Guru Yoga 101: How to Not Get Screwed by Your Teacher. ~ Emily Hicks

Via on Feb 16, 2012

John Friend screwed up.

Big time. We seem to have on our hands the failure of yet another Guru figure, and somehow we’re all surprised. But before all the Anusaris jump ship due to John Friend’s sexcapades, let’s consider something for a moment…

The Guru is a mirror.

Their job is to reflect back to us exactly what we need at any given moment in order to further evolve ourselves. They are largely reflectors of the light, but also of the dark.

Humour me for a moment, and let’s review how mirrors work. If you look in the mirror and see something you don’t like, do you blame the mirror? No. A mirror reflects what you put in front of it. As much as you may wish that the zit on your chin is coming from the mirror, it’s not; it’s coming from you.

Just so, the Guru, (and how you see the Guru) is coming from you. So when the Guru “fails you” by doing something you see as wrong, where is it coming from?  You guessed it. You. (Or in my case, me).

So what exactly is John Friend reflecting back to us?  What is he teaching us?

I can only speak for myself, but maybe I need to look at the ways I might be taking advantage of my students for my own gain. Perhaps I need to look at how I’m using my sexuality. Maybe it’s a warning to look at my shadows before they get out of hand and to not let my ego run the show. Hey, maybe there’s a reason the yamas and the niyamas, our ethical restraints and observances, are meant to be practiced before asana. (Do ya think???)

Am I justifying John Friend’s behavior? No. Does that mean what he did was somehow ok? Hell no. It’s fucked up. Does that mean Anusara teachers and students shouldn’t leave? No, not necessarily.

But to completely disassociate ourselves from him and what he did is to deny his shunyata, his lack of any self-existent quality from his own side. He (and everything else in our world) is just a blank screen. We see what we see because of our own past actions and habits. To deny that, to say that it is his ethical failing and it has nothing to do with me, is to leave him out of ignorance, not wisdom.

It is my ethical failing, otherwise how could I see it in someone else? If you also see it as an ethical failing, it is your ethical failing. So if you leave, leave out of wisdom. Maybe leaving is the right thing for you, maybe not.

The thing is, whether you stay or go is not really the point. The important thing is to understand why you see this happening in the first place, and how to change your own behavior to get rid of it. If you don’t like what you see another person doing, Guru or otherwise, don’t do it yourself—even in the privacy of your own mind. To deny that this has anything to do with us will push it into shadow, and all that will result in is seeing the same thing happen again, perhaps even in ourselves.

For those of you saying to yourselves right now, “It’s the Guru model in general that’s the problem; be your own Guru!” I’d offer this: the fact that John Friend seemingly does not have a current functioning relationship with a Guru, someone to keep him accountable for his actions, may very well be the problem.

My teacher (I lean toward the Tibetan side, so I call her “Lama”) is fond of saying, “We need a Guru so the ego has something to bend its knee to.” And isn’t that the truth? In this day and age where yoga teachers are the new priests and celebrities, it’s a dangerous path to tread. Without someone to show us where we’ve taken a wrong turn, where it’s become about us instead of our students, we all run the risk of doing what John Friend appears to have done.

At this time in particular, a relationship with a Guru/Teacher/Mentor/Lama/Guide is increasingly important. But we don’t enter into it blindly. We head into this relationship with our eyes wide open. We understand that while our Guru may appear to emanating goodness and wisdom and purity from their own side, that can’t be the case. They are simply mirroring our own light back to us, showing us our own Divine potential. Just so, they will mirror back our own humanness and darkness when we need to see it.

Without this knowledge, they will fail us. With it, we can actually learn from them.

So whether or not you consider John Friend your Guru, hopefully there’s a teaching here for all of us.

Photo credit: Mirror

What is the mirror reflecting back to you?

Emily Hicks is a yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon. She is happy to have functioning relationships with her sometimes controversial Gurus, who are always forcing her to change and grow. Without them to reflect the light and the dark, she doesn’t know where she’d be. You can learn more about Emily at her website.

 

This article was prepared by Elephant Yoga Editor, Tanya Lee Markul.

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29 Responses to “Guru Yoga 101: How to Not Get Screwed by Your Teacher. ~ Emily Hicks”

  1. [...] Guru Yoga 101: How to Not Get Screwed by Your Teacher. ~ Emily Hicks (elephantjournal.com) Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Tags: DNA, Facebook, Ghost Rider, Narcissism, Nucleic acid, Twitter, United States, YouTube Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment Trackback [...]

  2. Scott says:

    Thanks Emily for writing this article! This is what I have been wanting to write but kept finding excuses not to! You and I have the same teachers and we have learned how to "really" see where things are coming from based on the teachings our teachers have passed on to us! I hope this article will clarify any confusion within and without the Anusara community!
    Much Love,
    Scott

  3. Fay Abrams says:

    Thank you Emily. You express my sentiments exactly. When I was a kid, if someone called me a name, I would say, "Takes one to know one." I am sad for the Anusara community and pray that we all use what has happened to reflect and support one another rather than vilify.
    Fay (friend of your mom, Albuquerque)

  4. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    I really appreciate this perspective, Emily!

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

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

  5. jessteacher says:

    The last lesson of the guru/teacher/master is that you don't need the guru/teacher/master. It always ends in some way. For me, it always hurts. But the last teaching is always what we need.

  6. SFT says:

    "…the fact that John Friend seemingly does not have a current functioning relationship with a Guru, someone to keep him accountable for his actions, may very well be the problem." This has been my sentiment as well.

    • dagib says:

      A true Guru does not tell you what to do or what not to do , or in any way keep you accountable for your actions. That's what false Gurus do. Not to get into a whole long explanation ; a true Guru leads you to your essence, your Self, your Guru within A true Guru leads you to that culturally uncomfortable and even alien idea that you are responsible for your life.. For the West to make spiritual progress it needs to re examine the authoritative punishing judeo- christian concept of God.
      For further research the Kularnava Tantra and the Kamaksha Tantra both have references to true and false Gurus.There is also a chapter on each in the book," The Perfect Relationship", by Swami Muktananda.

      • Hmmm, I'm not so sure I'd take too much advice from Sw. Muktananda on "relationship!" I find it telling that John (who after all did come from that particular lineage) seems to have repeated Muktananda's ethical breech.

        I heard John, repeatedly, from his total lack of understanding, criticize buddhism for what he called it's focus on duhkha, while, as he said, "I come from bliss" quoting Muktananda!

      • nimitta says:

        "For the West to make spiritual progress it needs to re examine the authoritative punishing judeo-christian concept of God." That sounds right, and seems to be a process well underway in the west (by the way, were you trying to make a point by capitalizing 'Guru' and 'West' but lowercasing 'judeo-christian'? Just askin'…).

        One more thing: even a guru who offers a 'perfect relationship' to one or several followers may also create imperfect, even abusive or exploitative relationships with other followers. I'm not just thinking of Muktananda, by the way – every eastern dharma tradition that has reached our shores is well-represented, as far as I can see

      • Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

        Hi dagib. Sorry to disagree here but in my experience with a true Guru, who comes from a long line of Guru's including avadhuts, being told what to do or not do is a major part of the teachings. Because such Gurus are always in the service of the Shakti they are extremely clever in that regard. Thus their teachings may be indirect or seem to be meant for someone else in the room. Sometimes they do it with a word or a glance. But one way or another you become accountable. They won't let you forget, that's for sure.

        Btw it's ironic that the book you mention is by Swami Muktananda. Yes he was one of the great true Gurus of the 20th century. Mandated by his Guru, Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, he brought Shaktipat, a rapid form of spiritual initiation,to the West on a major scale, making available to all what was previously a highly esoteric experience that could only be obtained by seeking out a Shaktipat Guru in India. However, Muktananda was not immune to allegations of sexual misconduct (which has been investigated by the highly esteemed New Yorker magazine), whatever his actual intention. What goes around…

  7. meghan says:

    thank you. So well said.

  8. dagib says:

    Great Emily, of all the letters I've read on this topic – even from the ivory towers – yous is the most insightful and intelligent from my perspective.You really hit the nail on the head with the shadow not being faced. Much easier to point out anothers shadow than confront ones own. Dealing honestly with the shadow is fully ones own responsibility and having it so dramatically displayed is a gift for all involved in the Anusara community.It's an opportuity for every individual connected to Anusara and John Friend , that has had a strong reaction to the events, to examine themselves.This can only lead to growth for the whole cmmunity. Go within , cast out your own demons instead of projecting and denying, and you will grow.

  9. Jennifer Boeder says:

    where is the responsibility for teachers not to "screw" their students? i'm a yoga teacher and i think we're the ones in the position of responsibility and power. yes, students need to trust themselves, listen to their bodies, communicate their needs to teachers, etc–they are not powerless, but at the same time the title of this article smacks of the victim-blaming & moral relativism that's so rampant in the yoga community. your teacher injured you? "well, you should learn from it, pain is a great teacher." your teacher told you to smile when you were having a bad day and it upset you? "well, maybe you should look at why that triggered you." your yoga teacher is not practicing what he or she preaches? "well, they're only human." why is it so hard for us to just say, some actions are unethical, some behaviors are bullshit, and some teachers are hypocrites who abuse the trust and authority their students place in them? enough with the new-age lingo-heavy denial–it's time to turn on the discernment, everyone.

  10. Ozz says:

    There is much of value to consider in this article; unfortunately, there is also a fallacy present that's repeated multiple times which renders the conclusions flawed. In fact, I think the argument being presented here is dangerous because it can perpetuate harm.

    First, the use of words like 'just' and 'simply' point to this fallacy – as in:

    "He (and everything else in our world) is just a blank screen. "
    "They are simply mirroring our own light back to us, showing us our own Divine potential."

    You see, these words make those arguments "exclusive" – and therein lies the fallacy. John Friend – or any Other for that matter – is not SOLELY a blank screen or a mirror. This is to deny the essential humanity and unique substance of the Other. IN ONE SENSE, you can say, people can serve us as mirrors, but in another very real sense, people are people – they have their own substance, distinct from us and our perceptions. When one accepts the fallacy, one is then at risk for making statements that border on the nonsensical, such as:

    "It is my ethical failing, otherwise how could I see it in someone else?"

    Here is how, quite simply: our brains include an analytic function deeply concerned with social and ethical actions and paradigms (thank evolution). We can readily imagine behaviors in which we do not ourselves engage. Quick: can you imagine someone murdering someone else in cold blood for, say, a pair of shoes – now, really, how many of us would do so, even if we knew we'd get away with it?

    So, other people are not simply mirrors to us – they are their own beings (or, if you prefer, their own distinct manifestation of an underlying unity). As such, they may choose to engage in behaviors which in fact are in no wise tied to us, nor to "our own past actions and habits" – and to insist that they are, is to do precisely what the author assert's she is not doing, which is offering justification for JF's behavior by positing that it is a collective guilt that extends far beyond the parties actually involved in ethical misdeeds. The words say there is no justification being made, but the entire logical foundation being created in this essay serves precisely that function. As such, it strikes me in somewhat the same way that the surgeon general's warning on a pack of cigarettes strikes me.

    Let me give you another example of why this gets us into the land of nonsense: using this type of "logic", I can ascribe guilt to the true victims here – the partners and family of the married women with whom JF dallied. I see this as highly analogous to the 'dark side' of positive psychology that many in our yoga community seem unable to perceive – whose logic insists that cancer victims are responsible for their own illnesses and deaths. More on that in this superb essay by Julian Walker (which I would also has some relevance to the current essay under discussion):
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/06/blood-on-t

    What we seem to have here, in my view, is an underlying fallacy that's wound up distorting the reality of what happened with JF and Anusara (and which carried to logical conclusions winds up blaming the victims). To be sure, it raises some points worth thinking about along the way (projection/mirroring), but in the end, I am somehow left under the impression that it implies that those teachers who chose to leave Anusara are as or even more at fault than JF for the entire turn of events. After all, as the author notes, we shouldn't blame the mirror for the zit, so if JF is "just" a mirror, then he must by definition be blameless.

    I think that's unfortunate, but not surprising, as tortured logic often leads to harm being done in this way. It's why I consider critical thinking skills – and more than a glancing familiarity with how logic and its many fallacies work – to be essential when attempting to disentangle issues arising from human behavior.

  11. Ah! A deeply reflective, thoughtful, contemplative yogini response. Thank you Emily! Yes, everything in life is potentially fuel for growth. What each of us sees is so colored by the very things we don't! I like this: " If you don’t like what you see another person doing, Guru or otherwise, don’t do it yourself—even in the privacy of your own mind. To deny that this has anything to do with us will push it into shadow, and all that will result in is seeing the same thing happen again, perhaps even in ourselves." It's all about being more aware of ourselves, and not allowing all that good awareness energy be wasted on how others "failed" us. Only if we let them! A very yogic point indeed.

  12. Hi Emily,

    What you're saying is going through thousands of minds.

    Thanks for saying it so clearly.

    Namaste.

  13. SQR says:

    This is one of the better contributions I've seen on this subject… nice to know there are still people out there who avoid screaming before they think…

  14. I am troubled by the timing of this article.

    I feel it has been published too soon while
    teachers are trying to heal and while students
    are in the throes of seeking guidance.

    I am all for looking into my own shadows.

    Take a look at my forty-plus blogs begun only three
    months ago. I have even worked extensively
    with Anodea Judith specifically on shadow work, Carolyn
    Myss, for the same purpose.

    My concern here is that students are seeking guidance
    and it is far too easy to ask them to look inward at their
    own reflection and what lessons can be garnered.

    I come from a lineage of Holocaust survivors. I have
    even looked at Hitler this way. But I am in my forties.

    You could not have possibly asked me to look at how I had
    embodied my own shadow of hatred or cruelty when I was
    eight or nine years old, not even when I was fourteen. Pieces
    of this fracture still remain unhealed but I can look at the shadow
    now and at least acknowledge it.

    What troubles me is that there are deep issues to be addressed
    first. Hidden issues which many people don't even know about
    like how the Anusara manual was changed with language permitting
    teachers to date students so long as the energy between teacher
    and student was not detracting from the energy of the classes so that
    this would give JF permission and justification for how he was choosing
    to live his life. And I witnessed people following his example. I am
    concerned that the questions raised here are premature and subterfuge
    the more important questions of how JF misappropriated his power for his
    own personal pleasure with a lack of regard or responsibility for what that
    power held.

    Right now, I feel students and teachers need time and space to be held
    in love and in kindness. I had a bad habit in my 20s and 30s or skipping
    over many steps and moving right into forgiveness. And I have learned
    skillfully, that forgiveness is a lifestyle. It is a practice. And the steps in
    between are deeply merited.

    Please honor them.

    • Heartofthematter says:

      Beautifully expressed, Jill! Perhaps the writer is overgeneralzing a little too. In all I've read & from friends who practice many flavors of yoga, not a trace of the attitudes she criticizes.
      Of course even those who do not express or feel any delight in the suffering of others may have similar impulses–and be quite aware of them and committed to minimizing the hurt they might cause in the world as well as trying to do their best. Of course self-study is essential, but the car hurtling directly at my bicycle with the drunk driver at the wheel was not caused by me. I can feel sympathy for whatever led him to drink and drive, but in truth I haven't done it and I know why. It would be dishonest to pretend that it's a mirror of a hidden impulse within me. My impulse will be to help the driver if he crashes & is injured, but I will support our community standards that he make amends(insurance/damages, community service?) and demonstrate self-control over whatever caused his behavior(depending on whether it was habitual or first-time, situational or pervasive in all aspects of life) through the most effective treatment(psychological/emotional, physical/medical, social support like AA) before I would want to see him driving again.

    • Emily Hicks says:

      Jill-

      First of all, I very much respect where you are coming from and what you are saying.

      I wrote this article because in looking around at what I was reading and seeing, I saw many people "skipping over many steps" as you say. I saw people running away out of ignorance, and disowning the entire situation. Likewise, I think there are people keeping their loyalties blindly, out of ignorance. This is a particularly potent time for many in the yoga community at large, in particular the Anusara community, and it seems that there is potential for a lot of learning to get tossed out without addressing many underlying issues. I simply felt that it was important to give voice to this side of the issue, as I didn't see anyone else doing it, and I have the fortune of being very well trained in this subject. I certainly hope that it helps and doesn't harm.

  15. Emily, you are looking at this situation through the eyes of a highly evolved yogini. Kudos to you for having the courage to express your highly evolved point of view. We can all learn something from your post.

    Namaste

  16. Jennifer Boeder says:

    i disagree with this line of thinking wholeheartedly. where is the responsibility for teachers not to “screw” their students? i’m a yoga teacher, have been for 12+ years, and i think we’re the ones in the primary position of responsibility and power. yes, students need to trust themselves, listen to their bodies, communicate their needs to teachers, etc–they are not powerless, and should not surrender all their free will or judgment to a teacher. at the same time the title of this article smacks of the victim-blaming & moral relativism that’s so rampant in the yoga community. your teacher injured you? “well, you can learn from it, pain is a great teacher.” some teacher told you to smile when you were having a bad day and it upset you? “well, maybe you should look at why that triggered you.” your yoga teacher is not practicing what he or she preaches AT ALL? while taking money from people for their spiritual fraudulence? “well, they’re only human.” i’ve seen all kinds of lame excuses for all kinds of seriously unethical behavior, but if you name it what it is, you’re told by what my friend called the “hippie goblins” that you’re “judging.” why is it so hard for us to just say, some actions are unethical, some behaviors are bullshit, and some teachers are hypocrites who abuse the trust and authority their students place in them? enough with the new-age lingo-heavy denial and coverups–it’s time to turn on the discernment, everyone. wake up. shouldn’t telling the truth be what breaking free of conditioned existence is really about?

  17. Valerie Carruthers ValCarruthers says:

    Our first gurus are our parents. As we grow into our teens and they are no longer the center of our universe we begin to seek gurulike figures in teachers, coaches and pop stars. But their ability to lift us outside of ourselves is shortlasting. We remain somehow dissatisfied so we keep seeking, looking for gurus and taking ourselves down a lot of blind alleys in the process. The mainstreaming of Yoga whether asanas as fitness or indepth eight limbed practice has brought just as many dead ends to be sure.

    What the real masters remind us is not to take anything on blind faith no matter how pure, powerful or promising it may appear to our hopeful hearts and psyches. But instead to pay attention to what our inner experience tells us. Because "love is blind" our love for the guru or guru-type teacher may cast a veil over our ability to discern certain realities: both ours and what we see as the teacher's.

    Thanks for this excellent article, Emily. You offer plenty to chew on.

  18. Jill Bacharach says:

    Emily,
    I thank you for addressing my comment with consciousness and care.
    I honor your clarity and offering around wishing no harm. Blessings to all and wishes for healing.

  19. Matthew says:

    There are those who would say that JF has, as part of his yogic 'path', developed a "cult of personality" as part of his 'way' in the yoga world, and that there is a will to power and fame that is tied to and has resulted in his notoriety. If this is true, then it's perhaps not surprising that he has engaged in behavior that is revealing all of this.

    My feeling is that this article is, as an undercurrent, deflecting all of this by talking about our involvement through the "mirroring" that JF is giving us, etc. There's truth in the principle of "mirroring", but everyone – including JF – is involved. To suggest even lightly that JF can be taken out of the loop is smoke and mirrors rather than mirrors.

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