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

Via on Jan 6, 2012

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

pants

maybe you have found a real

one.

~Kabir

About Julie JC Peters

Julie (JC) Peters has been practicing yoga on and off from the tender age of 12, and it has gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in Canadian Poetry. She is a yoga teacher, spoken word poet, and writer, and teaches workshops on yoga and writing called Creative Flow. Julie also owns East Side Yoga in Vancouver with her mom, Jane.

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34 Responses to “Guruji, Get your hand off my vagina: The modern yoga teacher-student relationship.”

  1. guest says:

    I never trust the most loved people either.Thanks Julie! Your article doesn't just apply to yoga but to life in general.
    As for the poem: I expect my "Teacher" to wet her pants if she hangs over a cliff, how creepy would be a teacher who is not afraid in such a situation? She (or he) may still be a real teacher!

  2. Linda Buzogany linda buzogany says:

    How refreshing was this! Thanks JC. I really liked how you laid out the teacher issue, something I've been grappling with for awhile…popularity vs. the real deal. It is up to each. Love the Kabir poem! Thanks for this!
    ~LInda

  3. Carol Horton Carol Horton says:

    Hope you enjoy the conference. Shiva Rea and Ana Forrest are definitely among my top favorite famous yoga teachers (along with Sarah Powers and Seane Corn) – good choices IMHO!

  4. GinaRClark says:

    The picture you included is appalling! I hope the guy in that photo is no longer allowed to touch any students.

    • __MikeG__ says:

      No one should not take any photo on face value in the age of computers and PhotoShop.

    • Olivia says:

      It really is – it looks like a photo of two sexual assaults and I am very shocked to see it.

    • Yogaguerillagrrl says:

      It's not appalling unless you think it to be. It was just how he checked for mula bandha before he was told that culturally it wasn't the right thing to do for westerners. PJ had no sleazy bone in his body. So therefore it wasn't inappropriate, especially when you knew it may happen.
      I find this photo a problem though, it's got little to do with the subject. Click bait!!!!
      Just saying.

    • quest says:

      It's not appalling if you've practiced the yoga style. There is no sexual intent – he is either checking for mulabandha or just assisting them in the pose.

  5. Good one :-) I also have a built in bullshit detector, comes with the Aussie birth…and yeah that photo is unbelievable.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Wow – interesting article and interesting photos! :-) Looking forward to reading about your experiences at the conference! :-)

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  7. Jason Gan says:

    Well, maybe when your mind is liberated, sex is no longer part of the mindset, as, for example, refusing to acknowledge the farting in a room crowded with a hundred people in poses which may project flying vomit onto an unsuspecting target. It requires a certain amount of submission to have society's repressive ideals beat out through hissing, spitting and taming, until the yogi realizes the repressed, greedy Self who always wants more and more asana.

    Stop. Think. Fart. Vomit. Everything will make more sense afterwards…

  8. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    I agree, with more self-styled gurus out there hyping their special brands of yoga, hacking someone's self esteem to shreds or taking sexual advantage of the students who idolize them, it's absolutely imperative to keep your bullshit detector handy at all times.

    Yet there may come a teacher and a time when the student will be forced to see that some of the bullshit they are seeing in that teacher is merely a projection of their own brand of bullshit, some wornout, useless boundary that's ripe for tearing down. Then some genuinely astounding spiritual growth starts happening and the world becomes a very different place.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Reading this article, I sense an odd bias in how you see these two teachers. The words you chooses to describe Ana are all fear based and negative (witch doctor, terrified, die, break, ugly, serious), whereas while describing Shiva, you lift her up with very positive words (words like gorgeous, flowy, captivating, creative sequencing). Even the choice of photos you use to show these two women are incredibly polarizing.

    I completed my full teacher training with Ana Forrest, and any of us who have studied under Ana realize the woman has equally captivating, gorgeous, creative, amazing movement and sequencing herself. I don’t quite understand the pretty clear bias here and I sense an odd fear of Ana. Just a curious observation.

  10. […] belly leads to thinking about the bellies of yoga guru’s which leads to an internet search using the terms yoga guru. What follows is a few favorite […]

  11. Pishi says:

    There is something to be said for a bit of humility when approaching a qualified teacher such as BKS Iyengar.

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

  13. Ragaman Das says:

    A picture is worth 1,000 spins. Ms. Peters, you are a highly infantile mind. Get out and experience a little more of the world before passing judgement based on your puritanical perspectives. There is no excuse for your limited experience and undisciplined mind. There is no malice here. Whatever reservations you may harbor about your past, present and future experience with yoga…get rid of them and open your mind.

    • Janglemuffin says:

      Great, and swami's need to stop being inappropriate with their students. You do not need to be have this way to convey the principals of yoga. I've been practicing regularly for 10 years and I find this abusive style of teaching to be repulsive and unnecessary. It has been going on for a long time and it i high time to bring attention to it. We could really use a leader with some scruples. Anyone know of a traditional Guru who is free from such accusations? I thought, surely the gentle Satchidananda… nope, there's dirt on him too. =(

  14. I'm amazed that more people haven't commented on, if not the contents of this article, at least the picture. WTF? What do all those right-on Ashtangis – women and men – who publicly proclaim P. Jois as their guru have to say? Explain yourselves, I say.

    • quest says:

      If you practice the style then you realize there is no sexual intent – some of the adjustments are a bit vigorous but there is no difference in how they are done to men or women. That may be done in such a way to a women, only because the same will be done with a man. No matter who the teacher is presented with, they will bask them with care and attention, sweating, ugly, or drop dead gorgeous. You can tell they are seeing beyond that.

      Now I don't personally know P. Jois but as a practitioner of Ashtanga I have seen this style in many westerner teachers too.

  15. Molly says:

    I commend you for your honesty. I cannot believe that people do not recognise that very well known Yogi pictured. He was also notorious for doing this. Western women are not held highly in India, and this sort of behaviour is common. Nonetheless, I love Yoga (not just asana) because it is authentic. Thank you for you obvious practise of equanimity. If only more people would understand how that it is not the practise of passivity. Namaste.

  16. Barbara Ginsberg says:

    The photo is real of Jois and yes I agree inappropriate. But I also wish that bloggers would cease using shocking photos and headline to grab our attention. The article was not really about touching students. It was more about subservient response of students to gurus, yogi celebs and teachers and finding the teacher within. Not about inappropriate assists. I enjoyed the article on its own without the photo!

  17. Janglemuffin says:

    Most thoughtful and well written article on elephant to date. Good job!

  18. mys says:

    The correct word is Vulva. If it were Vagina, his hands would be inside you.

  19. Shilpa says:

    Shiva Rea is my favorite too. :)

    The Indian tradition says, “Guru is God”; but to find a true teacher in the current times is a challenge. There is no doubt that a guru can only impart knowledge, but wisdom is something that is within.

    I just watched an interview by Bikram Choudary yesterday and I’m flabbergasted at how shallow so called Yogis can be. Find your own path. The intuition aka the bullshitdetector is the best teacher. :)

    Love.

  20. Anna CC says:

    I think this is a thoughtful and interesting article, but – in my opinion – there's a bit of cultural dissonance going on. The guru tradition is an Eastern one and is often misunderstood by us Westerners. Humility and surrender is a requisite for spiritual development and thus the student must 'surrender' to the guru. This DOESN'T mean surrendering your common sense or your judgement: most emphatically and absolutely not. What it does mean is putting aside your ego, submitting to being a learner, a beginner on a permanent basis. If you don't and you don't have a guru, then the results are predictable – John Friend happens, Bikram Choudry happens, etc. Part of the discipline of the surrender is accepting that your guru is just a person not a God and will probably sometimes make mistakes, be cranky, etc (just like you, the learner in fact), but on principle, you owe them your respect and your commitment because that's part of the process. This doesn't mean that you ever abdicate responsibility for yourself or what is happening. And actually, a lot of us unconsciously want to do this because it's a great relief if you think you've found someone who knows all the answers. But that's just opting out and I absolutely and completely agree with the author of this article, it's your duty to yourself to stay switched on. Your inner wisdom won't let you down and will let you know if your guru stops behaving with integrity. BKS Iyengar wasn't a perfect being, but he had tremendous integrity – and he required total surrender – but not to him in person, but to the discipline. If Ana Forrest didn't get this, well she didn't get it. A lot of us Westerners don't because humility and surrender aren't exactly fashionable Western virtues. We don't really understand the guru sadakha tradition because it's outside our cultural context. My feeling is that we need to find ways to be true to it and I think that there are lots of really great teachers out there who are.

    • John Kortmulder says:

      Thanks Anna CC, for clarity and balance, not caught up in correctness which entails a lot of ego. As teacher, I have my own human contradictions but respect for the importance and purpose of this discipline is always most important, and is always the sincere reason that the yoga aspirant finds the teacher. Teachers, don't mistake your students' eagerness as a reflection of yourself, it's only their desire for knowledge, which if you are a good teacher your students will acknowledge. Find your personal needs elsewhere.

  21. Alessandro says:

    The Guru in the picture is not IYENGER (called also Guruji, he had long hair)!! Not sure 100% but from the pic or could be Patthabis Jois

  22. Liz o'Brien says:

    While I agree that the need for common sense and to not hand over personal responsibility/accountability to anyone else (as this article says) is so important, these things need not be lost through following a Guru. The whole concept of Guru is so misunderstood in the West – a true Guru is a beautiful teacher who should assist the student in reaching the most remote depths of their being, while the “surrender” of the student is an act of utter humility, a method to step back from the ego and the arrogance that we might know it all already. A long-term teacher can bring us deeper and deeper inside ourselves; one who has “been there” before can help us to find our way through the mire of human emotions, traumas and the sticky mind… Which is after all the true purpose of yoga.

  23. yaaya says:

    As an Ashtanga lover who has never met Patthabis Jois (pictured above with his hand touching those ladies…) but have an understanding of the style of Ashtanga… I will say that picture looks like its taken waaaaay out of context.

    First of all, beginners would never ever get adjustments like this – the adjustments in Ashtanga can be quite strong – but at the beginning you are never doing such complex poses which expose your vagina like that. You see over time, that the teacher, and from everything I have heard about Patthabis Jois…. has no sexual intent but is entirely focused on your breathing and technique.

    Ashtanga becomes a blissful union with the body and you know from feeling how aware the teacher is of this. There is no sexual intent whatsoever… the teacher will rub up against a sweaty fat man to make an adjustment just as much as with a gorgeous lady. The teacher sees beyond the body and you can feel it. And you even can request no adjustments if you want. Believe me, when you are doing the whole sequence, it is such a delight and getting further contorted is a delight too.

    Also I'm not quite sure what he is doing but he may be checking for mula bandha which an advanced technique.

  24. Victoria says:

    Ragaman Das come on!!! Its not about puritan! Pattabhi jois it’s clear more than adjusting. There are ways to be touch… I personaly see the picture and found it offensive and disgusting. Let’s call the things by their name. And every Ashtangui knows that picture is real.

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