“…we deepened our understanding of how authoritarianism in its varied guises has been and largely still is a primary mode of social cohesion—and also how it has now become a major factor in social disintegration.”
~Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power’
My relationship with yoga has been a tumultuous love affair.
I have experienced the vicissitudes of elation, letdown and equilibrium. The process first included buying into authoritarian styles where I practiced accepting and absorbing the teachings I received, and then started to feel a lot better. I experienced disappointment with teachers, and have inquired within to try to understand. I think I’m still discovering how to learn and grow on my own terms.
“’Guru’ is a metaphor for anyone who manipulates under the guise of ‘knowing what’s best’ for them, whether leaders, mothers, or lovers.”
~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power”
When I first heard about the scandal concerning John Friend, I was completely stunned. It was hard for me to believe, at first. I had taken a weekend workshop with Mr. Friend about 10 years ago in Evanston, IL, and had been impressed. I bought into what he was teaching at the time, and had even considered studying further with this man. I had believed that his teachings were good, and was impressed with the exponential growth of this style of yoga over the years. But as the story continued to unfold with teacher resignations , the awareness started to sink in that there must have been some truth to the news. It was sad to discover that someone with so much power and influence was no longer appearing to be whom I had once believed he was. And my heart went out to friends in the Anusara community.
When Diana Alstad contacted me and we talked about her and Joel Kramer’s book, The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power, I realized that this book may be of help to people seeking to understand and heal from this. Reading from this book has helped me in my own healing too.
The book speaks out on the dynamics of authoritarian power. The fact is, a lot of us were raised in households that used authoritarian parenting techniques where we were trained to look to others to tell us what to do—even as we got older. Many of us emerge from our childhood homes believing on some level that someone else has the answers that we need. In other words we may not have matured into self-determining adults, but instead are seeking our answers from leaders, lovers and/or doctrines. Or some of us might have given up hope that there are answers. Most of us, I venture to say, are crippled by self-mistrust.
“Not all people obey blindly. Moreover, if people are forced to obey, they will tend to force others to obey, given the opportunity. If children are taught to mistrust themselves (a prerequisite for the authoritarian personality), as adults they will have little option other than looking for someone else to trust, especially under stress. What this shows is that whatever the genetic base, much of authoritarianism is taught. Until children are taught to trust themselves, and social forms reward not punish this, there is no basis for making nature the cause of authoritarianism in arenas of power.”
~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, ‘The Guru Papers, Masks of Authoritarian Power”
Since methods of control may be hidden, I found it helpful to discover this excerpt that includes questions that help to determine if a group is dedicated to maintaining or growing the power of those in charge or driven by tasks to fulfill a different purpose.
In determining this and in judging whether a hierarchy is essentially authoritarian or not, one faces the following considerations:
1. What is its purpose?
2. Who decides if it’s purpose is being fulfilled and how is this decided?
3. How free are the members of the hierarchy to enter and leave it? That is, how much coercion is involved in getting people to belong and stay?
4. How responsive is it to change from within or without, and how open is it to internal and external feedback? This includes who determines what is even considered relevant feedback.
5. In what direction does power flow? Does it only flow from top to bottom, or are there mechanisms within the structure of the hierarchy that give the lower rungs a say in who the higher rungs are and what they do?
In the current state of things, even question #1 becomes cloudy when we consider that yoga is a business, a business is set up to make money, which represents a kind of power in itself. Is a yoga business set up to help people or make money? Can it reasonably do both? How is the business set up to ensure that both objectives are met? Does it work? Or do we become slaves to the money coming in?
Is it really possible to have a spiritual business with integrity? In Anusara yoga spiritual teaching is definitely an aspect of the system. Some yoga businesses can claim they are “only physical”, but my sense of it is that Anusara has always had a spiritual thrust in the teaching. When does a spiritual group become a cult-like situation? In ‘The Guru Papers,’ “…the word “cult” is used in a specific way to refer to groups with an authoritarian structure where the leader’s power is not constrained by scripture, tradition or any “higher” authority.” I have a lot of questions here, and think that there are many angles on what we might constructively think about and discuss with each other that will inform how we are going to handle yoga and spiritual teachings going forward.
“Successful gurus, rock stars, charismatic leaders of any sort, experience the intensity of adulation amplified beyond most people’s ken. This can make ordinary relationships pale in comparison. Being the recipient of such adulation and devotion is exceedingly addictive…Adulation has powerful emotions for the sender as well, and can be easily mistaken for love. It is likewise addicting for the sender, as it is an easy route to feelings of passion. Since adulation is totally a function of image, should the images crack, adulation disappears, demonstrating that it was essentially empty of real care.”
~ Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, “The Traps of Being a Guru.”
Oh, it is so intoxicating to admire someone! It is a pleasure I have allowed myself. But when I consider the above excerpt, I think that I should consider modulating this energy. Adoring someone without expecting anything back can seem like a harmless activity. But I believe myself to have been addicted to the feelings of passion connected with adoring a teacher. To consider that it could be stirring unhealthy, yet feel-good, emotions in the idolized teacher is another reason to approach such situations with restraint.
I’ve had a teacher who described this situation of transference of power as an opportunity for healing (for the student), but I am suspicious because it also seems to assume that the teacher “knows what’s best” for the student—a red flag for an authoritarian interchange.
“Using lofty ideals to mask self-interest is common, but when this is melded to images of purity, corruption is guaranteed. The myriad scandals around sex, money, and power that have tainted so many gurus are not surprising, given the structural corruptibility of the role. In political realms, where the corrupting tendencies of power are legend, we are often warned that constant vigilance is needed to insure freedom. Authoritarian ways of relating undermine vigilance so that both sides have unconscious vested interests in the unquestioned power of the leader. In spiritual realms, the power is so absolute that it can lead to extreme excesses.”
A way for healing presented in “The Guru Papers” to strengthen the integrity of groups and institutions is to build self-trust of individuals in our society. The book does not suggest that the concepts of hierarchy, authority or power are in themselves bad, but they have been deeply misunderstood and abused throughout time. When we can trust our own perceptions we can communicate what we see, because we can actually see for ourselves. And this might really help to change the situation. But if we have been taught to believe, and continue to believe blindly in what others have seen for us, we might just continue on in the same cycles of abuse and destruction that we, the human beings, have been acting out for some time.
I wish healing for everyone touched by Anusara yoga. I wish healing for everybody who’s never heard of it.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta