September 7, 2010

When Yogis Go Bad.

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.

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