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Dear Captain Awkward, So, if I tell you that when I was in high school, a teacher of mine called off class for a session of “yoga in the dark where no one can see what the teacher is doing” that left me very upset, I probably don’t need to give you more details, right? And I see a therapist now (not just for that, but the therapist feels that part is important), but I am not serenely at peace with the past here, and I do really, really badly with yoga. I have problems with rage and tears just from being told to “focus on my breathing.” So I avoid going to yoga. (I also don’t do well with meditation, Alexander Technique, etc. — basically, being pressured to “relax” makes me panic.)
My problem is that many people, in both my personal and professional life, very strongly believe in the universal healing powers of yoga. They refuse to believe that I could find it anything other than relaxing and empowering. I try to explain that having someone dictate how I ought to move and breathe does not make me feel relaxed or empowered, but multiple staff retreats at multiple offices have left me in the superfun position of explaining that I really can’t do yoga, and being pushed about it until I cry, because they refuse to believe that anyone could have a good reason not to like yoga. I say I’ve had bad experiences, and they insist that this will be different, and I say, no, really kind of traumatic experiences, and they say, “But yoga helps traumatized people!” And there I’m back with the tears and rage. One year I tried to do it; I had to run out of the room and apparently the teacher said that some people aren’t brave enough to get in touch with their bodies. When my coworker told me that I think I literally bared my teeth like a dog and snarled. This does not make me look like a competent professional. And it makes me feel like shit. They’re my coworkers, my job has nothing to do with yoga, and I guess I don’t think I should have to bare my soul and expose my vulnerabilities because somebody else thinks their favorite form of exercise would make me a better worker/person.
I’ve just started a new job in a high-stress workplace. My boss is very excited about a yoga-focused health-and-centeredness retreat. I’m still in my probation period. How do I not look unstable, or like a bad team player? Please don’t tell me I just haven’t found the right yoga instructor yet. I hear that a lot. And, thank you.
Dear Letter Writer:
Not only am I going to not tell you that you just haven’t found the right yoga instructor, I am going to put a pre-emptive ban on yoga evangelism (which includes personal stories about how commenters personally stopped worrying and learned to eventually love yoga) in this comment thread.
A boss who thinks that it’s fun and normal for people to strenuously breathe in unison with their coworkers in their free time is unlikely to be dissuaded from having the upcoming retreat altogether. There’s no great approach here, but one possible way involves a) formally invoking Human Resources and b) a vague medical excuse for missing the retreat. Lay the groundwork by asking your therapist to agree to write a doctor’s note should it be necessary, and then speak to your HR person. “Hi (Nice HR Person), I can’t do yoga for medical reasons, and at my doctor’s recommendation I am going to have to miss the upcoming staff retreat. What’s the best way to let Boss and the rest of the team know that I can’t be there, without disclosing my private medical information?”
1) Start with a verbal conversation rather than an email. I know (I know) you’re worried about betraying a lot of emotion and looking unprofessional, so practice the request with a friend and your therapist ahead of time if you need to. If you can make it come out smoothly and project a relaxed demeanor, you will feel more confident and less exposed. I know email is easier in some ways, but you want to be able to feel the situation out before making (& documenting) things more officially. You can always follow up with email if need be.
2) Go ahead and invoke the authority of absent medical professionals. You don’t have to mention how much you personally hate yoga at all – Corporate You is yoga-agnostic – “I agree it can really help many people deal with stress, sadly, I’m not one of them!” You just simply can’t do it.
3) Anxiety and PTSD are legit medical issues, by the way, so you’re not lying about why you can’t, but there’s also no reason to disclose those things specifically. The medical note itself should be very vague, “At my recommendation, my patient, Letter Writer, should be excused from company activities involving yoga or other group exercise. Signed, Medical Professional X,” and you should not volunteer it. It’s something to have in reserve if HR asks for it, and it’s something to put on file if you think there might be negative consequences.
4) Experiment with presenting the fact that you’ll miss the upcoming retreat as a fait accompli rather than as asking permission to skip it. “Medically, I’m going to have to miss it” > “Is it okay if I miss it.” If they want you to be there but just skip the yoga parts, let them be the ones to suggest that compromise, to which you can magnanimously agree. If you’re feeling really magnanimous, you could offer to lead some alternative thing during some of the yoga sessions (thereby planting the seed that the yoga parts should be optional…for everyone.)
5) Ask the HR person’s help in a specific way – “Can you notify the boss?”
6) If the HR person handles this gracefully and seems to be on your side about things, ask if future retreats could alternate yoga and other activities, because you very much want to participate in team-building that you can do.
7) Have the conversation at the end of the day if you can, or right before lunch, so you can leave right afterwards and do something nice for yourself.
8) You can’t be the only person in the office who is secretly dreading this shitshow, so pat yourself on the back for being a superhero in protecting your own safety and comfort and in making this easier for someone else in the future.
Since your corporate culture is “Yay for yoga!” and because most corporate cultures are profoundly ableist, this is going to mark you as an outlier and you probably will encounter *some* weirdness, but I think people will mostly (not perfectly, but mostly) take their cues from you on how big a deal this is. You’re no doubt making sure that your professional game is tight already, but pay attention to cosmetic issues like dress and grooming, keeping your workspace neat, getting to work a few minutes early each day, responding promptly to emails, saving old-to-do lists so you are visually documenting for yourself how much you are getting accomplished. If you have the energy, go to occasional happy hours or lunches with your coworkers, make an effort to get to know them as people, try to remember their kids’ names or hobbies. Don’t turtle away from them; be a team player in the ways that actually matter to the work. And have responses, or rather non responses, ready for when yoga evangelism* happens.
Since trying to explain or convince your coworkers of the reasons why you can’t do yoga has not served you well in the past, stop explaining or convincing or giving reasons. If this blog post serves no other purpose, I hope you take this away from it: Your reasons for not wanting to ever do yoga are perfectly sound, and you are not the one being weird if you don’t want to do it and if you don’t really want to discuss it. You don’t have to convince your coworkers that yoga sucks or that it isn’t right for you, you just have to change the patterns of the interactions enough so that they will leave you alone about it. For HR and Boss, that means a “confidential medical issue,” as in, if the HR person asks specifically “why can’t you” or “what’s wrong with you,” respond with “I’m happy to provide a doctor’s note” and don’t elaborate further. For coworkers, it’s “I’m sure you’re right about that! I hope the retreat is great, we’ll have to have lunch when you get back and you can fill me in.” See also: “So sad to miss it, but I’ve cleared it with boss and HR. Maybe next time we’ll do something non-yoga-based and I will be able to join you all.”
If people won’t let it drop, it’s okay to say “I’m sure you understand, this is a sensitive topic and I’d rather let it drop. So, how is [OBVIOUS SUBJECT CHANGE?]” If the person won’t let it drop and keeps going past a subject change, remember that there is power in the unvarnished truth, like when someone won’t stop harping on “So, when are you going to have kids?” and the non-parent finally snaps and says “When and if my uterus stops deleting all of them in horrible miscarriages I guess, thanks for ignoring all of my attempts at politely changing the subject btw.” Maybe it will give you power to imagine saying “To be clear, I should not have to and do not have to disclose this, but I was sexually assaulted by a teacher during a yoga session, and I’d prefer not to have screaming flashbacks in front of my coworkers in the name of ‘teambuilding.’ So, shall we go with ‘medical excuse’ rather than spreading deeply private and uncomfortable information to my colleagues? Here is my doctor’s note, I will not be at the retreat, thanks for all your help.” Then imagine yourself flipping over the table and leaving dramatically, like you’ve suddenly developed the ability to teleport or you are Angel or The Justice League and they are “doors.”
While you imagine all of that, practice a making a fake smile and holding it silently for a long, awkward silence. No need to bare your teeth and snarl (though I simultaneously love that you did that and hate that you were pushed to that point), just, pick a “WTF smile” and hold it until they change the subject or slink away. For example:
Your coworkers may spread tales like “I kept asking Letter Writer about yoga, but they just weirdly smiled at me…well…not a smile exactly, but they gave me this *look* for a long time and changed the subject, so, anyway, don’t bring up yoga with LW unless you want it to get weird” and that is okay. In fact, that is victory. *See also: diet evangelism, actual evangelism