I have received frequent inquiries from practitioners who find it difficult to continue their practice in the light of the abuse revelations and also the continued denial or non-addressing by many teachers. This article is about how we can deal with these issues, re-frame what happened and ultimately reclaim our practice.
If the abuse revelations can teach us anything then it would be that projecting godliness, perfection or spiritual powers on anybody is neither good for the projector nor the one on whom they are projected. Most of my spiritual teachers have fallen into the trap that they let the adoration of their followers go to their head. Facing that I went through a fair bit of disappointment and resentment and I often asked myself, “how could they”? But I realize now that this was and is easy for me to say because I could learn from their negative role model. I equate being adored by my students with downfall as I saw my teachers fall. The lesson here clearly is if you project superhuman qualities onto a human, their human frailty will soon stand-out much clearer for all to see. I have therefore learned to pre-empt such projection by telling in the right moment stupid jokes about myself. It seems to always work. The great lesson that we have learned then as teachers is to not let your students idolize, lionize or deify you. It may have a sweet beginning but always a bitter end. Better stay off that pedestal and remind students of your weaknesses.
The other thing that we have learned is that projecting unrealistic expectations and qualities on our teachers is not good for the students either. We try to live our yoga dreams through our teachers because we think it’s too hard to reach them ourselves. By talking us into that they are an embodiment of everything we’d like to reach we believe that some of their greatness is reflected on us without us actually doing anything for it, it just rubs off on us. You simply join a movement and by proxy you attain part of the greatness of the respective teacher. But that never works. We are kidding ourselves!
The abuse revelations not only in Ashtanga but in so many other current movements show us that we can’t wait for other people to fulfill or even represent our yoga dreams. We have to rely on ourselves. And if we are not used to that it can look like a hard thing to do. I am again reminded having a conversation with a friend over 20 years ago about the fact that our teacher at the time was possibly not the person we made him out to be. She said to me, “It sounds too difficult to rely on myself in spiritual matters. I just want to find a person that I can totally devote myself to and they sort out all my problems in return”. Now in hindsight it sounds totally laughable but it’s exactly this attitude that enabled the abuse. If there had not been a large network of people who needed to devote themselves and needed to adore KP Jois he could not have done what he did and could not have become who he became.
While it is important to name and call out the abuser, after all that is done we need to look at the support structure that we, the Ashtanga movement provided and of course in this regard Ashtanga is not different from any other spiritual movement. This need to adore, this need to devote to a leader and this need to project capabilities away from ourselves onto others is nothing new and even the fight against it, the call to take ones power back is nothing new either. Take for example Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, written by the great American Transcendentalist in 1841. While the ideas expressed in Self-Reliance may not have been invented by Emerson, he became the first conduit through which they expressed themselves eloquently. Prior to Emerson, when you felt something was wrong or your needs were not met you mainly complaint to or about the government, the church or any other authority you believed to be powerful. Emerson said, don’t wait, don’t complain but do it yourself and do it now.
While some may call this yet another example of neo-conservativism or neoliberalism, it is apparent that Emerson’s call co-created in the United States of the 19th century a culture that believed that the only person that stopped you from becoming who you could become was you. Look what a change this self-responsibility made possible? I do think it is such a call for self-reliance is again needed in today’s spiritual culture. Self-reliance also helps with developing non-conformity, another idea that Emerson developed. Truth is something, so Emerson, that you find while reflecting on your own self ideally alone in nature and not by conforming to group pressure around you. Groups and communities are only too easily lead by demagogues and charlatans over the next cliff.
If teachers do not meet your ethical standards you may consider practising alone. Teachers can only continue to ignore the abuse issues because students keep supporting them and thus enable the enablers of abuse. Teachers are really just giants with clay feet. If students withdraw from them, their feet and thus the whole tower of deception will crumble and come down. Don’t say, “uh my teacher just won’t change, just won’t apologize”. You will find out that if you change, your teacher will change, too. They will have to change if they start losing students. Try it out. It works like magic!
At this point it is easy to simply drop out, thinking that if the teacher is corrupt the method must be corrupt. But what if there is nobody that could lead you in this quest? What if you have to lead yourself and find your own way in the dark? What if this yoga needs your contribution and your support?
It is this attitude of self-reliance that we need to find within us. When we start yoga we often do it for community reasons, to find a community of like-minded. We may also look for some messiah-type leader to lead us out of the darkness. But all of these things are actually forms of external stimuli. The true meaning of the term pratyahara is independence from external stimuli.
Pratyahara means that practice-wise we stand on our own feet. We do not practice because of the amazing teacher. We do not practice because of the support we get from the outside, from the community around us (although we may take that as nice boons if it works out but shouldn’t compromise when it doesn’t). We practice because deep inside we actually want to. Because the practice (in its many forms, not just asana) brings us back to that place within us where we are whole. So practising yoga is nothing but a return to our origin, a return to our own heart, or the self, in Emerson’s words.
This whole affair really shows us that we have to separate the teaching from the teacher. Practice independently of whether the so-called authorities are flawed or not. Practice because of yourself, because of your freedom (miraculously then you will find that this freedom will also give you the freedom to act selflessly). Notice that in the book Guruji- A Portrait, the yoga took a complete backseat and it was made out to be all about the teacher. As the saying goes, “Only from total devotion to the guru does Jnana flow. Signed by the guru”.
I want to encourage you to take the opposite attitude. It’s the system of practices that brings you freedom and the teacher is (ideally) totally irrelevant. A good teacher is merely a catalyst that steps back more and more as the student becomes established in the practices and discourages the student to place any importance on the personage of the teacher. The teacher is only there to aid the student in reclaiming the practice as their own.
(Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1859)