The Guru/Teacher Trap

Yoga is a system thought to be 3000 to 5000 years old; it is a social system to improve the individual as well as society. Therefore it has a long tradition and much history which has had a numbing effect on the current practice. This numbing effect comes about in a variety of ways.

1) The weight of teachings overwhelms the thinking of the current practitioners. We are taught to thank our teachers and our traditions continuously (that is one translation of Namaste) but that leads to not thinking at all!  When obviously wrong and sometimes quite stupid things are taught by a “teacher”, the tradition is to accept it instead of actually thinking about it, challenging it and perhaps discarding it. So we end up with ridiculous sayings like “inversions make you think better – all that blood to the head is invigorating”. Yes like all that blood to your head is suddenly going to make you think better because you are upside down. Maybe that teacher mistakes feeling dizzy with thinking better.

2) Although a large part of yoga is to dismiss the ego and become one with the universe, nature, humanity – however one thinks of it, the guru/teacher system is open to abuse. There are unfortunately those that wish to be told what to do and not develop their own opinions and a guru/teacher model is very attractive to them. This naturally stokes the ego of the guru/teacher and if they aren’t ethical this can lead to a variety of abuses.

Choudbury Bikram, the promoter of hot yoga, was recently fined millions of dollars for sexual harassment and is currently fighting several other legal suits for rape and sexual harassment.  I remember seeing an ad for Bikram yoga where a female is doing a full forward bend (chest to thighs, head to knees, fingers clasped beyond the feet) with Bikram standing on top of her back. Does this not ring some alarm bells about his opinion of women, submission, sexual harassment, etc.? So the signs were there yet Bikram is a quite popular form of yoga. Why would you follow a teacher/guru who sexually harasses his students and/or employees? There are other heads of certain schools of yoga who are being investigated for similar crimes; it is not something limited to Bikram yoga.

So the teacher/guru model can lead to very serious abuse and yet the whole yoga system is set up on this model. Would it be a less yoga if we encouraged spirited debate, tested these teachings with the bullshit meter, or called out sexual predators before accepting whatever was said.

3) The teachings of current gurus/teachers are based on thousands of years of teachings of generations of teachers. I think we should at least look at the provenance of the teachings. These teachings were developed almost exclusively by older men who were Indian over the last few thousand years. But most of the people who practice yoga in modern times in the West are female, they are from a Western Culture which at least in theory promulgates the equality of the sexes, and are of all ages. I had a teacher tell me that his guru told him to instruct females to lift up their cervix when doing a certain pose. My teacher didn’t know much about the female body but was willing to take the guru’s word who obviously didn’t know much either but both were willing to tell students to do it.

Obviously if the teachings were developed without regard to culture, gender, or age then there is no problem. But that is impossible since we don’t even recognise what we say and believe is determined by how we were raised in a certain culture. But if you understand the conditions under which these teachings were produced, then you can in an intelligent and thoughtful way accept those that do provide a path for becoming a better person and helping towards a better society in our current culture.

Just think when someone tells you something – being a yoga teacher or a guru does not mean they can’t be wrong!!