When Yogis Go Bad.

Via on Sep 7, 2010

Pitfalls of the Practice.

Sometimes I wish I could just be a student of yoga, wide eyed and blissful, still unfamiliar with the greater philosophy and instead simply enjoying the subtle joy of asana.

Yoga for me, during those early years, was mysterious and magical. I had little knowledge of the history of yoga, much less the business aspect of it. I didn’t know big-name teachers or spend hundreds of dollars on conferences. I just practiced with sweet surrender and went home a little happier for it.

Over my time as a teacher there have been many changes and challenges. As I’ve come into contact with many different kinds of teachers and students alike, I’ve begun to notice some troubling behavior.

It all started when I attended a conference a few years ago. I sat in on a workshop with a teacher I had never met, and with great anticipation. But over the course of 120 minutes I was berated, belittled and criticized for my apparent lack of asana skill. I walked out of that class wondering why on earth I had ever practiced in the first place. I felt small and inadequate and (I quote directly from that teacher) “Not good enough.”

After licking my wounds for a bit, I realized that perfection in asana (poses) is not why I became a teacher. I became a teacher because, somehow, this practice of learning to touch my toes made me a better person. It made me more honest with myself and others and more conscious of how I lived in this world.  I became more responsible for my own actions, particularly toward others. And innocently, I assumed that all yogis, particularly yoga teachers, had this same outlook.

Recently I’ve had many experiences that have put a bad taste for yogis in my mouth. It may have started when students of mine reported taking classes with some big-name yoga teacher who yelled at them or kicked them out of class. It may have been when a yoga teacher called a friend of mine a “bitch.”  It might even have been the way that so many yoga teachers seem closed and aloof to their peers and students, as though competitive and jostling for space on this yoga scene. But my recent experience with one person in particular sealed it for certain.

I’ll spare you the overall drama and details of what happened, because gossiping about it won’t change it. But what I will say is that not everyone is going to like you. I learned this in third grade. Don’t take it personally, but instead act in a way that you are comfortable with, and accountable for,  your own actions. In my particular situation, no matter what I did, this person was not assuaged. The more I reached out, the more I was attacked. And so, with apologies and well-wishing, I walked away. I thought it was over. But like a bad stomach flu, it had one more round to go, as I recently found out from a friend that this same person was recently bad-mouthing me in a very public manner, and to someone I hold in high esteem.

It seems to me that the people who are talking the loudest about how enlightened they are, those are the ones you should run from. They haven’t transcended the ego but instead are enamored with it.

The practice of yoga is all about transcending the ego, that sense of “I” that creates suffering, possessiveness, divisiveness and attachment.  If you’ve ever delved into the greater philosophy of yoga, such as the yoga sutras, you will find that there is nary a mention of things like perfection in triangle pose.  Instead Patanjali in his yoga sutras outlines the means and methods of detaching from the ego and cultivating peace within.

In fact, Patanjali anticipates the problem of the ego on the yoga path in sutras IV.27-IV.28: (as quoted from “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by B.K.S. Iyengar)

“Notwithstanding this progress, if one is careless during the interval, a fissure arises due to the past hidden impressions, creating division between the consciousness and the seer.  In the same way as the seeker strives to be free from afflictions, the yogi must handle these latent impressions judiciously to extinguish them. The yogi who has no interest even in the highest state of evolution, and maintains supreme attentive, discriminative awareness, attains the fruit of the practice of yoga: he contemplates the fragrance of virtue and justice.”

In short, what Patanjali says is that though we may travel farther down the path of yoga, the threat of the ego is always there. As soon as we exalt ourselves as better than someone else, or more enlightened, we immediately refer ourselves back to the ego, back to separateness.

There will always be people who seem to say one thing and do another. There will always be people who act duplicitously. But what makes this more disconcerting is that in the yoga community, at least, we should know better.  Nonetheless, I am not the only yogi who continues to be disappointed by the bad behavior of some of our peers.

What use is it to be a vegetarian (because you believe in non-violence) if you spend your time raking others over the proverbial coals?   And not to mention that in my own community there is a well-known male yoga teacher has been, multiple times, accused of sexual harassment toward his students, and yet he just came out with a new book and new studio to match. It’s almost as if the more successful these people get, the more they feel they can treat others as subservient.  I wouldn’t pay for someone to yell at or be demeaning to me, why would you?

So what do you do?

The Buddha said, “Our enemies are our greatest teachers.”

When we are challenged by others, remember that your “enemies” are your greatest teachers: they teach you how to engage in right action, how to practice honesty, compassion and non-attachment. Not everyone is going to like you, but you must be comfortable and accountable for your own actions at all times.

I choose to believe that everyone out there is just like me: struggling in this world, in this life, with suffering and history and challenges. And at any given time, my “enemy” might truly be a spectacularly wonderful person. Maybe I’m just seeing the worst side of this person at that moment.  There are people who have definitely seen the worst side of me! The key is to let it go, to avoid seeking retribution and to see what you can learn from the situation.

I choose to teach my students in a way that uplifts them, rather than berates them. I choose to do my very best at being as honest and compassionate and kind as I can. Even when I feel like there’s a knife in my back. I’m not perfect, I struggle everyday in a million big and little ways. But I’m trying to be a better person. For me, that is what yoga is really about.

As for all the other yogis out there, bad or good, well, I know they are trying to do the same, even though it doesn’t always seem like it.

As Donna Farhi says: “The world doesn’t really need more people who can bend their bodies into amazing positions. What it needs are kinder, more compassionate, generous people.”

With thanks to Chris Courtney for his input and edits.

About Candice Garrett

Candice Garrett is a yoga teacher, writer, foodie and mother of three from Monterey, California. She is author of "Prenatal Yoga: Finding Movement in Fullness," assistant to Female Pelvic Floor Goddess Leslie Howard and director of the Nine Moons Prenatal Yoga teacher training program. Candice teaches yoga, prenatal yoga and pelvic health with workshops nationally. You can find her teaching schedule at Candice Garrett Yoga or her love of food at The Yogic Kitchen

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42 Responses to “When Yogis Go Bad.”

  1. candicegarrett says:

    via Dylan Hawley on facebook: perfectly said… and as a student contemplating the path of becoming a teacher, it's really nice to know there is imperfection "out there", it somehow gives my imperfection acceptance and let's it be okay to exist…
    why would you pay for …someone to yell at you, or demean you or make you feel "less than"???? darn good question

  2. Yogini# says:

    Not for all the charm, charisma or kirtan in the world … I think their attitude (while probably plenty real, anyway: arrogance is arrogance) is to put the aspirant in a state of self-mortification (the “forever displeased parent” role)…

    This is why I am so happy I have my own home practice. This is why I don’t give a whole lot of business even to the stereotypically “nice” yoga teachers …

    This is why, no matter how vigorous my home practice becomes, I tend toward the mellow yoga classes and take no $#!t from yoga instructors …

    This is why, also, I think Tara Stiles is barking up the wrong tree, because mean yoga teachers (Attack of the Killer Yogis – style) have more reason to turn yoga into boot camp and not practice compassion, mindfulness or ahimsa.

    You state clearly everything I have been thinking and commenting on two years’ worth of blogs all over the internet about!

  3. YogiOne says:

    Yogis expect Yogis to act better than others (We should know better). Christians expect Christians to act better than other people too. Same for Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, Hindus, etc. Perhaps these expectations are not realistic. Perhaps the identification with Yoga (or any of the other groups) rather than with our personal practice is part of the problem.

  4. catlyn777 says:

    Petty tyrants have lots to teach us about ourselves.

  5. Kathryn Budig kathrynbudig says:

    hang in there, you're not alone. keep authentic and the poison will start to disappear.
    xo

  6. Charlotte says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I have often felt the way you do—wishing I could be wide-eyed and always blissful about yoga. After 28 years of digging deep through asana, insight meditation and sutra study, I understand that if you dedicate yourself to deep practice, it's not going to be all roses. And there's not a point at which we "get there" and can suspend our practice. Practice is not always pleasant, but it is infinitely worthwhile. Discovering and going through the process of uprooting our deeply held patterns and beliefs is arduous and humbling. But if we do not know ourselves, we will project our patterns and beliefs onto our students. This, to me, is such an essential part of being a teacher. The abusive teachers you speak of are projecting their unexamined unhealthy patterns onto their students. Knowledge of poses is not enough to make one a yoga teacher. You also have to understand and learn how to navigate your stuff so that you can remain honest, open and compassionate to the students that entrust you with their practice.

    I so agree with this: "…the people who are talking the loudest about how enlightened they are, those are the ones you should run from. They haven’t transcended the ego but instead are enamored with it." And I also like your quote from Donna Farhi—a teacher and longtime friend who I know has done her share of introspection and inner work. Being able to position your body into impressive poses has nothing to do with being a yogi on the path. As Donna says, compassion, generosity and kindness are infinitely more needed in this world.

    • candicegarrett says:

      Hi Charlotte, I too have found that sometimes yoga asks things of me that are just plain hard and scary. But the moments of beauty and the wonderful people far outweigh my bad experiences to date. Thanks so much for sharing.

      • Charlotte says:

        Absolutely. The moments of clarity and insight are worth the hard work! And as time goes on, I think we can take the hard stuff less personally, which makes it not as hard.

  7. Brooks Hall Brooks_Hall says:

    Hi Candice! I have been in a very similar sounding situation with another teacher. It sounds like you are doing your best to handle it well. I have never been attacked so much professionally as I have as a yoga teacher. I always thought (before I became a teacher) that things would be friendly and supportive between teachers, but experience has sure proven otherwise on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, I do my best to embody what I know without letting these things get me down. Yoga is still worth it.

    • candicegarrett says:

      Hi Brooks! Unfortunately I can say the same about my experience as a yoga teacher. I'm working thru it, slowly. Yoga IS worth it!

  8. Balaji Ramamurthy says:

    Very few walk the talk. If they insult a student in class that he is just student not worth to be teacher of Yoga

  9. candicegarrett says:

    Thank you Padma, I have met many more lovely medicine makers than those who use their yoga as a weapon against others. I try to align myself with those people as much as possible, but every now and then someone turns out to be not what I expected. Namaste.

  10. Amanda says:

    Too bad that this is so true especially with senior teachers. I know I don’t support this kind of behavior by supporting them with my money. Just wonder why other yogis put up abuse in the yoga scene. But the abuse is not unknown in religions.

  11. candicegarrett says:

    Laura you're one of my favorite people of all time. Love to you shining yogi!

  12. Laura Brown says:

    great call- out! something that so many of us have experience around. thanks for helping us all wrap our minds around this one a bit more. blessings!

  13. Great and timely post Candice! Thanks for calling out the elephant in the yoga world's very large room.

    I just hope that those who have lost their way will be able to read this and realize that it applies to them too. It applies to us all!

    Peace,

    Chris

  14. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for leaving such an honest comment. As Candice says, we all have our "hang-ups," and it's so important for us to know what they are and own them. When we can see how they operate in our lives, we are less likely to subject others to them. When I first started teaching in 1986 I felt I needed to project an image that looked like a yoga teacher. My particular image was never one of the abusive tyrant, but I felt I needed to project a facade of gentle perfection. Of course, I didn't see it as a facade at the time, but that is what it was. After going through a yearlong, meditation-induced "dark night," I dropped all artifice and have realized the importance of being authentic and human. I'm well aware that I'm just as fallible as the next person, and I don't think it helps my students for them to see me as superhuman. AMO: It is so great that you know your Achilles heel and have learned how to work with it. IMO, that is the core of the practice.

  15. anna fidz says:

    This is awesome: As Donna Farhi says: “The world doesn’t really need more people who can bend their bodies into amazing positions. What it needs are kinder, more compassionate, generous people.”

    Thanks for the wonderful post! I can empathize with most of what you said!

  16. Laura says:

    could you translate this please?

  17. Scott says:

    I love this…I have had a very challenging summer, I am a yoga teacher and have encountered some hurtful things, slanderous e mails, yoga teachers feeling threatened by me….I cuss eat meat and don't apologize for my actions..I am on a road of self discovery along with everyone else…..

  18. candicegarrett says:

    Ha! Scott! Thanks for your candor! I hope you can find your way thru the poison as well. The beautiful people far outweigh the challenging ones.

  19. Sramani says:

    It is an unfortunate fact that (and I am speaking in general terms) any religion, philosophy, or belief system by nature attracts those who will use the teachings to feed their own egos. I have seen this firsthand in churches, yoga communities, vegetarianism/veganism, buddhism, shamanism, and many other "isms." The religion/belief/philosophy in and of itself is not the problem, it is the ego of the individuals using it for their self-aggrandisement. The teachings are used by them to elevate themselves while they belittle and bash others.

    It says, "I am better/more spiritual/more enlightened/higher than you because _____________ (I go to church/do yoga/pray/avoid eating animals/meditate more than you – etc. etc. you fill in the blank)

    I have a simple name for this: mental masturbation. Expect to run into this wherever you go, and recognize it for what it is.

    I'm sorry you had these experiences. I know how you feel, I have also been on the receiving end of it and it can be a really shitty experience. Personally, I refuse to tolerate this behavior, I have learned to be very BLUNT with any individual who does this, call them out on it on the spot (even if it is public – because I believe it would benefit and empower others to see it as well), walk away and brush it off as best I can. Then keep on keepin' on. Not to say that I would be abusive in return, but to be very directly honestly speaking MY truth, in spite of them not liking it or getting offended. This is very important because our society has taught us to be very "politically correct" and play nice, to the point of suppressing and lying about what our experience truly is. It is the practice of Satya, a practice which is truly powerful.

    There is a version of the Ramayana in which the goddess Sita, having been captured by Ravana, sees Hanuman with his tail on fire. She simply speaks "the fire be put out" and the fire instantly shuts off. The power of speaking our truth should not be underestimated – and in situations like this, it is not only appropriate, but necessary.

  20. Emma Magenta Emma Magenta says:

    I totally agree with you that yoga practitioners and yoga communities have the same problems as other humans and human communities.

    Over my years in the yoga world, I’ve had my feelings deeply hurt, and I’ve probably hurt others. To some extent, I’ve made peace with the fact that humans (including yogis, including ME) sometimes behave badly.

    So now I can turn my attention to the REALLY pertinent questions: Who do *I* want to be? What’s MY idea of integrity? Did I act with the highest integrity in that situation? If not, what can I do better next time? If I see someone behaving in a hurtful way, what is the best, most honorable response I can muster?

    Contemplating these questions is way more empowering that contemplating how so-and-so was a jerk. It’s more challenging too, and sometimes I am not so successful. That’s yoga–good times!

  21. Katy says:

    What sad and shocking stories about nasty yoga teachers! I am so sorry you had to experience what you did.

    No, gossiping about who the teachers are won’t help what has already happened, but it might spare someone else a horrible experience and some hard earned cash. Classes and workshops ain’t cheap! I would be ripshit if I dropped a grand to be belittled by someone I thought was going to help me learn and thrive better.

    I love my home yoga practice, btw!

  22. Swami bruce says:

    Good article. Americans idealize there heroes/celebrities. Ms Farhi says it best: more generous and kind people.

  23. Ahu says:

    I guess it is not about being a "better person"… I am learning this the hard way like you… it seems like it is becoming more comfortable with who one is, so when faced with egoistic, mean etc… people, one is comfortable enough to still stay comfortable in their own skin and be able to respond from a place which is honest and tranquil…
    I myself has been going through some difficult patch and on the way, I realized that my expectations from yoga teachers/practioners were also becoming an obstancle for me to experience yoga… of course, no one has to endure humiliation… I guess also one of the draw backs of the society is the expectation that you have to be proper but sometimes you have to get out and say what is not alright, and if that does not work for some people, try to stay strong on your won side and you will see people will appear next to you… it is not about being a better person but letting go of the junk so who you are can shine out!

  24. This is beautiful, Candice. It reminds me of a great Tweet I just read today from "It's All Yoga, Baby":

    "You can be a delicious, ripe peach and there will still be people in the world that hate peaches."- Dita Von Teese

    Bob Weisenberg

  25. Michele says:

    Hey Candice -

    There will always be those you disagree with and always be those who treat you badly, and in your well written article I missed the point of your self introspection.

    Sometimes we miss the subtle and sometimes not so subtle cues that we may have in someway elicited the reaction or taken it out of context. Or even we may bring out the worst in someone.

    Instead of cursing them for being a bad yogi (which is easy and we all do) as you said find what you can learn from the experience. I am sure the Indian greats had their moments when they too were rude, or off kilter and said the wrong thing or elicited a response of “he is a jerk”.

    Since we are people doing Yoga this is going to happen. But if you keep finding yourself in these positions (and we all have) I encourage you to look in the mirror and be true to your reflection (never easy or fun).

  26. Dylan Barmmer Dylan says:

    This is awesome. Thanks for calling this out. And don't lose heart.

    Here's to Pure Practice and Heart and Love and Breath and Poetry.

    Namaste.

    -The Mad Yogi Poet

  27. Alan Haffa says:

    ou make a lot of good points Candice. It would be interesting to know if the culture within the yoga world that you describe is true in other countries, or if it is more descriptive of the United States. I wouldn't be surprised if it is worse here because the force of capitalism tends to breed egoism, and it can invade any realm, including spirituality.

  28. [...] The least? How about honesty, integrity, kindness, compassion and discipline? How about cultivating our behavior towards others and how we speak to them, how we use their [...]

  29. [...] Enter brand-name yoga clothing. Enter big-name yoga teachers (and more so, the tendency to attach them to your own bio). Enter confusion. Enter Facebook. Enter blow up in your face relationships with other yogis. [...]

  30. barefootyoga01 says:

    Thanks for the response, I appreciate not getting the blow by blow, and you are right sometimes you can meditate until the cows come home and still not get an answer. I hope things do turn around and you find a really great Senior Yogi – stay away from the creepy guy though. I always liked the quote when the student is ready a teacher will come…

  31. candicegarrett says:

    oh yes! I have two amazing teachers that I am grateful for everyday (this person was a colleague) I have always loved that quote too!

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