July 14, 2011

Yoga gurus—only human.

I used to work for a yoga celebrity who was known for keeping it real.

I think that’s what attracted me to studying and later working with him over the handfuls of other yoga “master teachers” I could have chosen at the time (this was about ten years ago). I appreciated his down-to-earth style and the practical advice he dispensed in his workshops and teacher trainings. I also appreciated that he never claimed to be any more enlightened, moral, or “good” than any of his students. He would often say, “I’m just a person, just like you.”

He was charismatic and charming, and legions of sycophants followed him all over the country, emulating his style and his mannerisms in their own classes and repeating the platitudes he generously handed out like bite-sized, saccharine-laced cupcakes. (For some reason that last line reminds me of the arsenic-laced donuts the mom in Flowers in the Attic feeds to her children, which — you know what? — isn’t really that bad of a metaphor.)

I, too, followed him around the country and beyond — to Mexico and Hawaii and Costa Rica — first as a student but then quickly as his assistant, peon, confidante, and friend. Our relationship was plagued with “boundary issues,” to put it mildly. It’s natural that two people who travel together constantly would transcend the bounds of a professional relationship. At a certain point, I knew things about X that some of his closest friends probably didn’t know.

We were close, and although our relationship inherently contained an imbalance of power, which meant that he always flew in first class and I generally flew behind him in coach (and I mean this metaphorically as well as literally), I considered him a deep friend. There is something that happens with the chemistry between two people when they spend every waking minute together, often under intense circumstances that involve frequent bouts of sleep deprivation. Soon, you begin to feel like this other person is the only person who can possibly understand you. I felt like that about X.

During this time I was dragged into a lawsuit between X and a former partner of his (not his first nor his last lawsuit, I’m afraid).

It got real messy. I left my life in California behind and relocated across the country for almost a year to help mediate this crisis situation. I made a lot of enemies as people chose sides in the ugly dispute. Through it all, I steadfastly retained my loyalty to my teacher. Despite increasingly loud nagging from my intuition, I defended him to anyone who dared question his motives.

Eventually, though, my blinders came off and I had to admit that I was involved in something that felt just a little bit too much like a cult. In my sardonic writing I have, in fact, referred to my experiences as cult-like and I have also offhandedly called the organization I was involved with a cult. I’ve had friends who are still involved with the organization question this: “Do you really think you can get away with calling it a cult?”

The truth is, it was probably not technically a cult. I can’t blame brainwashing or Kool-aid for my behavior and my choices. I knew what I was doing, and I did it anyway, because I, too, am “only human” (I’ve now learned this is a great catchall phrase to use in any situation where you are making less than ethical choices).

When I look back at that time in my life, it’s with compassion for my younger self, who didn’t always do the right things and certainly not when it came to jobs or even friendships. I learned something about myself and I learned something about yoga superstars as well — they are just like any other kind of celebrity when it comes to fame and power. I laughed when I read Kris Nelson’s The Sheen Sutras a few months ago, implying that, if you squint, this crazy superstar who seems to have lost his marbles sounds just like a spiritual leader. I’ll buy that.

At the end of the day I moved on from that unhealthy situation without drama, and looking back, I can’t help but feel sad for the destruction it caused. I lost good friends, alienated other yoga teachers I worked with, and I bent the truth under pressure. Perhaps most tragically, I lost my wonderful naïveté about the yoga world. Just in case you’re thinking, but that this was just one isolated incident, let me be the first to burst your bubble. This kind of thing happens every day all over the yoga world. Yoga gurus abusing their power is a tradition as old as Hanuman.

To borrow a phrase, we are all only human.

Artwork by the inimitable Vanessa Fiola.
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