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

Via elephant journal
on Feb 23, 2012
get elephant's newsletter

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.


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


39 Responses to “The Future of Yoga in the Modern World: Spiritual Authority. ~ Carlos Pomeda”

  1. Excellent piece, Carlos. As an Anusara student, I really appreciated reading this.

    I have featured your article on the Elephant Journal Facebook Page.

    Jeannie Page

  2. Abhinava says:

    So why did you leave the vertical path, renounce your sacred vows of sannyasa and horizontally pursue academic learning? Was the authority of the sadguru insufficient? Was there something in the relationship with your gurus somehow lacking or was there some cognitive dissonance you discovered that led you to leave? Was it the desire to embrace feminine principle (read: get married)?

  3. alexandraengland says:

    Thank you Carlos, that answers a lot of questions for me, although it suggests many more.

  4. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    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
    Follow on Twitter

  5. […] entonces de nuestra practica, de los principios de alineamiento y la vida más allá del […]

  6. Susanne de Mare says:

    Just what I have been thinking and contemplating for a long time…..thank you

  7. Ozz says:

    "it is very, very difficult to navigate the deepest stages of spiritual progress alone"

    So, according to this assertion, I'd argue that the humanistic model would serve best until one reaches those so-called 'deepest stages' – at which point, one would presumably have sufficient spiritual depth and insight to progress to some other model, not yet described by the author. So a sort of 2-stage approach would seem to make sense, because in early stages, when people are most likely to project and lack discrimination, the object for projection is not present. And in fact, this is precisely what many spiritual traditions, from Sufi mystics to Thai forest masters such as Ajahn Chah have said:

    "You are your own teacher. Looking for teachers can‘t solve your own doubts. Investigate yourself to find the truth – inside, not outside. Knowing yourself is most important."

    One imagines this would cover a solid 98%+ of existing Western yogis and so resolve the vast majority of the problems being described here (after all, how many of us believe that even the senior teachers in the Anusara org were in fact grappling with the 'deepest stages' of their spirituality??). No need for a monolithic approach, then.

    The next statement is more problematic, IMO:

    "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"

    As Julian Walker has pointed out (–by-julian-walker/):

    "…there is a strong theme in the history of spirituality that attempts to overcome these undeniable truths of the body. This impossible but ubiquitous quest is the root of spiritual pathology, religious toxicity and the fragmented cultures and selves it creates.

    This theme is as present in the East and as in the West, both ancient and modern, fundamentalist and mystic. It is an expression of something deep inside us that is universal.

    It is at the heart of the powerful and ubiquitous self-hating idea of sexuality being other than or in the way of spirituality, and of the body as an obstacle to spiritual liberation or realization – as well as the inevitable psychological effects of this, seen most starkly in the tragic revelations of priestly pedophilia in the Catholic Church."

    After all, if we have been "exiled" from the transcendant, surely our corporeal bodies represent the most potent symbol of that downfall, to be denigrated and, with any luck, discarded upon our "ascent" to the transcendant – where we 'belong'. Seems to me this mindset tends to lead to the worst kind of harmful asceticism. We've seen where that train leads…and not just within the Catholic Church, but in many Eastern traditions as well…

  8. […] I’ve been listening to their stories over the past few weeks. I listen from my own experience with extracting myself from the sphere of charisma: it hurts, it is humiliating, and yes – through therapy and hard work, it can be a turning point in the evolution of personal integrity. I talk quietly with these friends for a long time. For many, the sorrow and embarrassment is taking a hopeful arc. There’s a lot of courage emerging through the process, and our general discourse around what works and what doesn’t is rising in quality and subtlety. This is a very good time for modern yoga culture. […]

  9. Navarre says:

    Then why continue the "guru-speak" in American yoga? As soon as some one is teaching through a business situation — a yoga studio — or an institution — a university — and there is money changing hands, the term should remain, forever and only, "teacher."
    Yet yoga brands do guru-talk because they want to claim that spirtual authority so that we will buy their products. It's part of the sales pitch.
    I understand that people genuinely interested in Tranta (which I am not) will want to continue these discussions about the guru principle. Great!
    But obviously to even HAVE those discussions in same vicinity of the paid situation of yoga teacher is extremely dangerous.
    Too many students – esp young women — are too likely to buy in. This is for reasons that go 300 years back in gender cultures specific to America. It bothers me that yoga teaching goes on with no attention paid to vulnerabilities that pre-exist in THIS culture. Historical amnesia and ignorance feed in here. America hjas long-standing vulnerabilities to cult, to charismatic leaders, and to these corruptions.
    For my part, I insist on a more smart, more savvy and more knowledge consumption of both services and ideas.

  10. Laurie Greene says:

    wow…this depresses me. I wish it didn’t. I agree with some of the comments. But I am not sure I understand the relevance of Dr. Pomeda’s comments here. It seems pretty clear that our “teachers” as some have pointed out are not principally concerned with guiding students. Getting paid to teach is one thing, copy-writing everything we do is quite another. Yoga Superstar Culture is not full of great teachers so much as it is filled with celebrities. When we are attracted to them, we want to be part of that (celebrity). Our celebrity is based on the most crass of qualities sadly, looks and gymnastic skills. This is not to denigrate any “famous” teachers, but just to state the obvious. Look in Yoga Journal (Our Cosmo). What great transformational guidance have you seen in there?

    Dr. Pomeda speaks of the history of Upanishadic learning, but the associations seem unclear to me. It is really so simple. A good, honest, real “teacher” (what ever you want to call them)can not “teach” anything. They can only guide a student as best they can to information. An experienced teacher knows many routes, and tries to lead a student on a path they can follow. BUT, the learning is the student’s. Follow “charismatic” teachers for this quality is fools play. It sets the student up for dependency and abuse. How about an HONEST person? Call them what you like. I’ll take a TEACHER any day over a GURU if those are my choices.

    Our discipline and the cultures they have originated in are steeped in male dominance. To deny that this had an effect on traditional yoga and how these attitudes are still pervasive today is ludicrous. Why glorify a system in which women were largely, if not wholly excluded as candidates?

    I am an academic myself, but academic rationalizations of our problems seem out of place. Most of us will not abuse our students or our colleagues. Most of us are not so selfish and narcissistic. We know that people are fragile and can be damaged easily. We take this responsibility VERY SERIOUSLY and do not claim to be able to make anyone happier or more fulfilled. We can just express our our experiences.

    Are we lost? Can we just call it what it is?

  11. Hilde Stone says:

    I think there is another elephant in the room, the problem of ungrounded Kundalini energy which has tripped up people with more spiritual wisdom than John Friend. Kundalini energy which is ungrounded can produce problems with internal heat which closely resemble manic depressive illness. A social worker friend pointed out to me many years ago that manic people can take people "up." The kundalini energy can be very intoxicating and an ungrounded practitioner can take many people with them. This issue is addressed by the Taoists and in particular by Kenneth Cohen in his book, The Way of Qigong where he talks about Qigong Psychosis. The Taoists work with the Microcosmic orbrit. There are also Hindu Tantra practitioners who believe that the energy should go down as well as up. Let us hope that this unfortunate situation will bring more wisdom to the study of Hindu Tantra.

  12. rico says:

    Face it. What is called yoga today, for the most part, is essentially a business enterprise with some Indian cultural elements thrown is as marketing tools. This product is approached by most in our consumer society (to paraphrase a contemporary American adept of traditional Yoga) the same way we choose breakfast cereal. The more a yoga brand has the flash and pop of celebrity the more appealing it’s packaging.

    The danger lies in ripping a cultural element like Yoga from it’s native fabric then trying to weave bits and pieces into a new consumer product. If the neo-yoga juggernaut just stuck with the physical aspect of its offering then the potential for abuse and emotional damage would be greatly diminished. It’s when the deeper aspects of the tradition are removed from their original context and grafted onto a consumer product that the enterprise becomes a train wreck waiting to happen.

  13. Douglas,

    Reading your response to Carlos adds weight to my suspicions that we are fairly aligned on quite a few issues! My wife, who took one of your workshops at Yoga Oasis in Tucson said as much!

    My "ears" perked up at the following passage from Carlos:

    "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."

    Such a "peer review" process would be wonderful if it worked! But there are just too many examples of so-called "authenticated gurus" who failed miserably to show evidence of their awakening in how they lived! This goes for so many who are STILL revered and lionized by their students after revelations of financial and sexual misconduct.

    The following is from a paper I wrote that addressed "lineage" and "authorization:

    In the zen buddhist tradition, there is literally a "certification" or “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.

    It is obvious that the idea of transmission and lineage is intended to impart the aura of legitimacy, but this begs the question of why would a school or a teacher need such “legitimacy?” Presumably, the answer would be that what they have to offer is non-obvious. What they have to offer is something those of us who are unenlightened would be unable to evaluate. David Brazier, in The New Buddhism, gives the example of using the services of a greengrocer and a doctor. We do not ask to see certification from the greengrocer. We just ask if he has cabbages for sale if that is what we seek. But we do ask to see certification from our doctor because if we wait to see if he knows what he is doing through personal practical experimentation, it may be too late before we realize he is a quack! The lineage and certification system puts Dharma Teachers in the same category as doctors and not in the same one as greengrocers.

    Interestingly, Brazier points out that the Buddha put himself in the greengrocer category. “Come and see and try it out for yourself,” he said. If you like what I offer and it helps you to overcome suffering, use it. If not, not. The Buddha did not appoint a successor (although the Mahayana created the legend of the flower sermon to legitimize the idea of succession through Mahakashyapa). The Buddha did offer his opinion as to who was enlightened when asked about particular people. However, there is a passage where Ananda, seeming to pester the Buddha with this question, is told by the Buddha that Ananda could simply see for himself whether someone is enlightened or not, telling him that the test of one’s enlightenment and understanding is how well they follow the discipline. So it seems that the Buddha thought that the matter was obvious, not non-obvious. If a person was enlightened, you could tell from what he or she did. You could know them by their deeds.

  14. The use and understanding of lineage is highly problematic. First of all, lineage is a form of “argument from authority” which Western logic regards as a fallacious argument (although, unfortunately as we have learned all too sadly in the USA throughout the “war on terrorism,” all too accepted by popular opinion). Just because someone holds a high position does not, of itself, ensure that he or she is right. The Buddha himself stressed this in his Discourse to the Kalamas when he told them not to believe and accept something just because of the position of the person who has told you it – including himself in this. Things are not true simply because the Buddha says it. They are true if they are true, and regarding things that matter, like birth and death and how to live a “noble” life, while we may need wiser folk to point it out to us, we still need to test what they say for ourselves. Sadly, humans like to shirk this responsibility and simply accept authority all too easily. Those societies based upon legitimization systems, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as seen most recently in their handling of the sexual abuse crisis, tend to work quite badly.

    The fact is that in the last fifty years there have indeed been some disturbingly significant examples of “legitimately authorized” Buddhist Masters acting in such ways that one must question the usefulness of lineage. I will only address one, and that is the case of Yasutani Roshi who received “transmission” and was legitimated by the lineage system of the Soto Zen School two months after publishing a book on Dogen which is full of militarist and anti-Semitic propaganda. The book uses the teachings of Dogen to “support the war, deify the emperor, promote the superiority of Japan, foster anti-Semitism and encourage people to exterminate the enemy.”13 Included in his commentary on the First Precept is the following passage: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.” Thankfully, most teachers within the Buddhist world do not hold this non-obvious “special characteristic”.

    The merits of a system that rewards someone with its highest seal of approval and spiritual authority when he is confirmed in such warmongering attitudes are also non-obvious! It is clear that if the function and purpose of lineage is to offer a “guarantee” of someone’s enlightenment it has failed to do so – in this case at least. A guarantee that is unreliable is no guarantee at all. It seems to me that lineage, as an authentication system is not a system that was accepted by the Buddha and is not one he would have approved of. I believe that Buddhism is hindered, not served, by unnecessary mystification, and much of “transmission” and lineage reeks of mystification and obscuration. While I agree that people rarely become enlightened without spiritual teachers, it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers. It is our responsibility to, as the Dalai Lama points out, examine the teacher before committing to studying with him or her, and evaluate how he or she lives according to the discipline. An enlightened being is one who embodies the precepts, and if someone says they are above the precepts, they have not fully understood the Dharma.

  15. lynne says:

    I think plain and simple the real downfall can be summed up in this "john friend states that the new Manduka mat will hold special energy" bahahahahahahhahahahhah

    as soon as I heard that it was oh so clear!

  16. dan says:

    Thanks for this Carlos.

  17. Peter says:

    There's a thesis here that your reply shortchanges. I would be grateful to hear a more thorough consideration of the American gender culture and its vulnerability to cult, charisma and corruption of same. I would be especially grateful to hear such a consideration absent hostility toward those interested in different ideas (the guru principle), although the idea that yoga commercializers use the guru principle for commercial aims is useful.

  18. Yogamamba says:

    I love the vertical and horizontal thing. What is there to get either vertically or horizontally which is not available to us all right here and now? I guess it runs in the family. John Friend and your Guru Muktananda come to mind here unfortately as two guys who seem to have prefered the horizontal position. Creation is infinitely variable and available as the totality anywhere and everywhere. Only we create the destinations thinking we need to go somewhere or to get something. Whether in the form of enlightenment or so called 'higher consciousness'. How far is the infinite from the finite? How far is the form from the infinity of space? How far is consciousness? What do you have to do to be conscious? To be in the creation what do you have to do? What do we have to do to be in the body? Nothing. This whole idea of becoming anything is usless and a huge mistake. Theres nothing to become the only thing is for someone – a teacher – to point out and know what and who we are already. This doesnt require us to do anything. If we happen to have a goofy teacher who doesnt know this and puts us into some kind of orbit then thats the problem. To understand that sugar tastes sweet I dont need someone telling me to do this practice meditate on sugar, say the word sugar sugar sugar a million times. All I need is someone who knows sugar to point out sugar to me and give me some to taste it. Then how long does it take for the knowledeg to take place? The knowledge takes place instantaneously releasing me from my ignorance of sugar. Knowledge gets rid of ignorance thats all. Nothing else no practice or religion gets rid of ignorance. For any knowledge to take place you neither have to go vertically or horizontally. You dont have to go anywhere.

  19. Navarre says:

    Parting note: hence my impatience. Would love to sit at a kitchen table with all of you. Can't. Not this simulacrum anyway. Have to work! Augh.

  20. Navarre says:

    Ha ha here's more — see? Get an academic on a roll! Charismatic figures to whom 19th white "true women" fell prey? Henry Ward Beecher, big striding popular preacher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Henry Ward Beecher much like JF. Also: Charles Fourier. Charles Lane. Many communal-living experiments in the 1840's destroyed by charismatic figures. Even way interesting women like Victoria Woodhuil caused terrible harm to other women. You should check her out: beautifui, smart, con artist. very carny! Even Sojourner Truth fell prey to a cult with a crazy charismatic leader before she went out on her own.
    Nothing is new under the sun. Nothing. Women who have been trained to subordination, sweetness and piety are at great risk. We have to (again) change that culture.

  21. Nancy says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent reply. Like you, this article "took my breath away" and I can relate to many of the things you said about your teacher/mentor. I am deeply grateful to Elephant Journal for exploring this current issue so appropriately and respectfully.

  22. Scott Newsom says:

    Carlos uses a simple straw-man argument here, denigrating and limiting both academia and psychology while proposing that we turn to the very power structure that has strewn both East and West with abuse and delusion for thousands of years. Broadening understanding is also presented as inferior to deepening understanding when in fact, both are necessary for any kind of personal growth, spiritual or otherwise. A ladder with a broad base is more stable. The base of the pyramid must be built first.

  23. yogamamba says:

    Jeez @ Mark Kennedy. All this complicates a very simple matter. Consciousness is very simple. It is the most common thing in the creation. There is nothing but consciousness. To know oneself as consciousness you can be vertical or horizontal it doesn't matter.

  24. Carlos Pomeda says:

    Hi, Abhinava. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and apologies for not replying sooner, but there are other pressing commitments going on. To your question: I have not left the vertical path; it’s what gives meaning to my life. I would not call sannyasa a vertical path per se; it’s just a mode of life, just like being married or single or whatever. The verticality I’m talking about is an inner process that can (I’d say “should”) go on whatever our external circumstances. You’ve probably heard the expression “veshadhara,” which means something like “looking the part” or “merely wearing the clothes”. The true meaning of sannyasa as I understand it has nothing to do with the external mode of life. I believe the external form of life we chose is a matter of our personality and what environment we find more conducive to our growth. In fact, when I was a swami I was sometimes deeply moved by some of the householders I met—perhaps they didn’t see themselves that way, but in my eyes the way they had given their lives to their families, that was true renunciation of the highest kind, the shift from “I” to “we,” the utter selflessness of dedicating yourself to other(s) outside yourself. I still find it deeply moving.
    At this point in my life, while I have the deepest respect for anyone embracing a life of renunciation, I am convinced that is not what our modern world needs. Frankly, more ideologies that tell us the spiritual is somewhere else can only serve to bring about a deeper dichotomy within us, a deeper sense of alienation. Instead, I now resonate very profoundly with the Tantric focus on bringing the sacred to every aspect of the everyday, of living the verticality we’re talking about here whatever we do horizontally (I don’t see these two dimensions as opposed to each other, but complementary). For that reason, I see Tantra as holding a tremendous healing potential for that sense of alienation. That is in part my hope for our world.

  25. NancyR says:

    Spot on, in my opinion.

  26. Carlos Pomeda says:

    Dear Douglas,
    Thank you, as always, for your intellectual integrity and the clarity you bring to the conversation. I think you exactly identify where we agree and where we part ways, so I’d like to address mainly this last paragraph, if you don’t mind. I’m not ignoring the rest and I would love to someday engage in a more extended discussion, but for now, with limited time at my disposal, I find your last few lines go to the heart of the issues I’m raising here.
    First of all, I agree with you that a “vertical” model of authority is susceptible to corruption (I haven’t claimed otherwise), but so are other models. A more democratic model of authority may be, perhaps, hopefully, less susceptible to corruption… but I’m afraid there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. We need look only at the failed experiments of communism in this regard, or the ugly underbelly (read: the power of money) of the U.S. democratic system, supposedly the paragon of democracy. In fact, corruptibility lies at the very core of our human condition—isn’t that struggle part of the heart of the spiritual process? And this leads me to the central point I’m making, that if we don’t identify the problem properly, we are liable to throw the baby away with the bath water, to completely do away with a very useful (indeed, central in most cases, in my view) mode of authority simply because of its corruptibility. The real issue, in my view, is not with the model of authority in itself, but with the conditions that allow such corruption to take place. That’s precisely the conversation I’m inviting, because I feel it would be a tragic loss. What the precise solution is, frankly, I don’t know. In part three I start offering a few pointers, but my hope is that we end up with the best of both worlds, instead of swinging the pendulum to another extreme or adopting models that simply will not serve the purpose.
    Second, in reference to your comment on “such transcendental authority as having any such authority with respect to my human experience,” let’s be perfectly clear that the type of authority I’m talking about here is not a dictatorial imposition of any kind (that’s just not gonna fly in this day and age, or at least, less and less so all the time), but rather an expertise, just like in any other field of endeavor. Our capacity for self-delusion is endless; we humans prove really creative when it comes to rationalizations, which is why having the help of someone who’s “been there, done that” is just invaluable. Not only that, but there is such a thing as a “transmission beyond words”—it is very, very difficult to escape the cage of our own intellects—however spacious or sophisticated they may be. Please, note that the core of the mystical experience is one that transcends the intellectual domain. The toughest question is how to elevate ourselves beyond the net of words and meanings that we live in. Necessary as that net is for our empirical (vyavaharika) dealings, it is a barrier that must be crossed if we want to get to the essence of our being. And in this endeavor also, the expertise of someone who knows the pitfalls as well as the “skilful means” (upaya) is invaluable. So, again, my plea is simply, “let’s not be too hasty in throwing that away.”
    If you say that you make no claim to transcendence, I have absolutely no problem with that. However, if your claim is that there is no transcendence, then I see huge difficulties with such a statement. To do so one would have to engage in a really, really selective reading of the original sources (after all, there’s a reason why the word “parama” or supreme is so pervasive, to give just one simple example); but one would also have to conveniently ignore a huge body of mystical literature that is a body of personal testimony speaking to the reality of the transcendental. I personally find that body of testimony impossible to ignore.
    Ultimately, though, our arguments are our biographies. If you had spoken to me of “verticality” or “authoritativeness” when I was in my late teens, before I discovered the practice of meditation, I would have sent you packing. Having become an atheist out of the inadequacy I perceived in the Christian theological models I had received (I was raised as a good old Spanish Catholic boy!) I was simply not ready to accept any claims of transcendence, much less any mode of spiritual authority. However, life sometimes has a keen sense of humor. I think you know at least part of my experience, Douglas, as I have shared it openly even in academic forums. With the experience of initiation, as my mind became more and more quiet, I found myself literally gliding into the space of the heart (only way I can describe it) into an oceanic experience of pure being and pure awareness, in which Carlos was no more, yet nothing was lacking—the best I can describe it is a fullness of the purest love, yet beyond our common experience of love (apologies to anyone who may have various degrees of allergy to “sweet spiritual talk”, but that’s that!) This experience then became the single most important event in my life, one that I have continued to pursue and nurture through the daily nitty-gritty of practice. So overpowering is the immediacy (and I use this word literally) of that experience that I don’t have the luxury of doubting the transcendental anymore. And how I obtained it was with the help of my guru. This is where I’m coming from.
    The only thing I would say to you then, if you made such a claim about the absence of the transcendental, would be to let that big, generous heart of yours remain open to the possibility. That’s really most of what I’m saying here.
    Thanks for listening, dear friend. (On a personal note: You’ve helped me more than you’ll ever know whenever I’ve needed your advice, and in the generosity with which you’ve shared your knowledge, so, for the record, I’ll always be grateful to you for that).

  27. Carlos Pomeda says:

    Hi, Scott. With all respect, but it seems it’s you who is using a straw-man argument, as you are putting words in my mouth: nowhere do I denigrate academia or psychology, both fields that I admire and from which I benefit everyday, unless you consider pointing to their limitations as denigrating.

    Nor do I say anywhere what you express above about both models of knowledge; quite the opposite: I fully agree with you that *both* are necessary.

    The only reason the vertical is presented as “superior” to the horizontal is because in entering the experience of consciousness beyond the mind one realizes that the former precedes the latter. From that perspective, the mind is “only” the projection of consciousness onto the outside world of experience.

    Perhaps you’ll find what I wrote above in my response to Douglas Brooks’ posting above as helpful in clarifying my intent and where I’m coming from. Thanks.

  28. Stephen says:

    Thank you for this I look forward to the next installments. Having been a ‘seeker’ my entire life, thus a studier and perhaps a horizontal learner, I always appreciate learning more from systems in which I am currently immersed.

    One question for you…what about Ego? I do not mean merely the psychological model/definition, but the greater one of over-identification with the ‘me’ and not the universal.

    In my experience, both personal, as well as observational, almost every spiritual teacher gets caught up in the worldly rewards of being so beloved by many. Not to mention falling into accepting the power that so many of us students unconsciously foist onto them…myself included. While my giving over my power was my own spiritual lesson from which I have gained many hard won lessons, I have yet to experience a teacher accepting their own culpability in falling to their Ego and accepting power which was not theirs to have. Indeed, when confronted with their transgressions, these teachers have been so far gone into the Ego they behaved as if they were divinely inspired and due what was coming to them.

    It is a very difficult edge to walk. I am curious what your experience/knowledge says about it.


  29. kdharris22 says:

    Thank you Carlos. This is indeed a perfect opportunity to contemplate the deeper resonance of adhikara. May we, in our roles as both students AND teachers, invoke and embody a more expanded awareness as we co-create the unfolding yogic tradition. May this controversy deepen our commitment to do so with courage, honesty, trust and conviction.

    In gratitude,
    Karen Dawn Harris, M.Div.

  30. Raymond says:

    Thanks Carlos. This brings things back in perspective. Some of us who were practising Anusara for a long time have always tried to ‘rationalise’ what aspects of tantric philosophy it claims to represent. Your article puts into words some inklings I had about the general nature of Anusara, thus inviting less rigour, much dissonance among the community. Anusara is great as a physical practice, but those wanting to go deeper (vertical growth) have had to find this elsewhere, looking at instructions from the tradition and the shastras.

    To the point about transendence, we can only speak of it from personal experience. One who has never tasted it will never understand it. It may be a fallacy to debate this, because at the end of the day, how does one debate the existence of that which is beyond words? I agree with your point that, to say there is no transendence, what then is the point of yoga? For me, having tasted the bliss, there is so much more ‘meaning’ to life..making ordinary things extraordinary! This is the bliss of the routine!

    In terms of the proper model going forward, I don’t think we will find one that is perfect. Unfortunately, I can only align myself to what is true to me and my search for depth, to be grateful for the graces that come my way and the privileged opportunities to go deeper in practice. I don’t think identification with any one ‘institution’ or ‘community’ would work as it is too contrived and divisive…after all, grace does not work with boundaries necessarily?

  31. yogamamba says:

    Truth is simple – we complicate the truth by lying to ourselves saying that truth is separate from us and that we cannot be the truth – that truth exists elsewhere in some nether never never realm. If the eternal in man does not exist right here and now it cant be called eternal can it. For the eternal to exist it must exist here and now or it is not much of an eternity is it!

  32. BradYantzer says:

    Excellent article Calos. thank you. Question is about what we have turned this whole thing into and is it really a verticle advancement when we can't even see the or live the foundation of which we are stating we are being. I personally only have met one or two people that know what a yoga lifestyle is and that are living it. Most are just doing aerobis and calling it yoga. Not bothering to learn, experience, study the texts, and continue to burn. Not much of depth or progress in that. This is the wide spread yoga revolution? No wonder a top dog of this yoga is found to not be living it in any way. Says so much.

  33. People seem to know the truth intellectually, I've never found that to be the problem. Most people seem to agree that the eternal exists inside them in some living way. Yet living it is difficult for people for all the reasons we are discussing.

  34. […] The word Guru in the North American yoga community is one of the most misinterpreted and misused words in our vocabulary. […]

  35. Marcy says:

    What a beautiful statement. May your aspirations come to fruition for us all.

  36. […] This is not the most popular idea in the world of modern yoga. […]

  37. Thanks a good deal for discussing this matter. I concur together with your conclusions. The points that the data stated are all initial hand on real experiences even aid more.