Eastern traditions and lineages, transposed onto western cultures in the mainstreaming of yoga, have been romanticized and commodified to an extent that there no longer seems to be clear authoritative sources for yogic knowledge and education. The abuses of charismatic teachers have so tainted the field of study that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between beneficial teachings and the manipulations of depraved men. For those who continue to assume the role of teacher, discerning what grounds us in authenticity is how we will define yoga going forward.
What constitutes someone’s yoga is often a precarious mix of learned practice techniques, ideas proffered by teachers or texts, and the self-agency that might result from engaging in a combination of both. Where the learning of techniques and ideas stops, and one’s own intuition and sense of knowing begins, is the grey area that beckons exploration. Because there are no objective metrics for yogic wisdom, the rubric by which we judge must be based in transparency, accountability, and honoring diversity.
If my teacher turns out to be a hypocrite or worse a predator, does that mean everything they taught me is bullshit?
One of my teachers once said to me: “Yoga is the reconciliation of paradox.” This was particularly ironic given how much this teacher seemed to be full of paradoxes. On the one hand, I was learning a treasure trove of information. At the same time, the dynamic between us was abusive. Another teacher of mine who provided me profoundly useful experience, and a more mutual and nurturing relationship, was later revealed to exhibit predatory behavior with women. Attempting to separate valuable offerings from flawed messengers is confusing. How do I honor the good things I have learned when the person who taught them to me is not someone I can support?
When teachers are part of larger institutions or communities with stratified power structures, students have an even harder map to navigate. The mystique of integrity, sometimes rooted in fallacious origin stories, quickly crumbles when the lofted guru turns out to be just another man who can’t keep his dick in his pants. If the teacher or lineage is the source of the wisdom then there is no way to separate valuable teaching from the untrustworthy person. When someone’s yoga is based on an external authority that is shown to be a farce, all that is left is ruins.
Is it possible to separate a teacher from “the teachings?” If so, what does that mean?
The expression: “separate the teacher from the teachings,” can either refer to some idea of an unbroken chain of knowledge passed through history from guru to disciple, or simply the techniques and ideas that are exchanged between two people. The former is rooted in stratified power structures where “the teachings” exist in a vacuum that some have access to more than others. In this instance, there really is no separating a teacher from what they are teaching because the teacher is considered a personification of the wisdom and without them, there is nothing to be learned. In the latter, wisdom is not bestowed by an external authority but rather discovered through the observed experience of the individual and, therefore, is not contingent on anyone else.
Most importantly, “separating the teacher from the teachings” cannot be used as an excuse to whitewash history or absolve institutions and abusers. Discerning what we are doing and why as teachers, requires an accurate account of where things are coming from and a truthful reckoning with the dark shadows of our teachers. To refer to “the teachings” as though they are pure and not obscured through centuries of stichomancy is not credible. Distinguishing what we teach from those who taught it to us must not be an injustice to victims. It is the responsibility of all yoga teachers to be diligent in holding ourselves to higher standards of conduct so we stop perpetuating patterns of harm.
What is happening in your yoga classes is defining yoga.
Just as the words and actions of those teachers who brought yoga to the west have shaped the modern manifestations of yoga in both favorable and unfavorable ways, so the daily efforts of today’s teachers are setting the precedence for tomorrow’s generations. In this, there is hope and promise to be found. For all the pain and disillusionment that we are having to embrace, there is also a new honesty and freedom. No more will we minimize an inappropriate gesture or a grandiose claim from our teachers. We know better now. We must have the fortitude to be transparent and ensure that we embody our beliefs.
It is not naive to believe in the transformational power of yoga. Too many of us have experienced it first-hand and know deep in ourselves that there is something real to this enigmatic inquiry. Many of us have witnessed the same unexplainable something that occurred in us happen in others that have come to practice. The more yoga teaching is an honest expression of not just the teacher and the things they teach, but of each person’s own observed experiences, the less subject to obfuscation we become. Authenticity, like yoga, cannot be measured or certified. We only recognize it once it’s felt.