February 24, 2012

The Future of Yoga in the Modern World: Spiritual Authority. ~ Carlos Pomeda

Part One of Three:

Reflections on Spiritual Authority.

Shivaratri 2012

We—all of us involved in yoga—are now custodians of 4000 years of tradition. This is a great responsibility, and it behooves us to proceed carefully. The present article, though triggered by the recent events within the Anusara community, stems out of my long-standing concern with a trend that I have seen emerging and evolving in the yoga scene. Simply put: instead of giving authority to someone charismatic, given our recent experiences with the abuses of such power, we are now giving that authority to psychologists/therapists and academics, none of which necessarily have the requisite insight and depth of experience in the domain of the spirit.

Those fields are, of course, great as far as they go, but they lack the main ingredient necessary to offer guidance—let alone to facilitate—the depth of the spiritual process. They lack charisma, as defined in this piece.

This trend is clearly part of a dialectical process, one in which we seem to be shifting from unquestioned acceptance of spiritual authority to a complete rejection of such authority figures and structures. But I also believe this trend, in the absence of such insight and charisma, is a very serious mistake. Indeed, fatal.

Please, bear with me while I make my case.

First of all, my heart continues to go out to all those who have experienced or are experiencing pain and turmoil as a result of the recent developments in Anusara, from John Friend all the way to the teachers, students, sympathizers and anyone who cares about it. Yes, pain also serves as part of the growth process—but it didn’t have to be that way…

My own connection with John Friend goes back to our first meeting in India as the decade of the ‘80s was coming to a close. I was a swami then and recall being impressed not only by his command of the poses, but also by his enthusiasm, earnestness and sincerity. Over the years I have considered him a friend, and was very happy to see his insights blossoming into a style that has been a major force for good in the world. Even if Anusara were to disappear completely today, there is no turning back the transformation it has brought to thousands upon thousands of people.

For this reason, I was happy to collaborate with John and support Anusara in whatever way I could, beginning in 2003 when we met again after a long time. My hope then, which I expressed to John in various ways initially, was that Anusara would define its boundaries within the larger cannon of the various yoga traditions, as well as providing a system of levels that would show a clear path forward.

Otherwise, it seemed to me, it would lack a proper framework that could serve as a map of the inner journey. No tradition can exist without such map.

A “free for all” model, in which each teacher brings his or her own model that they would pass on to their respective students, would not only become an uncomfortable mixture of elements without any cohesiveness, but it would be utterly confusing. This seems to me as obvious today as it did then.

The history of yoga is full of such models in which, as a tradition evolves, it forms its cannon out of a mixture of continuity and innovation. Yoga must adapt, yes, but it also must have deep, strong roots. Unfortunately, things in Anusara were to take a very different turn. I bring this up here not as a criticism of the organization or its leader, but as a vivid illustration of the dangers inherent in this transition of an Indian tradition to an entirely different environment.

Real progress in the spiritual path, as I point out often, is “vertical.” It is based on insight born out of sincerity and steady practice, on day in and day out inner work, on patience and persistence, etc., etc. Alas, none of these are “sexy;” they are often hard work. This makes it all too easy to take the path of least resistance and expand “horizontally” instead: learning new things, in and of itself, does not constitute progress unless that learning is accompanied by true insight of the vertical kind. What we are left with, instead, is the illusion of progress: we feel that because we can go deeper into a pose, or because we have now memorized the 36 principles of Tantric cosmology, or the Sanskrit names of the poses, we are making progress. Horizontally, we are; vertically, that’s another matter.

So, this is where we parted ways philosophically; we were not in sync anymore. I began to observe as Anusara took a different turn in the last few years, moving firmly in the direction of horizontal expansion (case in point: bringing into the curriculum elements of Wicca, which is a tradition entirely unrelated to yoga), without any of the much needed vertical progression. Being outside the organization, I simply tried to make a positive contribution by sharing my views as constructively as possible when asked a question by any student. But a trend was already set.


The lesson for me here is that without deep roots, a tree cannot grow tall nor big, or it will topple.



Every single model of progress that we find outlined in the various yoga scriptures follows the same pattern: A strong practice starts with a foundation that is made steady through constant, regular effort, and then cultivated through the on-going development of true spiritual insight by plumbing the depths of our own being. From Patanjali’s advice: “But that [practice becomes] well established [when applied] for a long time, without interruptions [and] with loving dedication”(Yoga Sutra 1.14) to the seven-fold model of the Yoga Vasistha (Nirvana Prakarana, 162), or those presented in Jaina Yoga, in Tantra, or in Hatha Yoga itself, to name a few, the message is the same: the search for variety is not what it’s all about. It is about the development of insight, of charisma.

The Larger Picture

All these developments need to be understood in the light of the huge transfer of spirituality, out of India, that has taken place in the planet within the last half a century or so. Indeed, what is happening is without precedent in history: no less than a revolution in which millions of people have been exposed to the practice of yoga. Admittedly, most of those are in the domain of Hatha Yoga and not necessarily accompanied by a spiritual awakening or a spiritual dimension to their physical practice. Still, at no other time in history has such a massive transformation occurred.

But we are also witnessing a most significant meeting between two cultural perspectives, one that can hardly take place without points of friction: that of an Asian tradition based on different models of authority with Western humanistic individualism. In such a dynamic encounter, the traditional guru-disciple model must necessarily evolve and adapt.

The early spread of Yoga outside of India took place at the hand of charismatic teachers who presented themselves in the traditional mold of ultimate authority. Such a model has proven, perhaps predictably, unsuitable for a modern world steeped in deeply-seated notions of the value of the individual, the respect for human rights and an acute awareness—brought on by  the movement towards democracy among other things—of the corruptibility of power.

On top of this, we have witnessed a procession of allegations into abuses of such totalitarian power. In the face of such abuses, psychology became the voice of reason, a rational counterfoil capable of addressing and preventing such unhealthy dynamics.

However, this emphasis on a rational approach happened in a climate of counter-reaction to certain power structures, an antithesis in which spiritual movements were broadly labeled as “cults,” (even the Catholic church was described as a cult by a so-called expert on Spanish TV while I lived there in the 80’s); in which a strong ideological influence was now often portrayed as the exercise of “mind control” (so exaggerated were such claims that I remember once reading that vegetarianism was used by such “cults” as a powerful tool of mind control). Many mental health practitioners approached the issue with such passion that they seemed to vie for the mantle of authority previously wielded by such gurus.

But while psychology has so much to say and to offer in the arenas of inner transformation, of the mind and of interpersonal relationships, it has often (though not always) been blind to its own limitations as far as the deeper aspects of the spiritual journey. Now, in an interesting reversal, it was the psychologists and therapy professionals who were passing judgment on those spiritual figures previously seen as the authority. I recall observing these developments, and the debates that took place in the 80’s and 90’s about the place of such Indian “cults” in the modern world, as if I were witnessing an epic struggle, a kind of Star Wars of the inner life—such was the intensity of the passion with which so called “deprogrammers” and other mental health professionals argued their respective views.

In my opinion, psychology and spirituality form a continuum and should coexist in synergy. But each must be informed by the other. It is important not only to understand clearly the limits of psychology, but also to not throw away the spiritual insight of the various yoga and mystical traditions by reducing the spiritual to the psychological. Case in point: ever since the advent of psychoanalytical theory, together with the Jungian understanding of the Shadow, the prevailing paradigm in our culture has been that the subconscious must be made conscious, that the shadow must be confronted.

This is not only undeniable; it is also in full accord with the yogic understanding of human psychology and the inner process of evolution. What is not in full accord, however, and where modern culture could learn a thing or two from traditional wisdom, is in how best to carry out such a process.

The elephant in the room is the issue of authority.

Spiritual Authority

Being gullible does not work well in any area of practical life, but it works even less in the spiritual path. The first thing we need to understand is that practically every tradition makes a distinction between intellectual, conceptual knowledge (jnana) and the wisdom of spiritual insight (vijnana), which is beyond such conceptualizations. In Tantra, these two domains are connected to two different kinds of ignorance, which must be removed in order to experience each kind of knowledge: bauddha ajnana or intellectual ignorance and paurusha ajnana or innate, trans-mental ignorance. Since they belong in different realms, the procedures to address them also differ—they require two entirely different types of skill and also two entirely different types of “teacher.”

The Sanskrit language has evolved several terms to describe a teacher’s abilities, running the gamut from providers of information to guides in the inner journey. There is a huge world of difference between those who address the former type of ignorance and those who address the latter.

At one end sits the shastri (lit. “learned, versed in the scriptures”), followed by the upadhyaya (lit. “auxiliary reader” a teacher of a particular portion of the Vedas), then acarya (lit. “he who knows the rules”), a spiritual teacher who has mastered a particular branch of knowledge, and finally the guru (lit. “weighty, with gravitas”) whose authority is above that of the acarya and is involved in the initiation process.

The boundaries among these terms are often blurry; for example, the word “guru” is used in other fields to indicate an authoritative teacher, whereas the terms shastri and acarya, for example, are used in modern day Indian universities as the equivalents of B.A. and M.A. degrees, respectively. To establish a clear distinction, spiritual traditions often use the term “sadguru” to denote a spiritually enlightened teacher. Taken in this latter sense, the word “guru” denotes someone capable of removing the paurusha ajnana of the practitioner, whereas the other terms refer to those capable of removing the bauddha ajnana or intellectual ignorance only.

The point here is that in other languages such as English, lacking these notions, such distinctions are obliterated in the use of the term “teacher.” So, when we say “Hatha Yoga teacher” for example, or “philosophy teacher,” or “meditation teacher,” none of those expressions carry any indication as to the innate abilities of that particular teacher, and what type of guidance they can offer. As a result, we are often naive about such distinctions and confer on teachers at the lower three levels a status and authority that traditionally would have been reserved for the sadguru.

Of course, this leads us to the thorny issue of how to determine the degree of authority of a particular teacher and here, while relatively easy to determine “worldly” accomplishments such as academic degrees or years spent studying and practicing a certain discipline, it is not so easy at all to determine that intangible called enlightenment. However, the tradition is not totally lacking in safeguards: a very important notion is that of adhikara or authoritativeness of the guru.

What makes a guru authoritative in the spiritual domain is, first and foremost, their own spiritual attainment, which must be accompanied by scriptural knowledge and by the ability to transmit such knowledge and experience. This authority is, with very rare exceptions, conferred on such gurus by their own preceptors, thus forming in effect a sort of “peer review” system, but one for which we don’t really have a long-standing precedent in Western culture, unlike in the Indian historical context.

Perhaps due to this inherent cultural gap, as well as to the previously mentioned instances of abuse of power, we are now seeing more and more often two models proposed as alternatives to the traditional guru-disciple model:

The first one is an academic model, in which the teacher holds a special place by virtue of their knowledge, yet treats his or her students in a respectful way as unique human beings and without exacting the obedience that a more traditional format would entail. This model has a number of advantages in that, being a democratic one, allows for power sharing and thus may prevent any possible abuses of power.

Unfortunately, though, democratic models, by their very nature, imply the rule of the lowest common denominator. No consensus is possible otherwise, and this is perhaps the reason why in the views of Plato for example, or in the puranic (historic-mythological) literature, democratic structures are considered a sign of social decay, heralding the loss of the higher wisdom and spiritual attainment that not everyone possesses in equal measure.

Indeed, although the notion of equality seems a lofty one, the simple reality is that not everyone is equal in any field, and while this model can work quite well for the transmission of the “lower” kind of knowledge, it comes up short when it comes to the transmission of spiritual (experiential) knowledge, the “transmission beyond words.”

The second one is what I call the humanistic model, in which the basic premise is that the guru is within, that we all contain from the outset all the capacity for guidance and wisdom that we will ever need. This view would not be at variance with the long-established yogic notion that the human individual is ultimately a spark of the transcendental (however articulated in various traditions). The advantage here is that such a model also would prevent any untoward abuses of power by never giving such authority to anybody outside oneself in the first place. But from a traditional perspective, the problem here is that within a human lies not only the inner guru, but also the forces of delusion, anger, inadequacy, and other such “internal enemies,” which can make it very difficult to ascertain which of those “voices” is active at any given time.

Both models lack the assurance that having an enlightened teacher provides, so that in trying to prevent abuses of authority, we are left without a solid foundation that may otherwise be available to us. At the end of the day, it is very, very difficult to navigate the deepest stages of spiritual progress alone—such is our capacity for self-delusion. Nor can it be done by committee. In this, the history of yoga is very clear: most people who have attained an enlightened state have done so with the help of a spiritual guide. The key here is to understand clearly what constitutes the main characteristic that such a spiritual guide must have, and which I have called earlier “charisma.”

 What is Charisma?

Dictionary definitions run along the lines of appeal, charm and persuasiveness, the capacity to influence others. But the meaning that concerns us here is the etymological one: the New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “a divinely conferred power or talent….from Greek kharisma, from kharis ‘favor, grace.’” This meaning accords very well with the Tantric notion of grace.

According to Tantra, there are two ontological realms, two levels of Being: the transcendental (visvottirna) and the manifest (visvamaya). Following this view, the human condition is one of exile from the transcendental, whereas the process of “ascent” back into the transcendental may be articulated as a “trickling down” of that which is beyond into that which is manifest, or as an infusion of one into the other, or the “entering” (samavesha) into the supreme, etc. These are all various ways of expressing a crucial transformation of awareness, in which we are progressively informed by that common ground of reality that transcends the individual.

We experience many such moments of connectedness, of openings that provide us with a glimpse of what lies beyond. Internally, we experience these openings as “aha” moments, or intuitions, or as the experience of the sublime, or as a profound sense of connectedness, an independent joy and contentment (not to be mistaken with a temporary adrenaline high), or even deeper experiences of merging. But the most important point here is that such channels of connectedness with the transcendental need to be opened as awareness expands back into that supreme state.

This process is at the very heart of the yogic or mystical path, and it is not an intellectual process. What an enlightened teacher can offer is not only a unique opportunity and effective help in bringing about that connection within a person, but also, as in every field, having a guide who knows the territory is the key to navigating it swiftly and safely. Only one who lives in constant awareness of charisma can offer that to others; this, I repeat, is not an intellectual process, nor can it be obtained merely through words. Many teachers can explain the path and philosophize about it; precious few can offer actual guidance of a deep and subtle nature.

The problem with this picture is the human tendency to project our own sense of charisma, of our own greatness, even our deep spiritual experiences, onto someone else outside. Thus, we often treat Hatha Yoga or other teachers as if they were elevated masters, particularly if certain conditions are present, such as celebrity or “looking the part” (what is it about “spiritual garb” that elicits so many unwarranted projections?). The result is, inevitably, a disappointment that leaves us either thoroughly disenchanted with the spiritual journey, or looking instead at the academic or the humanistic models discussed above.

What is essential to understand is that the main issue lies not with the institution of the spiritual teacher, but with the two dynamics mentioned earlier, of our own lack of discrimination in distinguishing the attainment and capabilities of a particular teacher, and of our own projections. To these we need to add the mechanisms of delusion, which originate in the areas that we are blind to, our psychological shadow.

{Continued in Part Two: Dealing with the Shadows.}


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Carlos Pomeda, originally from Madrid, Spain, has 35 years of experience in the study, practice and teaching of the yoga traditions. He received formal, traditional training in yoga during almost 18 years as a monk of the Sarasvati order, 9 of which he spent in India, in the Siddha Yoga Ashram, studying and practicing under the guidance of Swami Muktananda and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda.

During this time he learned the various systems of Indian Philosophy, immersed himself in the practice of yoga and became one of the senior teaching monks of the tradition—teaching meditation and philosophy to tens of thousands of students around the world. He combines this experience and traditional training with an academic background that includes two Masters’ degrees: one in Sanskrit from UC Berkeley and another one, in Religious Studies, from UC Santa Barbara.

Carlos currently lives in Austin, Texas, and has recently created a set of 6 DVD’s titled “The Wisdom of Yoga,” a series of practical workshops on the history, philosophy and practices of the yoga tradition.

As a teacher, Carlos is known for his love of the Indian yoga traditions, his insight, his humor, his deep empathy with his audiences and his ability to convey the deepest scriptural teachings in a way that is clear, meaningful and applicable.

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