I firmly believe that I’m hard wired to be a bit of a “glass half empty” person, and I’m totally okay with it. While I wouldn’t go so far as to liken myself to Rachel Dratch’s legendary Saturday Night Live character, “Debbie Downer,” I’m fully aware that my mind does tend to gravitate pretty quickly toward things I find problematic or unjust. And it absolutely loves to create some fantastic worst-case scenarios when stress and anxiety creep in. I’m self-aware enough to know that I need to just sit with my own feelings of righteous anger, anxiety or resentment and vent them to someone who will listen and validate these feelings before I can move on. Telling me to see the positive side of the situation or focus on what I’m grateful for will only serve to make me more pissed off and fired up.
I have a lot of issues with the practice of gratitude, particularly when it feels forced or weaponized. I recognize my own privilege, and I know I have a lot in my life to be grateful for, but when I’m told to think of a list of things that evoke this feeling in me, my mind tends to go blank or just zone out. Year after year, my mom would insist that we all go around the table on Thanksgiving and say what we’re grateful for. And year after year, my brother and I would sigh, roll our eyes, and then proceed to make sarcastic remarks when it was our turn to share. She gave up on trying to force us to participate in this cliche ritual shortly after I turned 35.
The forced practice of gratitude has even found its way into my new teaching job. The entire school where I teach pauses to take a “mindful moment” each morning, during which time the students are led on a very brief, guided meditation or mindfulness activity. There’s a different theme for each day of the week, and I always kind of dread Thursdays because, you guessed it, that’s gratitude day! I realize that there are some benefits to teaching and practicing gratitude, particularly with children, but there has to be a better, more organic way than simply instructing them to stop what they’re doing, close their eyes, and think of things they’re thankful for. Nine times out of ten, my mind either does the Homer Simpson monkey-with-cymbals thing, or it regurgitates the same canned list of basic things that a person should feel grateful for: my parents, my friends, the fact that I have a roof over my head and a job that I mostly like… If the intention of this activity is to make me feel all warm, fuzzy and ready to start my day on a super positive note, then it really misses the mark. Because all I usually feel is slightly numb and pretty annoyed that I had to run my mind through that same old list again.
And don’t even get me started on yoga studio owners and managers who weaponize gratitude in order to control or manipulate their teachers. I’ve seen this heinous practice take place in the form of emails from studio owners that seem to shame teachers for complaining about having to show up 30 minutes early for classes and stay late to mop floors or do other cleaning tasks. I received such an email several years ago (it was addressed to the entire staff), and the owner had the audacity not only to say “you should be grateful to even teach here” but also that “there are plenty of other teachers who would be eager to take your place.” The subtext was, “shut up, go above and beyond for us for no extra pay. And don’t you dare complain, or we’ll find some other eager people-pleaser to take your place.”
These same studio owners made every member of their teaching staff do something called a dana each month, which they said was Sanskrit for “an act of selfless service.” These so called danas ranged from hauling the studio’s recyclables to the town dump; to purchasing multiple boxes of cleaning and paper supplies online with the company credit card, getting said boxes delivered to your home address (because the owners were too cheap to adequately staff the studio to receive packages) and delivering all the supplies to the studio. They linked these “acts of selfless service” (a.k.a. unpaid forms of labor that may or may not have been illegal) to the practice of gratitude for being part of their yoga studio “family.” And the subtle message they sent here was that if we complained about our dana or felt resentful about doing it, we were “ungrateful” family members.
I’ve received a good handful of other messages over the years from studio owners and managers on social media or email, some subtle and some more overt, about how grateful we should all feel to be able to do the amazing, “selfless,” work of teaching yoga. And while I do appreciate the numerous positive aspects of this unique type of work, I call bullshit on two major underlying messages that these statements carry. One is the misconception and delusion that teaching yoga is some kind of act of selfless service. I’m sorry, but it’s just not. Yoga teachers are most certainly providing a service that is helpful to others, and in many ways they are giving from a loving and vulnerable place within themselves. But to call it “selfless” almost implies that it’s charitable work, and that any monetary gains from this act of service are merely a nice bonus. And unless we’re talking about karma yoga, the reality is that, like every other job in the world, teaching yoga is an exchange of one’s time and labor for money. Yoga teachers need to pay rent and put food on the table, and they need to be compensated fairly for their services. This leads me to the second underlying message, which is “be grateful for any money you make from teaching, and don’t rock the boat or make any waves about fair pay, getting a raise, etc.” I’ve been in at least a few uncomfortable situations in which studio owners used gratitude and other “yogic” or “spiritual” concepts/cliches to try to justify why they paid teachers a pittance for their dedication, time, effort, and skill. And I spent a couple of years of my teaching career accepting pitifully low wages for hours upon hours of time planning, teaching, building community, working at the desk, mopping the floor, until I realized that I was worth way more than what these yoga misers were willing to cough up.
I’ve spent lots of time ruminating and fuming over these imbalances and injustices in the yoga world, and I’ve felt a lot of indignation toward certain duplicitous studio owners over the years. But as much as my mind loves to spend time in a place of deep anger and resentment, it eventually shifts to a place of gratitude and appreciation. I felt that shift happen when I was driving home from a recent Sunday morning class, listening to a particularly angry Joni Mitchell album called Dog Eat Dog, that happens to end with an uplifting, appreciative love song called “Lucky Girl.” The bulk of the album is full of venom, and Mitchell uses it as a vehicle to express a deep disdain for the greed, corruption and social injustices that truly reared their ugly heads during the Reagan years. Her tone slowly changes to let in a bit of hope and idealism in the penultimate track, “Impossible Dreamer,” and she ends this otherwise dark album on an especially sweet note with “Lucky Girl.” When that last track came on and the lyrics set in, I started to think of all the ways in which teaching yoga made me feel lucky. I was actually making a list in my head, motivated by feelings of gratitude, and it felt good and genuine because I was doing it spontaneously and for myself. It wasn’t prompted by an instruction on the morning announcements at school, or by an activity from a self-help book or a 30- day gratitude challenge. It came from me, and it also came from a pure moment of connection with music and art, which feels infinitely more real to me than the dime a dozen “spiritual gurus” or “yoga influencers” out there on social media land who sell gratitude as part of their brand.
I’m lucky I got to teach yoga for 11 years.
I’m lucky I was able to try it out as a full time career for a short while, even though the burnout and financial woes were real.
I’m lucky I managed to balance a part time career in my original field with a part time yoga teaching career for so many years and didn’t totally lose my sanity or my ability to pay the bills.
I’m lucky I met so many awesome people through teaching and practicing yoga, and I’m lucky I’ve been able to maintain a good number of these friendships despite major career and life transitions.
I’m lucky I was able to take time off when I wanted to, so I could do things like follow bands and artists on tour through the New England/New York area, or take fun road tips with my best friend.
I’m lucky I was able to go back home in the afternoons and binge watch TV or nap in between classes when I taught full time.
I’m lucky I found a job that (for the most part) allowed me to be a creative, uncensored, unscripted version of myself.
And most of all, I’m lucky to have gained access to some helpful tools and insights through practicing and teaching that have had a pretty powerful impact on my relationship with myself and others and how I live my (often messy, far from perfect) life.
It’s worth noting that zero items on this gratitude list have anything to do with the physical poses. While I derived some short-lived joy from being able to get into complex arm balances at one point in my practice, and while I still appreciate the feelings of comfort and ease I find from restorative poses, the poses were never the point.
That spontaneous practice of gratitude in the car wasn’t a cure-all that would wash away or negate my still valid feelings of righteous anger about the business of yoga. Hell, if I had any ounce of musical talent, I could probably write my own yoga-themed Dog Eat Dog type of album (minus the cheesy mid-80’s synths) that expresses all the vitriol I’ve felt like I had to hold back for so many years. But it did help me put these past 11 years into perspective and see the bigger, slightly more positive picture of my long, strange, and sometimes arduous trip through yogaland. There is greed and lust, vanity and artifice, struggle and despair in the world of yoga, as there is in just about any business or profession. But if you look past all that darkness for just a minute, you can remember what you truly love and appreciate, and maybe you’ll feel just a little lucky…