If you have been following the news in yoga-land, you would know that 2012 was quite the year for yoga gurus. Two major yoga teachers made headlines for various behaviors that landed them straight into the world of scandal. John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga and Kausthub Desikachar, grandson to TKV Desikachar and great grandson of Krishnamacharya-one of modern yoga's most influential teachers.
Both were brought into the spotlight under allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse. I was very interested to hear about the John Friend scandal as I have always questioned the rise of 'yoga gurus'. But when the Kausthub scandal broke, this time it was different. It was different because he was once my teacher.
The abbreviated version is that in 2007 I was invited by Kausthub to be a part of his personal group of students, the sangha. This small group of international students had been meeting (mostly at his home in India) to study for many years. When I arrived in India I felt privileged, excited and nervous. I was at the home of my teacher and the teachings I had been looking for for a very long time. Yet within a short period of time I started to see behavior that didn't sit right. While I didn't see or (thank-fully) experience any sort sexual misconduct, I did see a whole lot of game playing, manipulation and a variety of other behaviors from Kausthub and even some of his long-time students. It was a real wake-up call for me. I left the sangha because I couldn't be in a situation with such large discrepancies between the teacher and the teachings, no matter how good the teachings were for me personally. And at the end of it, I realized that I had come there to learn something completely different to what I thought I was going for and among other things, a first-hand look into the power plays of both the student and the teacher.
The really sad part is that both Kausthub and John Friend are not the first gurus or teachers to fall and won't be the last. As long as we keep looking outside ourself for truth and wisdom there will always be people who will happily step onto the pedestal and let you believe they are the ones to lead you to your Self. And because of this, there has been a part of me has been relieved to see these fallen teachers. Not for the individuals and the people that they hurt, but what they represent. Relieved that maybe it is a reflection that this type of student/teacher relationship is becoming unsustainable, that it is time to engage in some much needed dialogue around what is happening in our modern yoga world and the delicate balance of the student/teacher relationship.
The responsibility of the teacher
Ok, I know this is a really big can of worms and there are many, many topics around the role of a teacher so for this post I am just focusing on one aspect. When we begin practices such as yoga that aim to delve deeply into the nature of the Self, we soon journey into vast and unknown territory. These practices ask us to discover who we are, consider questions that are seemingly unanswerable and to shine light into those dark and forgotten places in us. This stuff can be scary, painful and even abstract. Which is why we need teachers, landmarks to guide us and support us along the way. But along with our teachers, we also need discernment.
Discernment comes in the form of questioning, of feeling things out through the filter of who we are. We can learn, we
learn from others, but at the end of it all, how does it sit with
? How does it feel in the context of who you are right now? Yet because the spiritual path can be so abstract- this land of feelings and intangibles- because we have been raised in a culture that takes our cues from outside sources and have not been raised to listen to ourselves first, it is so easy, so tempting to revere others. We can assume that someone else knows better, or knows more than us and in thinking so, end up giving our power away. Look at the whole industry built up around celebrity culture. Tabloid magazines devoted to the lives of other people who happen to be in the spotlight. Complete with articles and photos announcing, they are just like us! Um, yes... of course they are just like us. We are all so human, sometimes painfully so. Including our teachers.
Ideally then, a good teacher on this path is humble to their own self, knowing they are still growing as the opportunities for learning never really end. And hopefully we as teachers are clear on how easily people can give their power away. And clear on how much you may want to take it.
For those who are teachers, (and anyone else for that matter) remember
we do not have all the answers and we never will have all the answers
. And those who think they do, need some discernment of their own. While something might be clear as day to you about someone, it is still up to that individual to find it in their own way and in their own time. And it is up to us to respect that place, respect where that person is in their evolution. How many times have you explained, demonstrated, adjusted something over and over and finally a student comes up and says, "I get it! It finally makes sense!". Or a friend in a negative relationship, while it is has been obvious to others, finally realizes that they need to get out of it. We provide the information, the space and intention for people to get what they need when they need it. As the saying goes 'You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink.'
The responsibility of the student
Can we as spiritual seekers, we who are walking on a path of self-understanding be more discerning? Take some time to question to yoga status quo? Question the cultural conditions that brought yoga to where it is now? Can we pull back from the famous teachers (both in yoga and other arenas) and find the ones in our own backyards who have been quietly teaching all along? And most importantly, question ourselves as to why am I following this person? In my case with Kausthub and the sangha, I saw many people torn over behavior that they didn't agree with, yet wanted to stay because of the access to teachings or the status that it provided for their personal self or career. And there have been times when I have looked back at my descion to leave and wished in some ways I had stayed because it was a privledged position that looked really good on my yoga bio.
But what does that all even mean? I am going to go out on a limb here and question, what does who you study with really matter? Who really cares if you spent 3 months in mysore, if you went to India study with so and so or did a workshop with this or that famous yogi? Now I am not saying that you don't need education or teachers, you absolutely do. But with the fallen gurus of yoga, they end up teaching more than what they themselves intended. And that is my point: there are lessons to be had everywhere if we are on the path of self-discovery and honesty. In my own experience, I credit Iyengar yoga for large part of my understanding of the mechanics of yoga, the physical details of asana. But the deeper work and lessons for myself and my teaching have come from living life. In fact, some of my best teachers aren't 'yogis'. These teachers are complex, imperfect people who keep choosing love and by doing so inspire me to do the same. Or lessons from being in relationship, being shown my own flaws or mistakes in light of somebody else's reflections.
The role of teacher is one that requires responsibility and compassion. A role that needs more questioning and discussion around it. Hopefully those questions can start in our own lives and extend out to taking a clearer look at our yoga culture. We all deserve people on our path who are there to shine the light, reflection and space for us to keep turning back within and listening to our own hearts.