Monday, March 28, 2011

"Cult of Positivity"

Over at the blog Recovering Yogi is an excellent post by Kimberly Johnson about the excessive positivity found in many yoga communities. It's also a problem in Buddhist sanghas, and other spiritual groups, and one I have written about before.

That secret code is the code of constant positivity within the yoga community.

In the yoga world, you are not supposed to disagree—even though everybody does—and you certainly are not supposed to be disagreeable. Of course, most people have strong opinions about which kind of yoga is better (their kind) and what the other schools don’t understand, because if they did, clearly they would convert to the right school. The right thing, in yoga, is always the thing that you do. But most people don’t express it openly. Better to feign peaceful coexistence and call it “acceptance.”

However, I have found both in myself and in my peers a lack of courage to engage in truthful dialogue around teaching philosophy and practice. I didn’t have the nerve to tell my friend that she was giving the same dharma talk in every class and it was getting old. No one had the nerve to tell the male teacher to stop serial-dating his students. There is this gaping hole of communication, as if egos are so fragile and every class so personal and precious that there is no room for dialogue.

The feelings of guilt and betrayal I felt when exposing my truth in my last Recovering Yogi article were the tiny echoes of a victim/abuser relationship, where the victim feels protective of the abuser, says things to defend the abuser, and is afraid to speak truthfully about the experience publicly.

What I like about Kimberly's post is that she show how a failure to disagree, debate, and offer criticism when appropriate actually weakens the whole project. When people choose to smooth over destructive behavior by teachers or fellow students, it makes it less likely that anyone in the community will benefit from the teachings and practices. When getting along is privileged over getting at the truth, everyone misses out.

I witnessed an interesting exchange a few weeks between a male yoga teacher and two female yoga students. The teacher was expressing caution around doing women inversions while on their period, and cited a long history of teachers agreeing on this point. One woman said "Almost all of those teachers were men. How long have women been practicing yoga?" This was followed by another woman who basically disagreed with the male teacher, citing potential health benefits and personal narratives of her students and friends. In fact, at one point during the discussion she said, point blank, "I'm just expressing my disagreement with you, is that ok?"

I didn't get the sense that the male teacher leading the class was comfortable with this kind of disagreement. Perhaps he worried about loosing control of the class. Perhaps, there was some bit of sexism going on. But I mostly think it was about maintaining that harmonious yoga environment which people tend to expect to be there. As someone who really appreciates debates and discussions of different views, even if I'm not directly involved, the way things played out was a disappointment, and it's something I have repeatedly experienced in spiritual community settings. Things start to get juicy and the "happy face" is held up by leaders and/or students to get things back to the safe "norm."

So, perhaps the next time a debate or disagreement appears in your sangha or yoga class, instead of being part of the effort to get rid of it, be a part of the effort to explore it, examine it, and respect it as part of the process.


sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

Your observations are insightful. Thankyou for your candour. My perspective is coterminous with yours on this particular issue. Keep up the good work.

zendotstudio said...

I agree that "fake niceness" or agreement is a bit like putting make-up over a blemish.

The important thing for me is to be able to make my "different opinion" heard in a non confrontational way, one where the other person can actually hear it. I think that is an expression of deep "non clinging" to our own opinion. Not always easy but always rewarding.

Algernon said...

This relates to a conversation I had with a Zen priest recently. In the discussion period following his dharma talk, one of the regulars engaged him in some persistent questioning. Sometimes in the zendo, people will pretend to be satisfied with an answer in order to be polite to the priest. The danger of that is that it can lead to a small sangha and groupthink. So I said to the priest, who left the talk feeling uncomfortable and talked to me about it.

Brikoleur said...

I think the results can get even more insidious. It creates a culture of avoidance, where disagreements are hushed up for years and never dealt with. Karma being what it is, they always bubble up somewhere, and often in really nasty ways.

Nathan said...

"Sometimes in the zendo, people will pretend to be satisfied with an answer in order to be polite to the priest." Yep, I've seen this before.

I also agree, Carole, that doing your best to present things in a non-confrontational way is important.