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It’s no secret that the yoga community has seen more than its share of guru downfalls in recent history. Several of the so-called founding fathers of yoga, some of whom brought the teachings from India to the West, have been accused—contemporarily and posthumously—of sexual misconduct. There have been a handful of civil suits and criminal charges. In 2017, Rachel Brathen (aka @Yoga_Girl) had collected 300 #MeToo stories from within the yoga community. The fall of gurus is particularly jarring for many within the yoga space, who considered studios, ashrams, and mindfulness teachers as a safe haven for vulnerability and spirituality.
Here, two yogis, both Yoga Unify Honorary Qualified Professionals, discuss the impact of fallen gurus on yoga students—and more importantly, how we can change the student–teacher relationship to one of safety and trust.
Wah! is an internationally acclaimed musician, author, and teacher, who has personally worked with several teachers who have been “dethroned,” as she says. Acharya Shunya is the first women acharya in her lineage—the formal name for guru in the Veda tradition of Hinduism—and an internationally renowned Vedic teacher. Shunya’s school, despite its longevity, has not seen its pristine reputation tarnished with any allegations of misconduct.
What are your personal experiences with gurus?
Wah: I’ve been involved with a lot of traditions dealing with sexual abuse and power manipulation. I began yoga and meditation in 1975, when I was 17. I started with TM, then joined the Kundalini with Yogi Bhajan group in 1979. I was one of his staff members and bodyguards. I ran a lot of his businesses. I left after I found corruption and criminality within the organization—and with him.
For the next five or six years, I devoted myself to personal study and practice and meditation and yoga. Then, I became Krishna Das’s manager, which led me to John Friend and the Anusara style of yoga. I dove into that completely, only to discover that organization was also corrupt. I left, and traveled around the country with my band, teaching meditation, yoga, and music. Between 2000–05, after the Kripalu organization splintered from a sexual abuse, I helped them as they tried to rebrand. I was attracted to the groups because I wanted to learn yoga. Finding corruption was an unexpected byproduct of yogic study—and I felt both betrayed and angry by it.
In the past few years, I’ve lectured a lot on sexual abuse within the yoga community. As I’ve toured around, I’ve been able to help other groups like Dances of Universal Peace, Buddhist communities, and yogis.
Shunya: I was fortunate to be born in a scholarly family in Northern India. I was trained in the traditional scriptures including the Vedas, specifically the Upanishads. My great grandfather, grandfather, and father are all legendary teachers in India and in our tradition. I come from a rigorous background of guru–Shishya (also known as guru-Paramparā) tradition, or master-disciple tradition. There may be more than one disciple, but the guru is chosen from amongst them. They then become an Acharya. I am the first female Acharya or lineage-head, in my lineage.
As an Acharya, I find that I am being called to shed light from the original sacred texts and dispel the cobwebs and unconsciousness that has crept into the practices around yoga, both in India and the West. I’m very much in the middle of conversations around the master–disciple relationship and its relevance. This includes implementation of new boundaries, and systems of checks-and-balances. I’m also involved in discussions around yoga and sexuality, and how to address the elephant in the room: celibacy as a way of yogic life, and how to prevent abuse between master and disciple. I’m an ambassador of the original scripture- and tradition-based Vedic/Yogic tradition. This tradition provides some very clear dos and don’ts, including ethical guidelines and protection for both master and disciple in all such matters.
Is the student–teacher, one-on-one relationship integral to developing a yoga practice?
Wah: Before the 1950s, it was necessary because people from India were allowed to visit, but they had to return home afterward. When immigration laws changed under President Lyndon B. Johnson [in 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act removed national-origin quotas, which paved the way for non-European arrivals], there were a number of Indian teachers who came over and created organizations in the U.S.
These teachers had the knowledge; there were no yoga books yet written in English. You still had to learn from a person who learned in India, and had the information in their brains, in their body. You waited for them to teach a class, reveal a meditation, or share a morsel of wisdom. You served those teachers, you humbled yourself before those teachers, because they had the information. I remember writing down instructions for Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (alternate-nostril breathing) on a restaurant napkin, as a friend who had recently returned from India shared it with me.
Today, I still think that healthy one-on-one student–teacher relationships are important. A teacher can show you what yoga and spiritual practice do, through the example of their life. Purification, non-grasping, cleaning up the energy, celebrating with devotion are shared non-verbally.
Shunya: I absolutely believe it’s possible for people to learn yoga without a one-on-one relationship. In my lineage, not just anyone can have a one-on-one relationship with an Acharya/guru figure. You have to be a worthy, qualified disciple before you enter into that kind of engagement. A would-be disciple can work toward that worthiness by embracing a nine-step sadhana that every sincere seeker was asked to take before studying the sacred scriptures, such as the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. This process may take up years from joining a lineage as a casual seeker to becoming a disciple with a direct relationship with the teacher.
When you do enter into a one-to-one relationship with a teacher, it isn’t just that the teacher instructs the student. In my lineage, disciples examine the guru (known as gurupariksha) while the guru examines the disciple (known as shishyapariksha). The guru examines how sincerely a seeker has taken the 9-step sadhana (or not), and how their character/mind is changing as they imbibe the fruit of the sadhana at each step. This may include how they react to challenges or temptations.
Once a disciple is made aware of the sadhana, they are invited to inspect the teacher’s mind (and life, which should ideally be an open book) and if they feel the teacher is living what they are teaching or not (“walking the walk or simply talking the talk”). Only after they feel satisfied by this examination (that must last over several years) should they take up the teacher as their Guru. This keeps both teacher and student on their ethical toes.
What happened to the student–teacher relationship as yoga was brought to the West and the modern yoga industry developed?
Shunya: Prior to the late 17th, early 18th century, there was no teacher above the truth. One of the traditions of the Advaita guru-Paramparā [the Lineage of gurus in Non-dualism] was protecting the ethical boundaries of the school/learning process, keeping the students safe, and ensuring that personalities and cults don’t develop.
But over time, as yoga modernized and the Internet developed, there has been a shift away from original texts and their ethical discussions, to personality-based teachings rather than tradition- and text-based teaching. As we lost the dharmic dos and don’ts, the idea of the all-powerful teacher emerged, along with a coterie of inner circle students waiting for drops of wisdom. These students are very sincere souls. They have waited many lifetimes and deserve to get the knowledge—so they can only be empathized with.
Wah: It’s also important to note that traditionally, prior to the 20th century, as Acharya Shunya-Ji said, there was a much deeper commitment to community. The guru was always within a community, and the community was small. In the beginning, it was a village. The guru was like the grandfather who created a safe spot for everybody to be able to grow. They watched over everybody, and would bring those who had spiritual inclination into spiritual training. The community put pressure on the guru to bring forth the best result, and could hold the guru accountable if something went wrong.
Shunya: When we take something from one tradition and replant it without its ethical warnings, we lose something in the process.
The Indian Swamis had Western, or non-Indian seekers, who became the bearers of those lineages. Often, because it was not their native culture, there were gaps in their knowledge, and gaps in their ethical understanding. They went on to teach their own students droplets of knowledge without explaining the whole tradition. That is why we’ve come to a place where the word guru itself has to be dropped.
A true guru is an archetype for humanity. We can’t dispel an archetype, but we can bring context to it. We can bring do’s and don’ts around it. We can restore the dignity of this archetype so that we can all come back then to the invitation of yoga, which is a union with something greater.
Wah, you’ve worked closely with three people who have now been dethroned. How did they inhabit this cult of personality?
Wah: Their popularity gave them a huge platform. Instead of a handful people coming to a class, they had thousands. With that many followers, there’s more energy and more ways for things to go wrong. The Indian guru personalities were ill-prepared to deal with power, fame, and money.
What should the modern student–teacher relationship look like in yoga?
We need to bring back the context in which a teacher can continue to teach and the student can be safe. We have to carefully discern what is worthy of being kept, what is worthy of a red flag, and what is worthy of walking away from without turning back. For example, all certification courses should include teachings on dharma. Yoga begins with yamas and niyamas. A teacher should be able to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Yoga Unify provides a space for the yoga community to come together and make these discernments.
Teachers also must keep the communication open. I have open dialogues by not just being accessible and transparent and open, but also by informing my students when there is an issue of misconduct within the greater yoga community. These conversations don’t just provide a safe space for my students; they also let my students see my human side. They see that this is where my other colleagues have been vulnerable, and then they know what to look for. I also deliberately keep my schools and my student community a non-sexual space, so we can come to the learning with our hearts and with our aspirations with safety.
First and foremost, this means a mandatory 9-step training for all disciples. Keeping a non-sexual space also means providing space for open and ongoing discussions on the yamas and niyamas, as well as sexuality in yoga. For in-person meetings, we have a dress code—I wouldn’t say it’s prudish, but it requires that dress be non-sexually charged. Sexual or romantic relationships are required to be discreet, so that the school remains a place to focus on learning, and I do not meet with students alone in a small room, or, if I must, I leave the door slightly ajar. Further, we require that all students be treated with respect, regardless of gender, or gender identity.
See also: Be Your Own Guru
Yoga Unify is a new nonprofit working to preserve the tradition and steward the forward evolution of yoga worldwide. We are a participatory organization built on the values of accountability, nurturance, and collaboration—an organization of yogis, for yogis in which all members have an opportunity to shepherd change. As such, we are committed to supporting the student of yoga in lifelong study, and the yoga teacher in successfully embodying the path of a teacher. We do this through qualifications based on peer-reviewed competency rather than hours studied, with an emphasis on creating equitable and accessible pathways to learning, establishing ethical standards and reporting mechanisms, and investing in the community we serve. Visit the Yoga Unify website to learn more, and be a part of the evolution of yoga, as it reaches more people than ever before. To join Wah and Shuyna in the Founding Circle and to learn more, please click here.