Maia Szalavitz’s recent article in Time, “Does Yoga Really Drive People Wild with Desire,” can be summarized in three words:
men, women and power.
And these three in unhealthy combinations have screwed up more good things than anything else throughout history. Now the future of yoga is on the chopping block—at a time when we really require unity—because a respected spiritual leader decided it might enhance the “efficacy” of his practices as well as his bottom line to enter this forbidden circle.
This same story has been playing out in a continuous monotony for ages like episodes of Seinfeld, yet we’re never bored with it. Nor do we ever learn from its damaging consequences. Consider, for example, some news about a sex scandal that took place in the first century:
“The Teacher loved her more than any of the other disciples; He used to kiss her often on the mouth.”
That would be Jesus, and the mouth belonged to Mary Magdalene. And the trusted disciple, Philip, was the whistle-blower. Did it bother people back then that a teacher carried on an intimate relationship with a student like it bothers people today?
It certainly disturbed Peter, who openly expressed disdain for his master’s favoritism of a woman, “Did he really speak privately with a woman? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
We may conclude that Peter’s jealousy and resentment resulted in the organizational structure of the Church and its misogynist history. (Who knows? It may even have been behind the crucifixion.) And in that example, the blame for the fallout of that failed triadic relationship fell on the woman.
Until the Vatican cleared her name centuries later in 1969—perhaps as a response to growing feminist consciousness entering the collective mind—Mary Magdalene remained relegated to the role of meddling tramp in the history of the world’s most powerful religio-political movement.
Now it’s men who are the bad guys who abuse their power to victimize women.
Still perhaps the offender is neither man nor woman, but the third member of the triad: power.
I don’t think anyone doubts that the women involved with John Friend, for example, would have consented to a relationship with him if he were not the most powerful man in yoga. They got something in exchange.
We may even surmise that it was their inherent feminine power or shakti that they chose to attach to his cause that made him the most powerful man in yoga. (The same may be true in the case of the Magdalene and Jesus, among other powerful duos responsible for the creation of popular religious and political movements.)
Tantric texts are replete with references to the female body as a source of tremendous spiritual power or shakti. Attaining that power through prescribed sexual and other rituals—or attaching it to male receptors— has incredible worldly consequences, including fame, wealth, and the power to influence.
According to his own personal accounts, no one was more aware of this than John Friend who went from mild-mannered accountant to yoga’s superstar because of how he “yoked” the shakti of some of his female followers.
To this end, I remember his first yoga video that he shot in frumpy sweat pants. Not much shakti. Then flash-forward to a recent photo I saw of him taken at a Wanderlust Festival.
The image showed him with his arms out-stretched wearing a smile as wide as Alaska, as he stood in front of an oceanic spread of yoginis laid out in shavasana. If it were a cartoon, the artist would have certainly inserted a bubble over John’s head with the words, “It worked!” inscribed in it.
But then it didn’t. His painful descent and the entire Anusara Yoga movement he took along with him began with the withdrawal of the powerful shaktis at the top of the organization. It then unraveled from his “exposure” to a widespread questioning of the legitimacy and safety of yoga itself. Public opinion has started to question the inherent good in the practice. And many people who depend on that positive opinion for their livelihoods lie in a precarious wait-and-see.
What went wrong? Is it just the same-old men, women and power dynamic? Or is it something entirely else? I’d suggest that the demise of many modern yoga movements has to do with our cultural penchant to pick and choose.
In the Western adoption of yoga and tantra, we’ve decided what we’ll keep intact of the imported traditions and what we’ll discard. For example:
Throw out the Guru whose real attainment is his/her surrender of ego (and whose role is to keep ours in check). Yet keep the charismatic image of “teacher” because it endorses products well and sells a lot of trainings.
Throw out contextual interpretations of yoga and tantric texts as well as the original language they’re encoded in. Yet keep the mistranslated juicy parts that reinforce the fulfillment of our own cultural desires.
Throw out tantric views of sex that have historically elevated women as sacred sources of spiritual power. Yet keep our exploitative and, at the same time, prudish sexual mores.
And finally, throw out the years and years of discipline required for true enlightenment. Yet keep our American proclivity for all things fast and apply it to yogic attainment—and do it in 200 hours.
So it may not be the dangerous threesome of men, women, and power that continues to disrupt our faith in the spiritual and political institutions that unite us. Instead, it might be the fault of a fourth culprit. Ego.
Editors: Tanya L. Markul & Andrea B.
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