Dear Beautiful Yogi,
Geez, it’s been an interesting time in the yoga world. Last weekend when I was teaching a day in my yoga philosophy training, we got into a great discussion on gurus, inappropriate touching, the state of yoga and where it’s heading.
It started because we were reading a yoga text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This manual certainly advocates the guru model (you need a devoted guru within a living lineage to ensure you are on the right path in your practice & to unlock the secret codes). But, it was also written in medieval India for men and is clearly sexist in a number of ways.
This discussion was also right after the publication of the New York Times article titled “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent & Unwanted Touch”. Link to article: read here. As you can imagine, I have a few things to say on these topics!
Over the last year as the #MeToo movement has brought forth so much sexual and criminal misconduct, much has come to light within the yoga world as well. There have been women speaking out for a very long time on a multitude of yoga brands and lineages but these voices are finally being heard on a large scale. Some men, including yoga teachers are finally facing the consequences.
Here’s the truth, a HUGE NUMBER OF MALE YOGA TEACHERS AND GURUS HAVE BEEN EXPLOITING THEIR FAME AND POWER SEXUALLY. Period. I don’t know the exact percentage, but it’s high. Here is a list simply off the top of my head and in no particular order: Pattabhi Jois, John Friend, Bkiram Choudry, Kausthub Desikachar (T.K.V. Desikachar’ son), Sathya Sai Baba, Manouso Manos, Pierre Bernard, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Amrit Desai and many, many more.
Until fairly recently women were not even taught yoga. Indra Devi is the first well known western woman to teach yoga and she had to convince Krishnamacharya to teach her. He wouldn’t teach a woman due to his Brahmin status. Years later he predicted that women would be the ones spreading yoga throughout the world. Look around, he was right.
So, women make up the majority of students in classes and are currently the majority of teachers in the West. Where does this leave us?
The guru model is dead. Yep, it’s time to kick it to the curb. I do not mean you don’t need a teacher; you do. I mean that the idea of giving up your power to another person who is simply a human being trying to live a spiritual life, needs to end. We don’t need a guru, we need the guidance of an experienced teacher, and our own discerning participation. The answers are within us, each of us. Any good teacher supports the student in becoming empowered. He or she also does not take advantage of the student but rather helps to build them up.
When I was a student of Ashtanga, the practice never felt right. First series (where everyone has to begin when starting Ashtanga yoga) never felt right in my body. It has a lot of advanced externally rotated sitting poses and my hips where extremely tight in that rotation. I would get cranked into those poses and cry my way through them. Afterwards when my body had cooled down and I would stand up from sitting, my knees felt like they would buckle out from under me.
Well-intentioned students in Mysore practicing along side me would say things like “maybe your knees need to open up”. There is no such thing. So, after a short while I followed my intuition. I gave up first series and gently worked on the poses I knew I needed to practice in order to safely open my hips and not destroy my knees.
In addition to the poses of the first series not feeling right for my particular body, the practice itself felt draining, depleting and impossible to maintain. Now of course I know why. For my constitution (vata/pitta), it’s a very aggravating practice. Somehow, I had the wisdom to walk away, even though I felt badly about it for a really long time. I felt I wasn’t being a real yogi. Only one teacher said to me “good for you for knowing what’s right and being willing to give it up”. Her name was Laura Miles, a well-known L.A. teacher whom I had practiced with when I lived in Santa Barbara. She had never succumbed to the hype of postural achievement and always approached yoga as a spiritual endeavor.
Given that there is so much abuse of power in a system where one person has all the power and “wisdom” (aka the guru), what are we to do? It’s time to embrace a new era of yoga. An era led by women, because that’s what actually is happening.
It’s up to us to be discerning teachers and students. We must require integrity from ourselves and those we study from. Teachers must be held to high standards of integrity, honesty and transparency and students need to trust themselves foremost. Students must ask that their teachers never undermine them, diminish their capabilities or attempt to disempower them. If you experience this in a teacher, walk away. Trust yourself. Don’t be afraid to question teachers and methodologies. Not every approach is right for every student. Yoga is not a one path system, there are many paths to the same destination.
Stories of teachers shaming students in public classes abound. Particularly from Mr. Iyengar who was known to hit students. I have seen it in current teachers both male and female, and make no bones about it, that kind of behavior in a teacher is NOT ACCEPTABLE. I don’t care how knowledgeable or experienced a yoga teacher is, it does not excuse asshole behavior. Abuse is never ok and there is no spiritual argument for why it should be. Unfortunately, that’s what the guru model allows for, the teacher to do no wrong.
What do you think ladies, is it time to take ownership of the new era of yoga? I think it is and here’s why. One, we are the ones that will move the culture, the business, the spiritual practice in a more positive and inclusive direction, and two, we already are the majority. We are the majority of teachers and the majority of students. Let’s not be afraid to question and demand that all yoga teachers evolve into more love, truth, wisdom, clarity, transparency, integrity, compassion and honesty.