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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19 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.

  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
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  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.

  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.

  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.

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