William was a student who lived out of state and would drop in on my Mysore class when he was in town. He was fairly new to yoga but not easily frustrated. I appreciated his quiet, cool vibe. But his cigarette breath and the long hair that fell into his eyes, forcing him to struggle to see through his bangs, bothered me. I assumed he was shy and hiding behind his hair. And consciously, I applauded him for doing something healthy, even though he smoked.
One day, toward the end of a very busy class, William asked for help with Headstand. I went over to his mat, and when I found it cluttered and askew, I impatiently pointed to the chaos around him. Then I straightened his mat and helped him set up and get into the posture.
Though nothing more was said, I felt something had gone wrong. The tip-off was the image I had of me standing with a little boy at the door to his room telling him to look at the mess he had made. I felt critical and shamingóthe exact opposite of my intention. I wasnít completely surprised when William didnít return the next day or for the next several months. I didnít know whether heíd simply left town or if Iíd driven him away. In either case, I had time to think about my reaction.
After some time, I came to understand that Williamís smoking and messiness aroused in me an unconscious fear of being weak and confused, qualities that I had been uncomfortable with since childhood. When I stood in judgment over William, I also stood in judgment over myself, condemning in him the very same qualities I loathed in myself.
Eventually, to my relief, William returned to class and indicated that he had not felt injured in any way. This may have been true, or he may have wanted to protect me, or he may simply have not wanted to revisit the experience. But even if William wasnít hurt by my actions, the experience brought to light some of my own fears, the harsh way I treat them, and the danger that I will condemn in others the things I hate in myself.