What Will People Think?
“What will people think?” was a large part of my upbringing. My mother was, and to some degree still is, obsessed with how others perceive her and her children. We were taught not to “make a scene.” Praise came from being obedient, helping to clean up, and being nice to the nerds (as if we weren’t nerds ourselves). As a result, I’m the quintessential people pleaser—I carry my mother’s “what will people think” baton solidly into the next generation. Just not too solidly, because I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was being a show off.
When I take a yoga class I follow the instruction, adhere to the sequencing, and do my best to arrive at what is being suggested. I might modify what I do for injuries or other health concerns—slightly, because I don’t want to hurt the teacher’s feelings—but ultimately I do the class pretty much as it’s taught. Like a kid on the playground who has her mother’s attention, I try almost desperately to please the teacher and be “good.” “When do I get my gold star?” I want to say as I’m rolling up my mat.
The problem with this attitude is it creates a power structure that shouldn’t exist in yoga. Yes, there are teachers and students, but a yoga studio isn’t a military school or an Olympic competition. The best teachers are those who approach the class as an opportunity to learn equally from their students, who understand that every student is different. The best students are those who come to class with open minds, and a sense of humility that is tempered by a strong sense of “owning” their practice—they listen to and respect their bodies and souls, unburdened by external expectations. The best teachers and students know that making a goal out of earning the approval of others is illusory and potentially damaging, both physically and spiritually.
Of course, there’s a flip side to the “What will people think?” coin. “I don’t care!” is the mantra of some people—those untroubled souls who seem to have never experienced a single moment of self-censure. They clamor into class late, not the least bit concerned that they are distracting the punctual members. These people are empowered by the very things that mortify the likes of me. They invent their own choreography, almost as if they were designing an impromptu dance solo. The parameters of conforming hold no sway and they are genuinely uninhibited as they swim against the tide. They couldn’t care less if the teacher thinks they are “good”—if they are convinced they are good at something, they just throw that into their solo as frequently as possible. Not only are they not worried about “making a scene,” they are determined to steal it. Try suggesting an adjustment to someone like this, and you receive the same reaction you’d get if you attempted to bump fists with Queen Elizabeth.
As a teacher and student who worries more than she should about what people think, the “I don’t care!” crowd can drive me a little crazy. Okay, a lot crazy, but I think I know why. Both attitudes are essentially ego driven. One attitude disrupts the individual practice while the other disrupts the practices of the group. The arch of our individual yoga practices over the scope of our lifetimes is referred to as our sadhana (self study), and this creates a challenge. What happens when my self study is getting in the way of your self study? Who has the right of way, so to speak?
I believe the answer is surrender.
In order to get beyond our egos and find balance, we all have to surrender, both to the process and to something that is greater than ourselves. It is here that we will find truth and real freedom. It is what it means to “deepen” our practice. From these depths our tendencies to judge or impress someone diminish. We move from the narrow to the universal, from critical to accepting.