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Yoga Trends

Gods and Monsters

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I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Sitting in Lotus Pose as part of a circle of new students, I was spellbound as the teacher opened our weeklong Kripalu Yoga intensive by demonstrating a posture flow, his long, lean body bending artfully into asana after astounding asana as if he were posing for a series of Picasso oils. If only I could twist my Rubenesque frame like that.

Yet as I slouched on my zafu looking out of place in my Super Bowl T-shirt and grey sweats, an outfit more befitting the Y.M.C.A. than y-o-g-a, I did not become intimidated; I became inspired. At first, sure, there were some trifling thoughts—”I hope he doesn’t expect me to do that”—but before I could get lost in my beginner’s qualms, the teacher had joined our seated circle and was speaking to us in soft, soothing tones about stretching just as far as our bodies would comfortably allow, about letting the posture gradually take shape, about accepting ourselves just the way we were. As he talked, perched in his perfect straight-back posture, I found my gaze gravitating toward the halo I could swear I saw surrounding his head.

In fact, this yoga teacher was no more saintly than the rest. No more virtuous than the woman who teaches postures out of her living room. No more insightful than the guy giving classes in a rented studio at some fitness center. Any good teacher—one who evokes yoga’s unique blend of physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation—can end up being revered by students. And while a halo may appear to be a badge of honor, it’s more an occupational hazard, the root of many potential pitfalls around which a yoga teacher must navigate to create a healthy relationship with students.

“It’s very flattering when students think highly of you, but as a yoga teacher you must keep in mind that you are serving spirit, not the ego,” says Jonathan Foust, the teacher I fitted for a halo during that beginners class years ago at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the ashram-turned-holistic-learning-retreat in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.

“I see so many teachers who get off on the power trip. Being an agent of transformation in someone’s life is the biggest rush in the world, but it’s like fire: If you handle it correctly, it’s a great tool. But if you misuse it, it’s going to burn you.”

Foust’s tool for handling the ethereal projections of students? He goes out of his way to remain down to earth. The halo eventually will fade from view if your teacher is sprinkling irreverent, self-deprecating, or simply silly comments into the teachings. “I like to tell new students that I’m a miracle of yoga: When I started, I was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and now I’m over six-five,” says Foust. “Then, when they get all wide-eyed, I’ll say, ‘Of course, I started when I was 13.'” He laughs, and I suddenly remember what it was about him that goaded me into dropping the deification-at-first-sight and developing a real-life relationship with this teacher. “You do what you have to,” he says, “to show that you’re no different from your students, that you’re human too.”

Delicate Balance of Power

Donna Farhi will never forget the real-life, human lesson she learned a few years ago when she was in Mexico to conduct a 10-day yoga teacher training. After arriving from her home in New Zealand, she was taking care of final preparations for the intensive when she found herself thinking about the image she wanted to project to her students. “I had it in the back of my mind that I was going to present myself as this smart white gringo,” she recalls. “I was going to keep my boundaries up and maintain a certain reserve befitting a teacher.”

The day before the training was to begin, however, Farhi’s image—along with her tried-and-true lesson plan—underwent a dramatic and disturbing change. “I got violently, violently ill,” she says. “I couldn’t even push myself up out of bed.” Suddenly, she was transformed from smart white gringo to queasy, pale weakling being escorted to the bathroom by a pair of yoga students, each holding an arm to steady her. Boundaries? Reserve? Hard to maintain when you’re being sponge-bathed by a student you’ve just met.

The next morning, sickly but determined to maintain that gringo schedule of hers, Farhi made it to class—barely. She spent the first day teaching while seated—except for that moment every hour or so when she would muster the strength to make a mad dash for the toilet. This went on for days. At one point Farhi broke down in tears in front of some students. “I don’t know how I can teach today,” she uttered. “I can barely walk.” Yet she stayed with the program to the end, and so did her students. One would write to her months later to comment that the most inspiring aspect of the teacher training—no less so than the course materials—had been the teacher’s wholehearted acceptance of her weakness, her “strength in fragility.”

Farhi understood. The illness, she had discovered, had not lessened her power as a teacher. Rather, it had opened her to being real with her students. She had no choice. “I was so weak,” she says, “that the only place I could be was in my core. And the students were completely there with me, this fragile human being who was struggling so.” She remembers teaching more lucidly than ever before. Today she looks back on that training intensive as “one of the most profound, loving experiences I’ve ever had.”

No one would wish so debilitating an affliction on any teacher—”I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat the experience,” says Farhi—but this episode sheds some light on the delicate balance of power in a yoga studio. Being put on a pedestal, whether boosted there by students or self-propelled, may be a first-class ego trip, but at what price? That’s no place for a teacher to gracefully model asanas. Climbing back down to earth pays dividends: It refocuses the students’ attention on their own experience. “I want them to realize that there’s nothing magical about having attained a certain equanimity of mind or a certain adeptness in the body,” says Farhi. “When students project magical qualities on their teacher, what they’re projecting is this thing outside themselves that magically appears-poof-and takes the responsibility off of them to do the work.”

Guru Paradigm

As the popularity of hatha yoga practice has erupted throughout Western culture in this decade, classes have become available in more and more settings, from hospitals to health clubs to holistic learning centers. And while some new students are drawn to yoga simply for the stretching, the holistic nature of the practice eventually reveals itself. “A yoga teacher is a unique combination of exercise instructor, psychologist, and minister,” says Judith Lasater, a founder of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco and author of Relax and Renew (Rodmell, 1995) and Living Your Yoga (Rodmell, 2000). “Even if your concept is, ‘I’m just teaching people how to stretch,’ the intrinsic nature of yoga is that you cannot separate the asana from other aspects of practice. The well-being of the student-teacher relationship is dependent on the teacher’s understanding that you’re not the same as someone who simply teaches people to play the guitar.”

Lasater has been teaching yoga since 1971, but just recently, she has deepened her understanding of the more profound and pervasive impact she can have on a student. Evidence of this came to her a couple of years ago in the form of a letter. It was from a woman who had been showing up for class only a couple weeks at a time every few months, Lasater recalls, “so I had thought of her as just a casual student, someone who came in occasionally for a good stretch.” But in her letter the student wrote, “You have had a major spiritual influence on my life.” That sentiment bewildered Lasater. She might have expected such a pronouncement from a longtime regular student, but from this occasional yogini it was a shock. The aftershock: “It helped me better understand how students project their experience onto their teachers.”

Jonathan Foust tells of a similarly enlightening incident experienced by a teaching colleague at Kripalu. A participant in one of the ashram‘s yoga-cum-personal growth programs, particularly moved by an in-class experience, approached her teacher and said, “You’ve transformed my life.” The teacher’s response was immediate and humble: “Don’t thank me, thank my guru.” So that evening, at an appropriate moment during satsang (“meeting in truth”), the guest stood to address her teacher’s guru, Yogi Amrit Desai, and declared, “Gurudev, you’ve transformed my life.” Desai’s astute answer: “Don’t thank me, thank my guru.” “That’s when the guru paradigm works—when everyone is letting go,” says Foust. “The problem comes when the teacher holds the space for transformation, students go deep, and the teacher then lays claim to responsibility for the transformation. The student believes it, and the teacher believes it too.”

Foust and thousands of other students also experienced that dark side of the guru paradigm with Amrit Desai, who over two decades evolved from modest yoga teacher to spiritual director of an ashram with 300 live-in followers. In one of the more startling and consequential scandals to hit the U.S. yoga community, Desai was ousted from Kripalu nearly five years ago after admitting to having sexual affairs with five followers. “The betrayal was profound,” says Foust, who had spent 18 years living at Kripalu before moving out following the scandal. “I had traveled all around North America and Europe with him doing seminars. He had counseled me. He had officiated at my wedding. I had bowed down to him. He was my beloved teacher.” In the end, the guru’s greatest lesson for Foust was this: “Amrit had got trapped in his own guru paradigm, to the point where he could no longer work on his issues around sex and power. Things calcified until they fell apart. I realize now that they fell apart in the best sense. Being betrayed feels awful, but the flip side is that you get your life back.”

In Kripalu’s new life, all who come to teach must sign an ethical agreement which stipulates that, among other things, they not become sexually involved with a student, not only during a program but for six months afterward. “If students don’t feel safe,” says Foust, who recently returned as director of curriculum, “nothing transformational is going to happen.”

A Question of Ethics

Lasater believes the need for a code of professional standards exists not just at Kripalu but across the yoga community. “You can read a book on yoga and call yourself a yoga teacher,” she laments. Indeed, though some start-up yoga teacher organizations have national or American in their names, there is no mandatory-membership governing body for teachers, no rule book, no accountability. And as yoga continues to trickle into the mainstream, with hospitals and health plans increasingly willing to fund yoga programs—Trikonasana is much more cost-efficient than a triple bypass—a set of basic standards would help prospective students navigate the quagmire of finding a qualified teacher.

To that end, the California Yoga Teachers Association (CYTA), of which Lasater is president, has developed a far-reaching—though voluntary—code that addresses everything from confidentiality to advertising to student relationships. In less than a year, this code of standards has been adopted by dozens of yoga associations representing thousands of yoga teachers. But that, Lasater acknowledges, is just the tip of the iceberg, with much work left to do. “It’s like herding cats,” she says, “to get all of these yoga groups together on professional standards.”

John Schumacher, for one, agrees that yoga teachers ought to be qualified before stepping in front of a classroom full of students. He concurs that student records should be confidential, that advertising should not misrepresent. Where the Washington, D.C.-area Iyengar teacher would differ with Lasater and her organization is on the CYTA code’s stance on student-teacher relationships, which states, in part: “All forms of sexual behavior or harassment with students are unethical, even when a student invites or consents to such behavior [or] involvement.” Schumacher has been teaching since September 1973. In January 1974 a woman named Susan came to class as a new student. Today, Susan is his wife. Says Schumacher, “I don’t think you can make a hard-and-fast rule. I know a number of teachers who are married to people who were previously their students.”

“This was a difficult part of the code to finalize; we argued over the words,” says Lasater. “The words we came up with don’t prohibit such relationships; instead, we suggest that the teacher proceed with extreme caution.”

Actually, she’s referring to a section of the professional standards code that refers to relationships with past students: “We recognize that the teacher-student relationship involves a power imbalance, the residual effects of which can remain after the student is no longer studying with the teacher. Therefore, we suggest extreme caution if you choose to enter into a personal relationship with a former student.”

Schumacher is at odds with that principle as well—or at least the premise at its foundation. Though he recognizes that abusive incidents occur, even acknowledges that it is generally wise for a teacher to refrain from becoming romantically involved with a student, he says, “I do not agree with those people who say that there is, by definition, a power imbalance. I think there are people who view their teachers as gods, demigods, or enlightened beings, and you should not get involved with students who do that to you. But there are also people who come to a yoga class and, as far as they’re concerned, it could be a ballet class or a basket-weaving class and you are just another person. To say that I inherently have power over my students—that’s just going to make them feel powerless.”

Schumacher does agree with the CYTA’s “extreme caution” suggestion, though he believes that that prudent approach is wise in all new relationships, not just those between yoga teacher and student. “It’s no different from meeting anyone else,” he says. “You might get involved in conversation with the person after class or before class, spend some extra time together, get to know one another.” Schumacher sees the issue as not only an ethical question, asking, “Who would want to be in a relationship with someone who puts you on a pedestal?”

What’s It All About?

To climb down from a pedestal takes strength—an inner strength that, despite appearances, not all yoga teachers have at their command at every moment. “In the yoga world there are these myths about teachers being almost superhuman,” says one longtime teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. “Students often treat us that way, and we begin to believe it. So no matter what is going on inside, you’ve got this public life where you are this serene, sacred being. It becomes very difficult to talk about the troublesome things that normally happen in life, like attractions, like temptations. And when you keep it inside, it’s like putting a lid on a pressure cooker: After a while, the lid blows off.”

This teacher knows what it feels like to be burned in that explosion. A few years ago this married man, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used in this article, tripped over that most touchy ethical boundary and became sexually involved with one of his students. When word got out about his affair, he recalls, “my first temptation was to run and hide.” What he did instead has enabled him to regain the respect of many in the yoga community. “I knew that what I needed to do was face it,” he says. “It wasn’t easy. It’s like getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar—you can’t deny it. So I had to look at all the chaos I’d created in a lot of people’s lives, and also look at myself: What was this really all about?” He stopped teaching. He apologized to the woman, his family, his peers. He enrolled in psychotherapy, both individually and with his wife, sought peer counseling, and did a lot of reading on sex addiction and the relationship between power and sex.

“One of my false beliefs was that people are responsible for their own behavior, that if a woman wants to come on to me, then that’s her thing, and if I take advantage of that, there’s nothing wrong with that—she’s an adult,” says this teacher. “I didn’t really understand that in the teaching role you have incredible power, and students want to be around that power, that energy. It’s not an equal relationship.” Unlike John Schumacher, who speaks from his experience of transforming a teacher-student relationship into a marriage in which power is shared equally, this teacher articulates the perspective of a man who nearly ruined both his marriage and his career because he could not maintain self-control. As he put his psyche through a thorough examination, he discovered roots of his affair in both his lifestyle and his attitude. In the years leading up to the misconduct, his teaching work had become all consuming, taking him on the road for long stretches of time. When people would ask how he handled the stress, this teacher had a glib answer. “If you do enough yoga,” he would say, “you can remain balanced.” But even as he was speaking with such equanimity about balance, he was losing his.

Nearly two years passed before he set foot back in a yoga studio to teach. Today, this teacher believes he is not just a better yoga teacher but a better man. “I have a much more solid relationship with my wife and my family,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of growing and learning, which is what yoga is all about—transformation.” This growth, he adds, has profoundly transformed the learning environment in his yoga studio. “I feel like I have more to give to my students,” he says. “I now can create a safe space for them to learn in. And I’m a lot more accepting of their imperfections. I know all too well that we do not live in a perfect world.”

Inspiring Students

At Kripalu, Amrit Desai’s descent from grace to disgrace has had a profound impact that is only peripherally related to ethical boundary concerns. To wit: The yoga itself has changed. “In the old days, Amrit would do a posture flow for us, and everyone would go ga-ga,” says Jonathan Foust. “Then we as teachers would do essentially the same thing for students in our programs. It was, ‘Look at me, I’m in the center of the room, I’m going to go inside and go into my posture flow, then you can have some space.’ We were setting ourselves up almost like little gurus.” Nowadays, Foust’s goal when teaching is to be invisible. “I want to get out of the way,” he says, “so students can have a direct relationship with spirit.”

In Kripalu’s monthlong yoga teacher training program, the focus has intensified not simply on ethics but on overall integrity. “I think there used to be a contradiction in the teaching,” says Melanie Armstrong-King, who for the past five years has been directing Kripalu teacher trainings. “The language was permissive, but what was being modeled wasn’t.” Teacher trainers now steer away from language such as “What I would like you to do now…”—after all, students aren’t doing yoga for the teacher, they’re doing it for themselves. Kripalu-trained teachers are more likely to say something like, “You may want to experiment with it this way….” Says Armstrong-King, “Permissive language helps keep the authority projection in perspective. It helps students understand that their own bodies are the authority.”

A common sentiment among yoga teachers is that the person who knows what’s best for the student is the student him- or herself. At least to a degree. Some teachers feel it is their responsibility to direct the student, to push the student, to make sure the student does everything right—that is, by the teacher’s definition of “right.” Others take a less pushy approach. “My intention when teaching,” says Judith Lasater, “is to evoke the asana from the student rather than impose it. I want to inspire rather than coerce.” Donna Farhi, likewise, takes a kinder, gentler tack in order to help her students develop something she believes is one of the most important components of a yoga practice: “an inner reference system,” her term for the ability to perceive what’s happening within yourself at a given moment and to choose skillfully from among your options. “If I’m always looking at the teacher as the authority,” says Farhi, “I’m never going to internalize that process and become my own teacher.”

“Students mustn’t be afraid to make mistakes,” says Kofi Busia, a teacher in Santa Cruz, California. “I want them to try things and find out for themselves what works.” Yet, as a disciple of B.K.S. Iyengar—whose style of yoga, the most prominent in this country, involves much hands-on adjustment of asanas by a teacher—Busia often finds himself treading a fine line. “I have been told that I am not a typical Iyengar teacher—many of us are very hot on giving loads of instructions about where the third kneecap should be and stuff like that, and I’ve never done that. But I do correct people,” says Busia, a native of Ghana who has been teaching for 28 years, mostly in Great Britain but for the last five years in the United States. “When I think that a student’s body should be in a different position, I go and I use my hands and I put it there, because I have the faith that if I do that two or three times the student will see that what I’m suggesting works better for them than otherwise.”

Adjusting an asana involves the laying on of hands, and that’s a touchy issue for some students—and teachers. John Schumacher makes his intention clear from the outset: “When I get a group of new students, I say to them, ‘My job is to make you understand and feel this as best I can, and I may very well touch you and move you into or out of a particular direction. If you have a problem with that, you need to let me know now. Otherwise, I am going to assume that it’s all right.'” Judith Lasater, who was trained in the Iyengar style but describes her teaching as more “eclectic,” believes in taking sensitivity a step further: She always asks students’ permission before touching them. Every single time. “I want to model the fact that this yoga class is a safe place,” she says. “When I ask, ‘May I touch you?’ every time, not only does that make it clear to you that I honor your boundary and you’re safe inside that boundary, it also tells everyone else in the class that when they’re in some strange position or their eyes are covered, someone is not going to suddenly touch them.”

Though Schumacher doesn’t believe in taking verbal sensitivity that far—”It breaks all kinds of continuity”—he does acknowledge that a teacher must maintain a moment-to-moment sensitivity to his students’ sometimes volatile boundaries. “You can walk up to a student sometimes and feel, just by being in their general vicinity, that they are not interested in being touched or even approached, even though they have said nothing,” he says. “I certainly respect that.”

Boundaries are two-sided, of course, and teachers also must protect themselves from being crushed under that weighty pedestal erected by students. Donna Farhi remembers one student coming to her at the end of a class and saying, “I want to be just like you, Donna, because you don’t feel pain in your body anymore.” Farhi, who indeed had been experiencing quite a bit of back discomfort stemming from an old injury, was taken aback. Nothing she said would dissuade this student from the illusion that her teacher’s body had evolved beyond pain. That night, when Farhi arrived home, she was experiencing pain of a different kind—emotional discomfort. “I felt so sad,” she says. “I felt like I had been excommunicated from the human race.”

The Courage to Be

What is it in the American psyche that incites us to perceive certain figures in our lives as something more or less—but definitely other—than human? As a culture, we seem to lose all perspective with respect to our presidents, our star athletes, our lead guitarists, our box-office hunks—we deify them as infallible, then crucify them when they fall. Yoga teachers, by accessing our body, mind, and spirit, can throw us off balance in a more personal way. Is it simply because our culture doesn’t support such a role?

“As an African, I grew up in a society where we very, very much revere our ancestors,” says Busia. “Before I do anything very important in life, I invoke the ancestors, I ask for their blessings. I think the problem for a lot of Americans is that they’re brought up in a society in which young people cannot wait to move out of their parents’ home, and as they become adults there’s this huge power vacuum in their lives. All they have are their friends; there’s no culturally acceptable way of having an influential mentor figure in their lives.”

Busia has experienced out-of-balance relational dynamics firsthand. He vividly recalls an irksome incident from a few years ago when he was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by a ringing telephone. He jumped from bed, concerned that it might be his mother, that something was wrong. Instead, it was a remote acquaintance of a onetime student of his, apparently unaware of the time—or at least unconcerned with it. She was calling to express her concern over an experience she had had that day while doing a kundalini-awakening exercise. She was still feeling the effects from a rush of kundalini energy, she told Busia, and she needed to talk to him about it. And talk she did.

“There I was standing in my chilly hallway, naked,” says Busia. “She went on for an hour and a half, and wouldn’t even stop when I asked if I could go get my pajamas.” Busia now has an unlisted telephone number, but notes, “Students can get a hold of me if they really need to.”

Culture shock actually hit Busia right from the moment he began teaching in the United States. He recalls some turbulent times as he adjusted to the way of the American student. “I discovered early on that the British humor to which I was accustomed is much more ironic, and to American ears has a much harder edge,” he says. “So occasionally I would say things in class that in England would have been uproariously funny, but I could tell from the responses I got that people weren’t sure whether I was being funny or had some sort of deep Freudian problem.” One such misunderstanding resulted in him not being invited back to a yoga center in Southern California. Over time, he has adapted.

It’s a delicate balance for a teacher—maintaining the intimacy of a yoga studio without allowing the atmosphere to fall out of balance. “The students ultimately want you to be who you are, totally honestly,” says Farhi. “As a teacher, if you are absolutely, unapologetically, fully yourself, not hiding behind the persona of spiritual pabulum for the masses, that gives students the courage to be who they are.”

After all, what is yoga all about if not the vital process of stretching yourself to become fully you? And because this exercise of becoming real can be far more challenging for a student than even the most pretzel-shaped yoga posture, the guidance of a teacher is essential. Yet the student’s own active role is no less consequential to the learning process. Our culture does not share the East’s rich history of nurturing relationships between student and teacher that extend beyond the intellectual into emotional and spiritual realms; in the West, that is precisely when problems can occur. So, when that clear-eyed, limber person modeling asanas at the front of the classroom appears to know what’s best, it’s wise to remember that what’s best for the student on the next mat may not be best for you. As a student of the Eastern practice of yoga, you must not shy away from a role that we in the West may find a little more familiar: the smart consumer. In developing a relationship with a teacher, you must summon the courage to identify and advocate for your needs. In the end, learning to trust your own instincts may be the greatest lesson among the many that can be learned in a yoga studio.

Jeff Wagenheim is an editor at The Boston Globe, a writer, and an occasional yogi.