A few weeks ago, I was on my way to get a massage and reflecting on the fifteen years I have had with my massage therapist (if you’re in Martin County, Florida, Beverly is where it’s at). Not only is she experienced, professional, and intuitive, but I also feel such an incredible amount of trust and love in our relationship– it’s a rare and wonderful thing.
Throughout my career as a coach, yoga student, teacher, and studio owner, I’ve known a lot of wellness professionals. Many of them have been what I think of as super charismatic. Their personality is immediately attractive in some way– they speak the right jargon, they dress the right way, they have very white teeth– whatever it is, they’re appealing. In meeting them, you might think, “man, I want some of that.” Some of them have a gift for seeming to see into your soul, or to talk to your innermost desires.
Charisma– however undefinable it is– is an asset. I know that I (along with many other yoga teachers that I know) have a certain amount of charisma, and I’m grateful for that. Especially as a “new” yoga teacher, it was helpful to seem likable and friendly; it made my mistakes or lack of knowledge more forgivable.
But if charisma is all that we have– or if we’re using it to mask our own neuroses, or lack of skill, or to manipulate– then it’s a problem, especially if that person holds a position of power.
I’m remembering several teachers that I’ve known whose charisma shone like the gleam of their coconut-oiled skin. Part of the magic I felt in their presence was that they were so unshakeable in their assuredness. They knew they were right (about every topic you can imagine), and they could point out exactly where others were wrong. I was grateful to give my time, devotion, and money to them in order to buy myself a little bit of that magic.
Sometimes, in the yoga world, they call this kind of charisma “shakti,” which is a Sanskrit word that (in one sense, at least) means “power.” Teachers with this kind of power could not only mesmerize with their presence, but they could encourage students to move into poses they might never be able to do on their own. For an example of how very problematic this can be, we can look at two quite infamous examples (please know before you click on these links that they include graphic and disturbing accounts of sexual assault): Bikram Choudary and Patthabi Jois.
In my own experience, I found that the charisma that attracted me was an unsustainable facade– all shine, no substance– and I began to cultivate and appreciate relationships with teachers that were more wholesome and trustworthy.
The following graphics illustrate a few of the differences I’ve encountered between what I’m calling “the charismatic professional” and “the trustworthy professional.” I’m aware that I’m creating a binary here that does not always exist in the wild– but I’m hopeful that it might stimulate some thoughts or discussion.
One more quick note: when I wrote this as an initial post for instagram, one of my friends commented that she’d been able to find a way to work with some folks who initially felt problematic due to their charisma. This got me thinking– without the power differential inherent in a teacher/student (or coach/client, doctor/patient) relationship, is the compensating charismatic figure as problematic? I can recall car salesmen, realtors, and other professionals whose initial charisma wasn’t backed with the substance I require to feel real trust– but I’m also aware that I may be biased due to my experiences! Feel free to leave a comment and share your own thoughts and experience– I always appreciate your input, and your support.