January 6, 2012

Guruji, Get your hand off my vagina: The modern yoga teacher-student relationship.

Classically, yoga was transmitted carefully, privately, from a master to a student, one to one. A little like an STD. In modern Western society, yoga is transmitted from one teacher to huge groups of students at a time, usually through drop in classes. Much like an STD.

Times have changed. Some folks say we are missing something in the good old days when yoga was individualized. But we’ve gained something I think is really important: the choice of how you want to learn and who you want to learn from.

Next week, I’m flying to the yoga mecca of San Francisco, all the way in America, for the Yoga Journal Conference and two of my major yoga crushes: Shiva Rea, the beautiful, blonde dancer who balances her sacrum between heaven and earth and rocks my body with her creative and flowing sequencing, and Ana Forrest, the witch doctor who I am terrified will look into my soul and see it in all its cankered glory.

Normally, I try not to get too tied up in the whole celebriyogi thing. My dad taught me that anything too popular was not to be trusted, and I took this seriously when my beloved high school teacher (who I, alone among my peers, refused to be alone in a room with) was suspended for sexually assaulting a student. I’m always a bit wary of anyone universally beloved: if EVERYONE loves you, you’ve gotta be lying about something.  I don’t need a Guru keeping too close of an eye on my Down Dog.

Spirituality and Health Magazine‘s Soul Body supplement has a lovely article on the student/teacher relationship that explains some of the pitfalls of looking to another human to teach spirituality. Zen master John Daido Loori says, for example, that a great spiritual teacher

awakens in the student what is inherently there. That’s why we call it the wisdom that has no teacher. It comes from within. At best a teacher is a facilitator rather than a conveyor of knowledge. This is important, because it protects the dharma from individual personality flaws.

Forrest had her own experience with a Guruji, B.K.S. Iyengar, who “accomplished his ‘active correction’ through hitting, spitting, and screaming.” She writes:

Whatever wisdom he had, he wasn’t willing to give it to me because I hadn’t agreed to his demand for subservience. At the end of the month-long training, we all lined up during the celebratory dinner to kneel before Iyengar and touch his feet. As I approached, he said, “Oh, so, expert, you have no need ever to come back here.” And I replied, “Oh, I know that, Mr. Iyengar.” I’d learned what I most needed to know: that I couldn’t look to others for the wisdom that lay inside me.

Just because a teacher is super successful and popular doesn’t mean you should trust them, and them alone. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to teach: I want to know Shiva’s Rea’s secrets of sequencing and how she creates such captivating and gorgeous ways of doing core work that make you feel beautiful even as you are working up a sweat. And I want to meet Ana Forrest, who claims not to subscribe to the classical yoga principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, because sometimes things have to die or break or get ugly before they can really, truly heal. I won’t touch these teachers’ feet, but I sure will listen to them.

Shiva Rea, being gorgeous

Ana Forrest. She's serious.

In my humble modern-yogi opinion, yoga has this built in function (which I like to call the bullshit detector) which is developed through a practice of paying attention and thinking for yourself. This way, I can look to very different teachers and learn from both. And there’s room for more: I’ll experience other fascinating experiences with Janet Stone, Judith Hanson Lasater, Dharma Mittra, and other teachers I know little about just yet. It’s up to me, in the end, what to keep with me and what to throw away so I can find my own path.

There are ways in which I wish I had a true teacher. Just the one, who could really show me the way. But yoga teaches me again and again that I am my own true teacher. We have new ways of learning now, through communities of teachers and students in which those roles switch and shift all the time. If we keep our hearts open and our bullshit detectors on high, there is so much we can learn. I just want to soak it all up (just maybe not swallow it all).

I’ll let you know how it goes. And I’ll keep these wise words from Kabir in my mind as I go:

The words Guru, Swami, Super Swami, Master, Teacher, Murshid,

Yogi, Priest,

most of those sporting such a title are

just peacocks.

The litmus test is:

hold them upside down over a cliff for a few hours.

If they don’t wet their


maybe you have found a real



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