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keep your projections to yourself: encountering jung's shadow in group fitness


a cartoon of Jung with the words "keep your projections to yourself"

Maybe a yoga class is the last place you think you'll be running into what Jung called "the shadow." If you've taken a group fitness class in your life, you might think back and recall what you thought or felt about that instructor/teacher. Or you might think about how it seemed that others treated that person. Were they treated as a real person, or as an idealized version of what others think or feel they should be? It's likely that at least some of the class participants (if not you) were engaged in some level of projection.

A cartoon of Jung with the words, "“Projection is one of the commonest psychic phenomena…Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbor, and we treat him accordingly.” -CG Jung

What do I mean by projections? These can be hopes, expectations, and idealizations: all of the ways in which other people hold an image of someone else. Jung believed that we are always engaging in some level of projection; seeing in others the parts of ourselves that we are unable or unwilling to claim.


I think all fitness instructors hold a hefty burden of projection, but yoga teachers in particular may be particularly subject to what can feel like an almost unbearable burden of others’ projections. 


I've often witnessed yoga teachers being treated as though they were an idealized someone else rather than an actual person. This can be an idea of what others think their yoga teacher should be. Healthy, spiritual, relentlessly positive,, natural, vegan, a good listener, able to hold others’ pain, wise, compassionate, understanding, caring. It could also be a specific role:  a guru, a messiah, a teacher, a mysterious lover, the mother they never had, the sibling or child they wish they could relate to. 


We can also think about projections as the parts of ourselves we have a hard time acknowledging or integrating-- even the good things. These live in what Jung called the shadow; the parts of ourselves we aren't consciously aware of. Encountering the shadow is incredibly difficult. It’s far easier for us to hang those projections on others, and if we are the ones receiving the projection, we can be in danger of over-identifying with them. After all, some of them can feel really good. I can think of several teachers who became completely inflated with their idea of themselves in this role. 


One of the ways we might recognize a projection is that it feels as though the person isn’t actually talking to us-- it’s like they’re talking to someone else, or their idea of who they’d like us to be. Any indication from us that we are rejecting that projection or disagreeing might be met with disbelief or anger. I can think of one yoga teacher I know who had to duck out of an unwelcome kiss multiple times. And I was called a b*tch in my own lobby after telling a student I didn’t reciprocate their romantic feelings. 


If teachers hold personal projections, studio owners also hold the projection of being responsible for the space itself-- the holder of the sacred flame, so to speak. In my experience, this was a community projection so big it threatened to swallow me whole at times. 


In my experience, holding these projections can feel comfortable, at least for a while; an illusion of a relationship that may serve both parties But ultimately, these projections don’t allow us to grow into our authentic selves, and they hold us back from true intimacy with others. 


Projections are the cause of violence on both a personal and global level. We see in others what we cannot face in ourselves. Withdrawing projections and reckoning with our own shadow (unconscious contents) is difficult and painful work. Jung said, "People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls." At the same time, I believe, this is necessary and moral work that we can do to decrease the level of suffering, not just in our lives, but in the world.


During the years that I held others’ projections of a yoga teacher and studio owner, I sometimes felt that not only did people not know me, they didn’t WANT to know who I really was. When our projections fall away, and we see the other as a human, it can be disappointing.  We’re forced to see what’s missing in our own lives-- or we find somewhere else to hang that projection. 


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