The ‘G’ word has long become obsolete in the yoga world. We’re much too smart to fall for ‘gurus’ and their connotations of sex cults, brainless devotees and robes so fugly they need a whole new colour wheel to describe. Besides, we don’t need gurus when we now have ‘super teachers’, ‘head of lineages’, and ‘founder of X-style yoga’.
The terms may have changed, yet the game remains very much the same. Match a charismatic teacher with eager and often vulnerable students, add a touch of human ego and just enough mysticism that students won’t question any dodgy practices too closely. Wait a few years, then watch the whole thing end up in court cases and recriminations.
The latest ‘don’t call them gurus’ to end up in hot water are Bikram Choudhury, head of Bikram yoga, and John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, one of the fastest growing styles of yoga in the west. Last year five separate cases were filed against Bikram by former teachers, accusing him of rape, harassment, assault, discrimination and false imprisonment. In the Anusara case, John Friend has been accused of mismanaging company finances, using tantric sexual practices to order to ‘heal’ a student with whom he was having a relationship, and misusing his power in creating a Wiccan coven (which he named ‘Blazing Solar Flames’) with three female employees. The coven’s practices involved ‘sexually charged rituals’ which were meant to serve as a ‘battery’ powering up the Anusara enterprise. “It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” former coven member ‘Melissa’ told Daily Beast.
There’s something depressingly same-same about the cases. Bikram and Friend’s communities implicitly gave them messiah-like status, accepting behaviour they would no doubt otherwise deem inappropriate (during Bikram’s nine-week intensive teacher training it was considered a high honour to be asked back to his room to massage him, wash his feet and brush his hair). Teachers in both the Bikram and Anusara lineages have been quick to minimise the charges of abuse of trust. “We could focus on the shadow or we could focus on the good John has done for the world. People have been redeemed for doing a lot worse,” said one Anusara teacher. In the Bikram cases, complainants were all encouraged by members of Bikram’s inner circle to ‘focus on the good he’s done’ and ‘know that that’s just Bikram being Bikram’.
Reading over details of the cases, it’s alarming to see how much power was given to the perpetrators. The complainants in the Bikram cases were deeply invested in the community both spiritually and financially, and it’s not difficult to imagine the hurt and confusion the women involved must have felt in coming forward. But abuse can flourish when a community unquestioningly hand power over to a teacher. In the Anusara case, the women involved all consensually took part in the rituals, and yet their unquestioning faith in their teacher made them doubt that anything untoward could be happening. One of the original coven members said that ‘she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice.”’[Daily Beast]
But where does responsibility lie with the students? ‘Tim’ a senior teacher in the Anusara lineage, trained with John Friend and teaches in Melbourne, told me that there are circumstances that allow it to happen from both parties. “While it’s up to the teacher to recognise the power differential – if a student is vulnerable, if there’s a lack of self-worth, that can be played upon – but students can be very quick to hand their power over to someone else,” he says. “Students need to recognise that all teachers are human, and not be too quick to attach a god-like status. People put John Friend on a pedestal, but in his defence although he didn’t discourage it, he never claimed to be a guru. He always reminded us that the guru was inside us. His ‘fall from grace’ really showed his humanness and that when the ego buys into the adoration it can quickly corrupt the higher vibrations.”
What seems to be missing in all of this is healthy discernment. In a lot of ways it’s much easier to hand complete authority to someone else – it makes the messiness and pain out of figuring stuff out for ourselves. And this can be rewarded – from my own experience in the yoga community, I have seen how spiritual advancement can become intertwined with unquestioning acquiescence. I have felt incredibly uncomfortable to be in rooms full of people unquestioningly handing authority to a teacher on the stage, where it feels impertinent to challenge even the most outlandish statements. The teachers know their stuff – no question – but they’ll often claim to be teaching ‘true yoga’, not ‘this fake stuff everyone else is peddling.’ One they’ve created doubt in the minds of the students, it’s like there’s this mass agreement that red is green – no one wants to be the dummy who isn’t part of ‘real yoga’. The magic ingredient is always yoga’s long and ancient tradition, which has just enough haziness for ‘lineage holders’ to potentially exploit.
But we need to remember that concepts like devotion and surrender are not mutually exclusive to discernment and self-trust. Yoga, after all, is just a series of practices designed to free you from physical and mental entanglements. It can be tough going, and so a good teacher is gold – you hang onto them, go out of your way to spend time with them. But a good teacher will guide you to see the strengths in yourself, rather than, as Tim says, ‘having to rely on them to get your power.’ And speaking from a teacher’s perspective, it’s helpful to remember that when students have a good class, they’re the ones who did the work – the realisations, breakthroughs are theirs, and as, at best we’re guides who hold space for it to happen. But it’s up to students to walk the fine line between devotion and discernment, surrender and susceptibility.