00 am!) But you can’t get the schedule you want without someone else not getting the timeslot, and studios are a little funny in how they schedule teachers. It’s a bit of meritocracy and seniority: when someone gets into a great timeslot, if it’s well attended, they likely won’t move off of it. Ever. It takes a long time to build a class following.

On the other hand, if the timeslot should be doing well and isn’t, they may be moved off to make space for someone else to try. Popularity isn’t a great indicator of that person’s contributions and knowledge; it’s only a good indicator of their ability to deliver a yoga class that many people want to go to on a weekly basis. The format and formula are a bit ephemeral given the diversity of yoga available, but certain elements just work and the chemistry can attract loyal students.

As a friend recently posted about in response to another “yoga is a broke ass business” type article, teaching yoga full time requires skillfulness in the studio, the community, and behind the computer. You’re self-employed, which requires a certain level of creativity, clarity, organization and discipline. It means that as much as you want to help your peers achieve teaching success, if that’s what they want, the elements to success are individually cultivated. Many of us came along at the right time, had the right opportunity or someone championing us, but when we experience scarcity (perceived or real), it brings out the real ugly side of ego. Jealousy from the belief that the level of success someone else is enjoying should really belong to us prompts us to cut one another down.

Nothing saps my spirit more than mean-spirited conversations, particularly because I’ve devoted a lot of attention over the years to diminishing their frequency. When I've gossiped meanly in the past, under investigation it always reveals desire - to be accepted or successful - and I've recognized that it only depletes me spiritually and does hurt others. It’s always easier to be a critic than a creator, and in a field that is literally rife with opportunities for discussion, there’s plenty of consciousness elevating content available. This is worth requesting from your yoga friends. Share with them that you’re committed to being impeccable with your word and are really trying to refrain from negative intimacy (bonding over the shortcomings of others).

Check in with yourself: does this statement or conversation reflect my highest self? Is this something that I need advice on? Make sure you identify who your teachers or mentors are and turn to them when you need more minds on your matter, or bounce it off your therapist. Working as a yoga teacher can be an oddly draining, but lonely job – you’re around people giving them energy, but not chatting with them. In between classes you’re alone, and you see your peer group sporadically. Take time to refuel the depletion of teaching, and engage in conscious communication with your yogi friends.

One of the yamas, satya, means truthfulness. Some gossip may be true, but it may not be in alignment with the highest truth. Does it contribute to your consciousness or diminish it by focusing your attention on content rather than practice? You may want to practice self-discipline, the heat and inner fire of tapas, and let it burn up the thought to make space for better thoughts.

If we consider our word to be sacred, to be reflective of our values, ethics, and hopes, I think we can say that the focus of our conversations is a form of worship. Thinking about the sacredness of communication and gossip, I like this excerpt from Joseph Campbell’s Reflections on the Art of Living:

In choosing your god, you choose
your way of looking at the universe.
There are plenty of Gods.
Choose yours.

The god you worship
is the god you deserve.