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Dealing With Yoga Doubters

Most yoga students have been approached by a yoga skeptic at one time or another. But preaching to doubters just doesn't work, writes Neal Pollack. Lead by example instead.

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My teacher Richard Freeman once told me that when you get deep into yoga, your pre-yoga friends will begin to fall away, or at least make fun of you at parties. Your yoga will set you apart, he warned. You’ll probably look at least faintly ridiculous to them. They’re going to doubt you.

That hasn’t been entirely my experience–I already looked perfectly ridiculous to my friends before yoga–but doing yoga has opened me up to a lot of dismissiveness, and skepticism. Every time William Broad writes something critical of Shoulderstand or a famous guru gets smacked with a sex scandal, I get notes, emails, Facebook wall posts, and tweets–all some variation on “I told you so.” People are always trying to shake my faith, as if the foundation weren’t already flimsy enough.

For instance, I was sitting at my desk one evening last month, working very hard (playing Words With Friends), when a message popped up from a colleague. It said, “my friend, a yoga and spinning instructor, recently collapsed in class while demonstrating a pose. Shredded her rotator cuff. She can no longer work and has no insurance to pay for her physical therapy.” There was no “hey, what’s up?” or “How about those Dodgers?” It was just pure yoga skepticism, without the filters.

I wrote back with my usual spiel: “There are healing forms of yoga as well. Those that are soft and gentle, as well as meditation. You can dismiss it if you like–many people do, with good reason– but the practice has helped me in so many intangible ways.” He wrote back: “Just saying, passive stretching is the enemy.”

This is what the President calls a “teachable moment.” Anyone who’s reading this knows that yoga is about so much more than “passive stretching.” But most people actually don’t know that, and don’t care. We can tell them, and we shouldn’t be defensive when we do. On that day, naturally, I was pompous and ungrateful. “You can do active strengthening at the same time,” I wrote. “The ‘stretching’ and exercise part of yoga is just a minor modern manifestation of a very deep practice. Yoga is about much more than you think.”

Within two messages, I’d already fallen into guilt-slinging Jewish mother mode. I’d played it wrong. The most effective path, I’ve found, is to actually listen to their criticisms. Sometimes, they’re right. Yoga can be physically dangerous. Gurus get out of control and abuse their powers. The culture often gets swallowed by New-Age platitudes. The clothes are ridiculous. Many of the props are ridiculous. The people can be extremely ridiculous–as greedy, selfish, and shallow as everyone else. Skepticism isn’t always unwarranted. In fact, yoga could use a little more skepticism. It would save us all a lot of grief and disappointment.

Other times, though, people’s doubts about yoga come from nervousness, or fear, or simple misunderstanding. Yoga is a vast subject about which almost everyone, including people who practice it regularly, know nothing. We’re all apt to dismiss what we don’t understand. So, take it easy. Don’t overwhelm newbies with a bunch of citta vritti nirodahah talk. Show them a cool pose, or just talk to them and listen to their problems. Lead by example. Don’t preach. When you’re dealing with yoga skeptics, the key is to persuade people that you’re not teaching them.

Because really, you’re not. We’re all stuck here together for a brief time, and we’re all just trying to be happy. Yoga is one path, but it’s not the only path. Not everyone is going to be persuaded to hit the mat.

Take whatever victories you can. The last time I messaged my colleague, he wrote back: “Yoga isn’t the enemy. The enemy is any situation where you actively pay for your own health.” I don’t think he’ll be reading the Gita any time soon. But it’s a start.