The Teacher’s Responsibility—Abuse, Power, and Respect in the Yoga Community

PRACTICE IS FUNDAMENTAL

Yoga is practice and it is process. It involves fearless and determined inquiry into the nature of life. It involves deep commitment and willingness to observe yourself more clearly. Yoga requires true bravery to not know—no matter how much you think you know.

We all need teachers. As teachers, we need to have teachers and it is incumbent upon us to question and to choose wisely. Delving into the process of discriminating the personal from the universal and weaving it back together into the whole cloth of life is a delicate process. It takes continuity of inquiry and wisdom. Chose a direction wisely. Choose your teachers wisely.

RESPONSIBILITY OF TEACHERS

In teaching yoga, we lead people right to the heart of their deepest yearnings and difficult self-concepts. We help them clear a path to a fuller understanding of all layers of life. We help them to open their hearts and minds and gain access to self-acceptance, spontaneous joy, and a richer experience of love and life. This is tender work and we take it seriously. It is a sacred responsibility to hold the position of guiding people toward a more holistic and even enlightened view of life and self.

“That which has most Truth lasts longest.”

Much of what we see currently in western yoga has not stood the test of time at all. We are babies in this. There is a lot to learn.

Currently, nearly daily, we are witnessing revelations about the ways blind trust of teachers and lineages has been detrimental to ourselves and our students.

It is the natural tendency of serious students to trust their teachers. Of course it is. The student is looking for answers and help with life’s difficult questions. In choosing a teacher, the serious student comes to you in a vulnerable state. They want to know. They want to be led in a real direction toward relief of pain and suffering. They want to learn.

When a student accepts someone as their teacher, it is entirely the teacher’s responsibility to be respectful of the student in every way.

We teach our students the underlying principles of yoga. We guide them on what may arguably be the most important journey of their life. We do this with kindness and the utmost regard for our student’s process.

The teacher’s job is to guide and lead. Much of what we teach, we teach by example. As human beings, we are inherently susceptible to the praise and admiration we receive from our students. It is a challenging proposition to identify and tame our own desire for recognition and praise. No one who is alive is immune to being led astray by other people’s respect and adulation for them.

That is why it is so important that teachers have their own serious and dedicated practice. As teachers, we need to check ourselves constantly to make sure that we are still adhering to the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs grow in importance as we grow in our process.

As we have seen, some highly regarded teachers have been revealed to be abusers.

The image of a person who claims—even implicitly—to be more highly evolved carries a lot of power in spiritual circles. Who wouldn’t want to surrender to a higher power that is right in front of you every day? Who wouldn’t want simple answers to life’s perplexing questions? Who wouldn’t give themselves over to a person who claims to know the answers?

There are no supreme teachers, only people—some of whom have genuine channels to universal intelligence. However, as human beings, all of us are susceptible to the insidiously destructive effects of having power over others. Power is very difficult for humans to handle in the best of circumstances. But when psychologically immature people are held up to be spiritually mature—many of the gurus about whom we read—it is a prescription for emotional, spiritual, and physical abuse.

As teachers, we must cultivate our own wisdom and apply it first and foremost to ourselves. This is called practice.

The wise teacher must resist any tendency to take advantage of the excessive attention and praise that is offered them. Teachers need to be strong and clear within themselves. They need to be wise enough to recognize their own underlying desires for power and be brave enough not to act on their own impulses and neediness. It is reasonable enough to ask our yoga teachers and spiritual leaders to act with the highest integrity.

Being a respected yoga teacher comes with serious responsibilities. People adoring and deferring their own wisdom to yours is a very seductive business for the ego-mind. Having power over people is the breeding ground of abuse. Only a mature and wise teacher can resist the adulation and power that comes with the projections our students may send our way.

We have seen many gurus fall—as they should. They were never super human and hopefully we are all learning to understand this. Only that clarity will free us from being vulnerable to the abuses of power that have been surfacing on a nearly daily basis.

Any ego is vulnerable to self-aggrandizing—especially when people are fawning over them. Fame and adoration are particularly hard to give up. If the teacher starts to believe their students, their own self-importance is in danger of inflating.

In this dynamic, all the responsibility lies squarely with the teacher.

If a teacher’s self-image becomes inflated or overblown it is always detrimental to their students. It is super easy, even for the most enlightened, to be enticed by self-importance. Diligent teachers understand this. They figure out ways to limit their self-aggrandizing thoughts. They use techniques to protect themselves from this tendency. They offer thanks and praise back to their own teachers and the lineages from which they come. They avoid taking credit for their inspiration and knowledge, by reminding themselves and their students that the truth is no one person’s domain. Truth and expanded awareness are equally available to everyone.

The teacher has the trickiest role of all and the highest of responsibilities.

This is not just for the teachers on the larger stage. It is for all of us. How we educate our beginning students shapes how they will observe and respond to other teachers as the years go by. We need to let our students know about power dynamics, especially within the spiritual and yogic communities.

Damage has been done. Now it is time to clarify and to act.

As teachers and guides, it is our responsibility to look our personal demons in the eye. If we yield to our ego’s tricks and desires—to the detriment of our student’s well-being—we abdicate our precious responsibility to nourish our students in selfless ways. We must do more to build our own discernment and intelligent questioning. We must pass the same discerning awareness onto our students. And we must never take more credit than we are due.

Personal agency is central in determining how we navigate our own spiritual process. Without questioning, we can become subject to illusions of grandeur, susceptible to someone else’s power, or both. Personal agency and critical thinking are important assurances of safety in a tricky world. As teachers, it is even more important for us to look these issues in the eye. Stare them down. We are responsible to educate our students and take heed ourselves.

Let’s recognize our own complicity. Because we are complicit.

We are intelligent beings and we need to remember to use our discrimination in all the choices we make. In learning to protect ourselves from our own delusions we become more capable of helping others.

Learn to embody all that you are with humility and grace. Learn to respect yourself for the diligence you have brought to your practice. Learn not to perceive yourself as better or worse than anyone else. Be a guiding light to others.

HOW WE THINK ABOUT IT MATTERS

Danger lies within the hierarchical thinking so many people bring to yoga. Hierarchical systems organize people above or below one another based on status and authority. They often involve situations where a single person holds power over the actions and lives of others. This is particularly true in many religious organizations.

Spiritual systems of all kinds consistently raise people to positions of power over others. This is risky business. In embracing this principle in our yoga communities we encourage the tendency for students to think the teacher is better than they are. The yoga community at large runs the danger of perpetuating a hierarchical structure that is ripe for abuse. Power does corrupt. It is the teacher’s job to clarify the misconception.

In our unspoken acceptance of hierarchy, we become complicit in a structure that breeds the abuse we have seen in the yoga community.

We must unearth and excavate, bringing to the light of day our complicity in a system that consistently raises people to positions of power over others.

Organic structures are not hierarchically formed. We are organic structures with every cell awake, alive, and self-aware. That means we are all in this together and need to take conscious responsibility for who we are, what we teach with our actions and words, and who we consciously take ourselves to be.

When a student lets you know how great they think you are, tell them they are looking at themselves. Tell them you are just like them, equally flawed and equally spectacular. Let them see who you are, for their sake—and for your own.

Respect your students. Respect yourself. Embody the possibility.

Let’s learn together to respect ourselves for who we are and not who we think we should be. Let’s respect ourselves for our ongoing and concerted commitment to practice. Let’s own the knowledge we have gained from our diligence, and yes, allow our students to respect us. Let’s happily and generously offer guidance when it is requested. Encourage them to inquire and to read, to think for themselves, to study, and to delve into what is truth and what is fiction. 

May we all continue to think very carefully about what is of value, what is useful, and what is not. As our student’s guides, we need to be beacons of strong practice and resolve. That includes all of the eight limbs. It includes every breath we take, every word, and every action.

It is an incredible gift to be able to be a yoga teacher and we mustn’t take it lightly. When we don’t do the work, the whole work, and nothing but the work, we lessen the integrity of the path we walk and the philosophy we teach.

Let’s allow our students to question us freely. Let’s resist the temptation to step onto the pedestal that is offered.

May we all work together to assure we do not—even unconsciously—enable or become the perpetrators of emotional, psychological, spiritual, or physical abuse.

Ever.

Idealization, Yoga Movement Systems, and the Guru Problem

I think it’s safe to say that all of the major systems of Hatha Yoga in the west today have something of value to offer. There are excellent teachers from all traditions. And, as we know, there are also some incompetent yoga teachers from all traditions. Each one of the systems has specific tenets and principles that apply to their asana practice, but there is certainly no system of movement (asana practice) that will protect everyone and every joint in the body from injury.

No one system has all the answers, and to the degree that any system claims to be right, it is probably wrong a good deal of the time. It requires a fair amount of naiveté to accept that principles of movement or alignment that are useful in many instances are the be-all and end-all for organizing movement in all bodies. I think that the willingness to accept and hold too dearly a set of alignment principles in asana as right or true is symptomatic of an underlying need to find simple answers to life’s big questions. This tendency is idealistic without being grounded in the reality of how complicated and masterful the structure of the human body-mind system really is and that it may take years of study and practice to begin understand it.

Believing in an idealistic vision of asana that seeks to simplify and categorize human movement into a learnable code is problematic It involves thinking that there is an ultimate reality that applies in all situations and that this ultimate reality can be fully understood and then categorized by our human mind. This belief comes from a desire to see life as much simpler and more easily understood than it actually is.  If there is an ultimate reality  (which I actually still feel there is), one thing you can say about it is that we as individual spinning spheres of consciousness will not ever be able to grasp it fully. If our human form is made in the image of the Universal Vastness there’s a good chance that the individual ego, “I,” will not figure out how it functions. The best we can do is take the ride, all the while increasing our awareness as we notice more of life’s essence and beauty as well as everything else life offers us: pain, suffering, illness, and death. If we are wise, we may even be able to figure out how to assist our selves and others in finding greater comfort, ease, and stability along the way. And if we are serious in our practice, over a long period of time we may even be able to begin to glimpse the radiance of it all. We, as yoga teachers, are guides in this journey. We are not the owners of the vision—no one is.

Idealization—the kind that allows us to glorify, and even deify, a person or a yoga system—is a problem of naivete. If our yoga practice is working for us, we will mature and evolve beyond idealization of anything or anyone. This pretty much decimates excessive belief in a particular system and the impulse to idealize and therefore give over our personal power to another person, whether that person calls him or herself a guru or not. A guru is a guru based on how she or he acts and how people relate to her or him. If people give away their personal power to another person whom they put on a pedestal,, that person is seen as a guru. The label is not important, but the power dynamic is.

The guru problem and the yoga movement systems’ problems are ones that many serious yoga practitioners and teachers have had to grapple with over the years. Many of us, myself included, have tried to go down one version or another of these paths. As I explored, I found that the more answers any system of movement or philosophy claimed to have, the more suspension of higher judgment a devoted follower needed to adopt.

When I was a young practitioner, I hoped that by attaining perfect alignment and mastery of yoga asana, I would also attain a perfect body and a radiant mind. Additionally, I hoped that I might meet the guru person who could show me the way to enlightenment. Personally, in terms of asana, I decided that I would complete them all—literally check every posture off my list. It took a while, and as I neared completion—and didn’t feel that enlightenment was about to fall onto me—I began to see there might be a problem in my thinking. Fortunately for me, I could never adhere to a specific system so I did have the advantage of not having any authority to rebel against and no system to leave. One of my early and most influential asana teachers, Ana Forrest, used to tell the story of going into Iyengar’s class in Pune with a sticker on her hip that read, “Question Authority.” That message was clear and made a strong point that I never forgot in my personal journey. In terms of philosophy and meditation, I have been lucky to have never found any one person who seemed to hold all the answers, and the best teachers along the way never pretended to. Those are the teachers from whom I have learned the most.

I believe that these two issues, believing too much in a system of movement and believing too much in a single person’s authority, are not separate. I think that the source of both ways of thinking can be found in a fragmentary vision of reality in which we perceive the world, our bodies, and ourselves to be composed of a collection of discreet and individual parts. This usually incorporates a hierarchical vision of life that positions some things as binaries: bad/worse, good/better, and not-so-smart/smart. Usually, we don’t like the bad parts of our lives, so we try to annihilate the bad and maintain the good. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t work. You will never be all good and neither will anyone else.

Obviously, the idealization of a guru has many potential pitfalls. From the perspective of a fragmentary mind, the guru knows more than I do, and I need to defer my knowledge to him/her in order to “better myself” or perhaps to “rise” to his/her level. We aggrandize this person until eventually, in order to  “progress,” or to be free of the guru’s influence, we need to knock the guru down, which is easy to do, because in fact, the guru was never any better than we. But since we are still stuck in the better-worse dichotomy, we now see the guru as “worse.” There is no end to this game, and it holds no spiritual development for anyone along the way.

When we are watching someone who we have placed in a high position on this contrived scale of good to bad take a fall, our tendency is to vilify that person because we are so stuck within ourselves in the good/bad dichotomy. The idealized person, now taking the fall, is also clearly stuck in the good/bad dialogue. Otherwise, she would never have allowed herself to be put on the pedestal in the first place.

The guru is not better or worse than we. This person has not suddenly been revealed to be “bad.” He is just like me and just like you, and without an expanding vision that is a pretty difficult position to hold because that would make you and me bad too. To break out of this thinking, I need to go deeply inside myself and see that I too am good/bad and everything else in between, all the time. That is not such a comfortable realization for a person who tends to idealize anything! To the degree that I put my guru down, I am limiting the opportunity to go deeper within myself and accept more of my own humanity with all of its so-called faults.

The problem of idealizing the teacher as a guru is one that many serious yoga students will have to address. Because yoga is a spiritual practice, the tendency to idealize the teacher and to believe the teacher has great knowledge or power is strong. As yoga students who are also yoga teachers, we have the responsibility of not allowing ourselves to be placed in the position of a revered guru. We need to be mindful of our role in this power dynamic. This pattern of idealization will happen again. It will, because we inhabit an imperfectly perfect universe. Accept it. We all have a tremendous responsibility to do the best we can to act with integrity. It is  key to a deep practice. In order to really act with integrity, you need to accept all aspects of yourself. Without accepting the unwholesome aspects of yourself as well as the more desirable qualities, you may find that you act on them before you even notice what you are doing.. By accepting all of the aspects of yourself and airing them in the clear light of consciousness, you gain real choice and thereby you can make good choices. Denial of the unsavory corners of our psyche does not free us of them.