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Managing Expectations

When a speaking engagement doesn't go as planned, Neal Pollack is reminded of the yogic lesson of nonattachment.

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A few weeks ago I gave a talk at a yoga gathering in my hometown, a regional conference featuring local teachers and businesses, held at a local event center. The organizers kept their expectations modest. It would have served me well to do the same.


The pattern has repeated itself often over the years. Every time I land a speaking or teaching gig, no matter what the type, I always think: This is the one that’s going to break me into the big time, whatever my current definition of “big time” might be. Scale matters not. So even when the job is giving an unpaid presentation about a two-year-old yoga memoir at 1:30 on a sunny Sunday afternoon at a yoga expo in Central Texas, I still, at least in some corner of my unenlightened mind, think that the event will lead to money and fame.

As Han Solo once said to Chewbacca, laugh it up, fuzzball.

I got to the event right when it opened, because I wanted to be a team player and thought it would be good to take a morning class to clear my head for the great speech I’d soon deliver. With me, I brought a rolling suitcase, which I’d packed with dozens of copies of my yoga memoir Stretch. I intended to leave with an empty bag.

Well, I took my morning class, along with a dozen other people, in an upstairs conference room. We chanted mantra while a skinny, pretty young woman played the harmonium and another skinny, pretty young woman had us slink around like goddesses. To say the least, it’s not the practice I usually do, or enjoy, but I tried to stay open to possibilities and I felt pretty relaxed when it was over.

Then I went downstairs to prepare for my talk, which was held in a large room with concrete floors, walls, and ceiling. I was set up at a table with a microphone and a few dozen folding chairs in front. Around me were a few-dozen booths for local businesses, including several people who were mellowly playing Tibetan singing bowls. On the other side of the room sat the snack bar, which offered traditional Ayurvedic foods like turkey wraps and nachos. The room, though it couldn’t have been close to half full, was very loud.

Soon enough, my talk began, while a family yoga class commenced right behind me. Maybe a half-dozen people had sat down in front of my table, craning their necks to hear, looking vaguely amused. Some of them stayed for the entire thing, a couple left, a few more came to take their place. I shouted into the microphone while reading from my book. I quickly grew hoarse and felt less than amusing. I’d been humbled. Once again, and not, I’m sure, for the last time, I’d learned one of yoga’s most important lessons.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali says that you must do your yoga practice, whatever that might be, with consistence, diligence, patience, and, most importantly, without attachment to results. By not worrying about what will come from your efforts, you’ll set your mind free. That’s certainly a message applicable to anyone whose living, partial or total, is wrapped up in performing, teaching, or otherwise appearing in front of a crowd. Sometimes you get a substantial turnout and receive much praise, not to mention a paycheck. But more often, the people you intend to reach are indifferent to your talk, and few in number. Such is the nature of the business, and of life.

So I could have felt bad about having once again built up an event, far beyond its potential or importance, in my mind. But the approach I ended up taking was far better. I let my anxiety go and enjoyed the situation, which was beyond my control in any case, for what it offered. I amused a few people, made a couple of Facebook friends, and sold a couple of books. Then I went upstairs and took another yoga class, which was excellent, and left the conference center with 30 bucks in my pocket and a slight smile on my face. It wasn’t what I’d expected. But it sure wasn’t bad.