Friday, December 19, 2014

On gurus and other perfect storms

If you are in the yoga world, you have by now heard about the horrendous and truly nightmarish accounts of the victims of the Mangrove Ashram. There were stories of people signing over their parental rights to a charismatic guru, who would then rape and violate the children with the promise of spiritual ascension, allegedly with the implicit knowledge of the community. There were gut-wrenching stories of an abused woman who then became an abuser herself, providing the charismatic guru with girls to destroy, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and betrayal.

I read the accounts in a thick haze of an unexplained fever, my eyes barely able to focus on the screen, my mind incapable of unimagining the nightmare of it all.

How do we lose our agency? Why do we give our power away to predators and sociopaths? What are we running from that makes us blind to what we are running toward?

I fell asleep to the eery nightmare of Mangrove; When I awoke, it was to the memory of a book I read years ago, when I was thinking about applying for a fulbright to India. The book was Jung and Eastern Thought, and I recalled how surprised I had been at the time to learn that Carl Jung had strong opinions against Europeans practicing Yoga, particularly since I found many of his theories/practices were compatible with Yoga.

I say to whomsoever I can: "Study yoga--you will learn an infinite amount from it--but do not try to apply it, for we Europeans are not so constituted that we apply these methods correctly, just like that. An Indian guru can explain everything and you can imitate everything. But do you know who is applying the yoga? In other words, do you know who you are and how you are constituted?"


I had just returned from the woods, where we had taken retreat. There had been a storm, a recent death, disheartening encounters with former teachers. We retreated into a stone lodge--a sturdy, unshakeable fortress--, and around us trees fell and winds bellowed and water poured from the sky. We sat every morning. We moved and breathed. We observed silence, though our eyes found each others' and we couldn't help but smile and communicate in hushed whispers. We ate roots and greens and colorful, lush fruits, and indulged on fats. And we laughed. We laughed at the mundane, the taboo, the grotesque, and the absurd. We laughed until we held our sore-from-laughter-cheeks, held our aching bellies, and we felt full. A sangha is a powerful, healing thing. A common desire to know and grow around a practice and a teacher can knit people into a strong fabric. A sangha reinforces intimacy. For four days, we reveled in it. 

I was surrounded by a small group of people who refer to me as their teacher. On the last day, we stood in two unwieldy concentric circles and we looked each other in the eye as a meditation on seeing the person behind the eyes. The idea was not mine, but my colleague's, and I may have openly groaned when she suggested it. Nevermind my resistance, I wept from the first person to the very last. Every single person I looked at, I saw them as a small child, deserving of all of my love. Every single person looked at me with grateful eyes, loving eyes, trusting eyes. 

Overwhelmed, I drove away from the lodge back to my seaside city. En route, the world was cleaned of its accumulated dust, and the earth looked like a well-fed baby: soft and lush and calm. I saw the eyes of my students before me in quick succession. I meditated on the responsibility of being a teacher: the ego trap, the potential for confusing their gratefulness for my own greatness. The potential for taking ownership of their growth. The potential for abuse, for deceit, for taking advantage.

Later that night, fever shook my bones awake. 


Over the years I have thought about what Jung might've meant by 'do you know who you are and how you're constituted?'. The ironic part is that many of us credit yoga for learning more about who we are and our constitution. 

This is how I am, partly, constituted:

I have always considered myself an outsider. I was a child of a christian man and a muslim woman; I did not identify as either, and in each circle, I felt as the other. My formative years were spent in a beautiful and ancient, culture-rich country that was run by an authoritative, patriarchal, fundamentalist regime. The same regime from whom we had to hide the fact that my father was a christian, because that made my mother an apostate, whose 'crime' was punishable by death. So we lied, and we were scared. A lot. 

In school, my parents requested that I be exempt from all religious classes. Even as they had a common enemy, the state, and neither were devout, my parents each feared 'losing' me to each other's religion, to each other's tribe. Their love was not devoid of complications; fear was a driving force, as well as anger.

I lived with the outside world mirrored inside our home. 

I grew up with a strong sense that belief systems were the reason for much of what was wrong around me. Everywhere I turned, someone was trying to convince me of the righteousness of their particular belief system.

The muslims called me Najes, which means unclean and is a term used for animals.

The christians said, you are one of us, because of your father. Nevermind that you have your mother's eyes. In time, you can erase her from your face. 

All of this aside, I was a child of a revolution and fiercely independent. I said no a lot. 

A bright-eyed student of mine on retreat asked me to speak about the philosophy behind the practice. Normally, I would've been overjoyed that a young student would show interest in anything other than asana. On this particular day, I was filled with dread. Why? Because I don't want to mislead her, give her a false sense of why we practice with a clumsy turn of phrase or left-over, stale magical thinking handed down from an imperfect lineage of teachers. I don't want to affect the fake indian accent and speak in aphorisms. I don't want to say a lot of words that mean nothing in the end.

Because I don't just trust that what I read is true.

Because I am a teacher in a tradition that frequently gets boxed in, defined, not only by outsiders, but by the members of the tradition.

Because some of the boxes make me cringe and make me want to scream no.

Because I find myself in a position where many look to me to teach them something, and I am in, as Adyashanti poetically coins it, a spiritual winter of sorts. I cannot convince you of the relevance of the yoga sutras in our modern day practice, because I am questioning a lot of what I've been taught, and I'm not quite sure that we've been looking at them through an honest lens.

Because I cannot pretend that doing a sequence of postures, in a particular way, everyday, is a superior way of gaining knowledge over ourselves; I know that it is a way. I know that for now, it's my preferred way. I cannot in good faith tell my students that I have some idea of what their way should be.

Because I want them to ask the questions, and then stay quiet for a long while.

Because I don't know if there is a god.

Because singing the praises of gods I did not grow up with tastes like cold wax in my mouth.

Because I feel no connection to hindu deities, no part of my being lights up at the mention or image of them. To me they are statues, dolls, paintings, metaphors. I find them beautiful, but not spiritually stirring.

because a cathedral of redwoods moves me to tears; I find nature, children, literature, acts of political resistance spiritually stirring.

I cannot undo the feeling that much of what I see in the yoga culture is unexamined and unconscious renderings of christianity, dressed up to look more 'exotic' and not so loaded for the practitioners. I don't know if this is necessarily a destructive thing. I know this may be a judgement.

I don't think all judgements are bad.

Protests are on my mind these day. Protests are a form of judgement of what we don't want and a demand for what we want.

Maybe in comparing the sex abuses of catholic priests to the abuses at Mangrove to the conscription of young boys into ISIS and Taliban, the common denominator is that we get in trouble when we operate in the realm of absolute belief systems, because often, someone at the top is selling us the beliefs for their own benefit. Someone at the top appears to us like a god, or, our idea of a god, and we give up our own internal ideas of who we are and what constitutes us. Perhaps, Jung was talking about this: know what your ideas of god, of self, of religion, of morality are before you enter into relationship with a guru. So if a guru is by definition, heavy and they draw you in, you do not lose your sense of self.

Or, get rid of the guru. Have teachers. Be in a mutually respectful, reverent, horizontal relationship with them. Read books. Have open, honest dialogue in a functional sangha that allows for open dissent. But most of all, seek and trust your direct experience. Listen.


We came out of the womb of the retreat, and the world is caught in a frenzy of lists and commerce and exhaustion. It is the time of the year when we stubbornly practice not listening. Because if we actually listened, we'd know that it's time for introspection, for hibernation, for silence. But alas, there are items to be checked off a list and we like doing this, dammit, because this is part of what constitutes us: the pavlovian response to the scent of pine and sugar, the temporary rush of acquiring more, and the less than satisfied feeling the morning after.

Listen: I know I may be bringing you down. That's not entirely my intent. My intent is to say, hey, let's define this thing that we love, yoga, as we go, so it does not reinforce our cultural and personal patterns and blindspots. I love asana for its quick ability to show us to ourselves. I am not an 'orthodox' teacher, and I have always chosen rather unorthodox teachers, those who respect their teachers but have done things their own way. So it boggles my mind when I see students say things like 'but that's not ashtanga' or 'but that's not the pose' in response to modifications, to different approaches, to softening their practice. I say this to remind you that we all have the fundamentalist teacher inside of us; we all have the perfectionist, the punitive, the unworthy inside of us. We practice with all of these 'selves'. We teach to all of these parts of our students. For the most part, we do not come to yoga unscathed by conditioning. We do not come to teaching with all of our parts fully in the light and integrated, loved.

Do you see how perilous and how sensitive this teacher/student relationship is, how ripe for planting seeds and suggestions and enacting spiritual derailments? What are we going to do about it?

Listen: this has never been done before: this many people, outside the Indian subcontinent, practicing yoga. It's an exciting time; it's a delicate time. It's an opportunity, and we are bound to make mistakes. It's also time to dismantle some of the structures that do not serve us. Not because they challenge us--I'm all for being made uncomfortable--but because they are rife with the potential for abuse. We have fallen too many times.  

(Jung later changed his tone about yoga in the west. Harold Coward notes in the same book that Jung believed that yoga was just another method for self-awareness, and so the emphasis should not be on it specifically but on its purpose for being. A Western form of yoga should then be developed. )

How attached are we to our image of Yoga? Are we ready now to get to work?