Time Magazine’s (Yoga) Man of the Year & the Shakti Behind Him.

Via Dr. Katy Poole
on Mar 5, 2012
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Maia Szalavitz’s recent article in Time, “Does Yoga Really Drive People Wild with Desire,” can be summarized in three words:

men, women and power.

And these three in unhealthy combinations have screwed up more good things than anything else throughout history. Now the future of yoga is on the chopping block—at a time when we really require unity—because a respected spiritual leader decided it might enhance the “efficacy” of his practices as well as his bottom line to enter this forbidden circle.

This same story has been playing out in a continuous monotony for ages like episodes of Seinfeld, yet we’re never bored with it. Nor do we ever learn from its damaging consequences. Consider, for example, some news about a sex scandal that took place in the first century:

“The Teacher loved her more than any of the other disciples; He used to kiss her often on the mouth.”

That would be Jesus, and the mouth belonged to Mary Magdalene. And the trusted disciple, Philip, was the whistle-blower. Did it bother people back then that a teacher carried on an intimate relationship with a student like it bothers people today?

It certainly disturbed Peter, who openly expressed disdain for his master’s favoritism of a woman, “Did he really speak privately with a woman? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”

We may conclude that Peter’s jealousy and resentment resulted in the organizational structure of the Church and its misogynist history. (Who knows? It may even have been behind the crucifixion.) And in that example, the blame for the fallout of that failed triadic relationship fell on the woman.

Until the Vatican cleared her name centuries later in 1969—perhaps as a response to growing feminist consciousness entering the collective mind—Mary Magdalene remained relegated to the role of meddling tramp in the history of the world’s most powerful religio-political movement.

Now it’s men who are the bad guys who abuse their power to victimize women.

Still perhaps the offender is neither man nor woman, but the third member of the triad: power.

I don’t think anyone doubts that the women involved with John Friend, for example, would have consented to a relationship with him if he were not the most powerful man in yoga. They got something in exchange.

We may even surmise that it was their inherent feminine power or shakti that they chose to attach to his cause that made him the most powerful man in yoga. (The same may be true in the case of the Magdalene and Jesus, among other powerful duos responsible for the creation of popular religious and political movements.)

Tantric texts are replete with references to the female body as a source of tremendous spiritual power or shakti. Attaining that power through prescribed sexual and other rituals—or attaching it to male receptors— has incredible worldly consequences, including fame, wealth, and the power to influence.

According to his own personal accounts, no one was more aware of this than John Friend who went from mild-mannered accountant to yoga’s superstar because of how he “yoked” the shakti of some of his female followers.

To this end, I remember his first yoga video that he shot in frumpy sweat pants. Not much shakti. Then flash-forward to a recent photo I saw of him taken at a Wanderlust Festival.

The image showed him with his arms out-stretched wearing a smile as wide as Alaska, as he stood in front of an oceanic spread of yoginis laid out in shavasana. If it were a cartoon, the artist would have certainly inserted a bubble over John’s head with the words, “It worked!” inscribed in it.

But then it didn’t. His painful descent and the entire Anusara Yoga movement he took along with him began with the withdrawal of the powerful shaktis at the top of the organization. It then unraveled from his “exposure” to a widespread questioning of the legitimacy and safety of yoga itself. Public opinion has started to question the inherent good in the practice. And many people who depend on that positive opinion for their livelihoods lie in a precarious wait-and-see.

What went wrong? Is it just the same-old men, women and power dynamic? Or is it something entirely else? I’d suggest that the demise of many modern yoga movements has to do with our cultural penchant to pick and choose.

In the Western adoption of yoga and tantra, we’ve decided what we’ll keep intact of the imported traditions and what we’ll discard. For example:

Throw out the Guru whose real attainment is his/her surrender of ego (and whose role is to keep ours in check). Yet keep the charismatic image of “teacher” because it endorses products well and sells a lot of trainings.

Throw out contextual interpretations of yoga and tantric texts as well as the original language they’re encoded in. Yet keep the mistranslated juicy parts that reinforce the fulfillment of our own cultural desires.

Throw out tantric views of sex that have historically elevated women as sacred sources of spiritual power. Yet keep our exploitative and, at the same time, prudish sexual mores.

And finally, throw out the years and years of discipline required for true enlightenment. Yet keep our American proclivity for all things fast and apply it to yogic attainment—and do it in 200 hours.

So it may not be the dangerous threesome of men, women, and power that continues to disrupt our faith in the spiritual and political institutions that unite us. Instead, it might be the fault of a fourth culprit. Ego.

[Photo: Statue]


Editors: Tanya L. Markul & Andrea B.


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About Dr. Katy Poole

Katy Poole, Ph.D. helps yogis who have a thirst for deeper experiences of samadhi discover it in Sanskrit, which is not a dead classical language that only geeky academics who hang out at Berkeley or Harvard can decipher. Rather, Sanskrit is a vibrational technology with which to enter higher states of consciousness. It's the gateway drug that causes addiction to effortless meditation. And it aligns your biorhythms with the pulse of nature at its source. Dr. Poole offers a free online introduction to Sanskrit video course that you can access at her website: http://www.SanskritforYoga.com


18 Responses to “Time Magazine’s (Yoga) Man of the Year & the Shakti Behind Him.”

  1. AnOldTimer says:

    Great stuff. Thanks. Gonna share this one.

  2. Yuck says:

    Throw out, too: centuries of western women of all races & classes fighting, bleeding, sacrificing and struggling for the right to not be turned into sexual objects, in the name of shakti or anything else. These postfeminist little girls bought a brainless bill of sordid goods that played to their vanities and greed. And they bought it. They are culpable, all the little white girls in that inner circle, just as John Friend is. Not "timeless" abuse of power between men and women, but specific: abuse of power between rich white men & women insulated by ignorant American empire privilege. They atre the 1%. pathetic disrespect to other women, every labor and social reformer who protested the employment discrimation that forced so many women into prostitution in the past to people who work to stop sexual slavery now. And why? Because the culturally imperialistic Orientalism of some upper middle class white American women led them to believe is vaguely "Eastern" teachings about the sexual female divine. Dumb, dumber, dumberer.

  3. rah says:

    I'd have to agree w/ "yuck." This isn't "timeless" gender politics. Not ALL women respond in the same way. Some of us fight; some walk away. Some choose to build power and self-respect from the ground up rather than prostituting themselves to a teacher, employer, "star" or guru. Yeah it's gender politics in that women in general need to found power in ourselves, not displace it onto men. But no the choices themselves are not generalizable — b/c most of us don;t fuck our teachers or bosses to feel powerful.

  4. Katy Poole says:

    Wow Yuck and rah.

    You ladies embody an amazing fire. That's shakti. My point, however, in this article was not to condone what may have gone on in the Anusara circle. (And I say "may" because I wasn't there and we haven't really heard from the women involved. I'm also not so quick to describe them as "brainless." They may be much sharper than we want to give them credit for.) Or to present a justification for the contemporary misuse of tantric practices. I really wanted to point out that it isn't men, women, or power that's necessarily the problem. It's the way they're collectively manipulated by exactly what you point out, Yuck—greed, vanity, jealousy, materialism, and so on which are symptomatic of an ego-driven culture that's based on principles of religious and political dominance. That's the reason we're so offended by JF's misuse of tantra. But it's not just his misuse. It's how we've always conducted ourselves as the world's leading imperialists. We take over things—including other people's spiritualities—and change them. What we're seeing happening with yoga right now is the consequences of changing the traditions so much to fit into our culture of self-fulfillment that it's actually causing real damage to people's lives, which is so far off the mark we have to figure out a corrective.

    Thanks for sharing your fire. I love what you said, rah, about building up from the ground. And I appreciate how you pointed out the obvious racial inequity in yoga, Yuck. We should also mention the predominance of eating disorders in yoga, employment discrimination based on body weight and size, age-ism, and so on. It shows us how yoga is not separate from the larger issues that plague women in the culture at large.

  5. Dale Elson says:

    I have been teaching for 7 years, and practicing Anusara for 10. And I have no idea what you just said about JF, because your comments about my God are so deeply offensive to me that for the first time ever, I am complaining about somebody trashing Jesus.
    Show a little respect to the men and women who adore Jesus.
    And then maybe we will be able to hear the point you wanted to make.

  6. Katy Poole says:

    Hi Dale,

    I'm so sorry you misinterpreted my remarks about Jesus. The quotes come from the Gnostic Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene, which you can read for yourself and decide what they say. And they weren't meant to be offensive concerning the life and teachings of Jesus. They were meant to *perhaps* suggest that there's an entirely different history behind Christianity based on new evidence discovered in these "forgotten" gospels. Perhaps if Mary Magdalene had been the rightful heir to the church and not a victim of jealousy and misogyny the tradition may have looked very different. I know mainstream Christians don't agree with the validity of the Gnostic gospels so I certainly don't expect you to accept this view. But I must ask you to re-read my article. I said nothing offensive about Jesus at all—unless it offends you that perhaps Jesus may have been married or otherwise engaged in a significant relationship with the Magadalene as many Christians are. The Gnostics were persecuted (and still are) for believing in the humanity AND the divinity of Jesus. Sad to see in your comments they still are so misunderstood.

  7. 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

  8. Katy Poole says:

    Hi Dale again,

    I thought you might be interested in reading a bit about Church history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nic

    Though the central point of my article was not meant to argue about the figure of Jesus and the validity of the Gnostic position on his life and teachings, learning about what went on under the direction of Peter (who according to Gnostic sources was jealous regarding the relationship between Jesus and Mary) that culminated in the decisions made at Nicaea regarding Church doctrine and structure, I think, may help you and others who may be offended by my article perceive the larger point I was making. We pick and choose what we'll accept in any tradition — whether it's religion or contemporary yoga. Historical evidence has revealed that the canonical Gospels many Christians today regard as the definitive Word of God were a deliberate choice of Church authorities for many reasons we could debate. Many teachings of Jesus we know now were declared heretical at that council and subsequent ones. (In this regard, please read the Gospel of Thomas, which many Christians in South India adhere to this day.) As we know of the history of the Inquisition, many people were murdered in cold blood by Church officials for adhering to those heretical views, like the Cathars of France who believed in the sacred relationship between Mary and Jesus. And some of those "heretical" teachings maybe shouldn't have been discounted but were for reasons similar to what we're experiencing in the Western adoption of yoga. What we'll pick and choose has everything to do with our own egoic proclivities and not necessarily what may be true and authentic. (Or they're picked and choosen for us by authorities who have entirely different political agendas for their choices in doctrine.) And perhaps what drives our egoic proclivities is our offense over the relationships between men, women and power within the sacred realm of religion and politics.

    Having said all this, however, I do want you to know — and any other Christian I may have offended — is that I highly respect your faith, more than you may surmise from this article alone. But I also respect history and differing views about all faiths than have been propagated by the institutions that house them. As I said in my article in response to William Broad's piece in the NY Times quoting a famous Sanskrit piece of wisdom — "Truth is One; The wise describe it in various ways." And I apologize if the way I've described "truth" hit a nerve. I didn't mean to offend — just push the boundaries a bit, and in doing so I don't think my remarks diminished the beautiful teachings of Jesus in the slightest.

  9. Dale Elson says:

    Dr. Poole, I am a student of Christian theology and church history, so don't bother pointing me to an article in Wiki (seriously?? Wiki???) unless you want to be pointed to tomes of boring but well-documented and peer-reviewed church histories. I am intimately familiar with the Gnostic heresies, and the Church's response to them. I also am familiar with the evolution of the Canon of the Bible and the understanding of the nature of Jesus. Suggesting that Xtns are ignorant of the history of their religion, which somewhat accurate, is again rather offensive. Nobody is suggesting that you might not understand something about Sanskrit (which I know comparatively nothing about).

    That said, I did not misinterpret your comments in the slightest. You cannot hide your comments behind a "*perhaps* suggest" – you wrote what you wrote. Yes, it is deeply offensive to a Christian to suggest that Jesus carried on "an intimate relationship" and was involved in a "sex scandal." I believe that it is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise when the structure of your opening remarks sets up the parallels between the JF scandal and something that allegedly happened to Jesus.

    It all comes down to a very simple question, Dr. Poole. Are you saying that Jesus was having sex with Mary or not? If not, then the analogy between JF and Jesus is not apt. If so, then own it, and realize that you lost me when you compared the abusive sexual immorality and Wiccan antics of JF to the life led by the paradigm of love, justice, mercy, and right behavior.

    The analogy of Jesus to JF, involving sleeping with a married woman and abusing the other women who flocked to Him, and engaging in pagan worship, was ill considered for anyone who claims to understand and respect the faith of those who love Jesus, because it is the man Himself that we love.

    And you get the last word, 'cause I'm done.

  10. Katy Poole says:

    Hi Dale,

    I'm not hiding my comments behind a "perhaps" and "suggest". I'm simply suggesting. I don't know and neither do you what really went on in the first century. I am not dogmatic in my views. By "suggesting" altering views, I'm opening up a dialogue instead of dictating a perspective. The difference between you and me is that I'm willing to engage a different perspective. If someone suggested I don't know something about Sanskrit and Vedas, I can assure you I would not be threatened. People challenge my beliefs, knowledge and education all the time. I actually welcome that challenge because it helps me to grow as an intellectual and as a spiritual practitioner. When I'm wrong, I'm willing to admit that I'm wrong. Or if I hadn't considered something important before and someone is bold and kind enough to point it out to me, I'm grateful because I expand my wisdom that way. The problem with Christians like you is that you are not willing to engage in any other version of history, theology, or doctrine that challenges your one-sided beliefs. And that's too bad for you. It keeps you stuck. (As a former professor of religious studies, I taught many classes on monotheism and it was always Christian students who couldn't handle competing versions of history or doctrine. Not my Muslim or Jewish students, but fundamentalists who insist on the "rightness" of their beliefs. It really resulted in very one-sided, insulting and degrading discussions which is clearly where you're headed here.)

    But again, I refer to my larger point which was not to attack Christians like you who are *perhaps* stuck in beliefs that can't handle being challenged by competing historical evidence. Nor to insult your intelligence by referring you to Wiki, which actually presents a decent summary of the history behind the creation of the doctrine you adhere to. Nor is my point to judge John Friend and his relationships because as in the case of the historical Jesus, neither you nor I really know what went on. It was to point out that as in Christianity as well as our modern adaption of yoga in the West that we pick and choose what we believe and practice.

    If you don't agree with that central point, then we'll have to agree to disagree. All emotion aside, I'm grateful for your remarks. I apologize sincerely for your offense, but I stand by my larger point.

  11. Katy Poole says:

    One other last comment in the form of a question for you, Dale. I’m genuinely puzzled as to why you would become an Anusara teacher in the first place. How do you reconcile John’s “Shiva/Shakti Tantra” with your Christian beliefs? Do you simply practice the yoga as a physical exercise and not integrate the philosophy? Do you keep his universal principles of alignment and interpret them in light of Christian theology? “Opening to grace,” for example, may mean something totally different to you than someone from another theological bent. Your responses to my article present a really strange, and yet fascinating, conundrum to me and I think your answers could present (from my perspective) a much more interesting discussion than our disagreement about history. How do you pick and choose? Can a committed Christian like yourself be also a yogi whose teacher is Hindu tantrika with also clearly defined beliefs that completely contradict yours? I think the readers of elephant would be much more interested in this kind of discussion than our arguments about Christian history and theology. (And selfishly, I think your answers would serve my larger point.)

  12. Dale Elson says:

    Yes, I am "stuck in beliefs" that I have studied and challenged and refined and tested for 25yrs. Beliefs that are the more strong because I demand that they be internally consistent. There are core beliefs and debatable points. I don't know what Jesus wore on his feet, or exactly where He walked (in most cases). But I know in great detail the man Himself – His character, moral code, dual natures, and pretty extensively "what would Jesus do." In His human nature He knew all (untainted by the fall) human emotions and desires, so I know that the beautiful human urge to take a wife and be united with her in emotional, physical, and spiritual ecstacy must have been strong in Him. I also know that He knew His mission, and it absolutely did not allow that. So it didn't happen.

    So when you say that often Xtns "can't handle" alternate views of history than are proposed by the Bible and the Church, I think that you are seeing Xtns outright reject as errors the testimony of authors that contradict both the bulk of historical evidence and their certainty that they know what Jesus would have done in specific instances. "Don't believe everything you read" applies. As does a healthy dose of textual criticism.

    This happens alot when possibly-well-meaning (see – I can also state things while denying that I am making that statement….). ok, I'll start over. When well-meaning students of religion draw parallels between different religions, they often err, in the judgement of the adherents of those religions. That is usually because a believer understands things about the religion that a non-believer is not able to perceive. The believer says that the analyst doesn't get it, and the analyst says that the believer doesn't understand the obvious parallels. I say wheat and tares…

    Oh, and as for the idea that Muslims and Jews do not insist on the "rightness" of their beliefs, I am sure that your studies have highlighted many contrary examples :-).

  13. Dale Elson says:

    Now, about teaching yoga. First, I am not an Anusara Inspired or Certified teacher, although I can see how you read that. My wording was not clear. I am an RYT200 who has been teaching yoga since early 2005 and practicing Anusara since 2000ish. A couple years ago, I took Anusara teacher training from an amazing teacher. The Immersion challenged, refined, and strengthened my understanding and application of the UPAs, and gave me the chance to study a small pile of Hindu Vedic texts (or a large pile, if you include the 5 or 6 different translations/commentaries of the Gita and Patanjali that I read :-). And of course the teacher training was about how to teach yoga, not so much about Anusara per se, although we were using the UPAs as our alignment technology. (And let me state that this is an insignificant amount of study to devote to a world religion, so I try not to say things about other religions, and I bow to anyone with real expertise in them.)

    So, how do I reconcile the recent Shiva-Shakti Tantra with the Bible? I don't. Might as well mix oil and water: at some point the engine blows up.

    As a Xtn, I do not have Teachers or Gurus. I have teachers, that help me understand the truth, but they do not source the truth. Only God sources the truth, and he did that a long time ago. So when JF invented the UPAs, he didn't create the truths in them – he discovered the truths of reality that are embodied in the UPAs that he invented. So I don't perceive a conflict in agreeing that the UPAs are awesomely effective, and also deciding that elements of the philosophy are bogus. And that an amazing technology can be discovered by someone who acted badly at some point in his life.

    And historically, Anusara Inspired teachers were required to understand the Hindu-Tantric philosophy, but not to teach it, only to teach a life-affirming heart theme that enhanced the physical practice by drawing the imagination and emotions into the flow (and of course, Affiliated teachers and most Anusara teachers before that had even looser guidelines).

    In the revision of Anusara teaching requirements that I was taught, Anusara classes are characterized by three elements: kula, the UPAs, and a heart-based theme. Nurturing the kula is natural for a Xtn, and caring about your students is IMO the primary requirement of a teacher, yoga or otherwise, so kula is easy, and requires no anti-Xtn acts or teachings. The UPAs are strictly a bio-mechanical technology, so that is not a problem.

    That leaves the heart-based theme. When I went thru training, a heart-based theme, as taught by an Anusara Inspired teacher, was only required to be a heart-based theme, with no required religious or philosophical underpinning other than "life-affirming." So there was no requirement to teach Hindu or Tantric philosophy. (requiements for a Certified teacher were much more philosophy-specific, so I never aspired to that status.) So no problem – I teach the greatness of the human heart, or the hero that is inside of us, waiting to be called, or the calm relief in ungrasping physical things, or facing challenges by holding fast to your center & your core beliefs, or a huge number of other themes that are not tied to any one religion. And I throw in some Xtn stuff, but everybody knows I'm "one of those," so I get away with occasionally talking about "in my belief." And to me, the words of Jesus are living water – the Boy Scout manual of the heart set free.

    And perhaps most importantly, I am not true/historical yoga teacher, and neither are the vast majority of yoga teachers in this country <ducking> ok – just my opinion, but check it out — We are asana, and perhaps 3 or 4 other limb teachers. I am not teaching the 8 limbs as a way to get off of the wheel and escape the suffering of life, so I am not really teaching yoga. I am teaching a selection of limbs that edify the body/mind/emotions. Nobody I know is teaching Patanjali yoga either, but I havn't sent out a survey lately :-).

  14. Dale Elson says:

    Bonus Round: Can a Xtn teach the 8 limbs? Mostly, but not for the original purpose of getting off of the wheel. We can teach them to the extent that they have uses that serve Xtn purposes. Remember that I am just saying what Xtn thinking is, and I support your right to have contrary opinions. And I have found that the Yamas make for good neighbors :-). Note that this is debatable area in Xtn debate, so I do not speak for all, or perhaps even most Xtns here.

    Yamas: Sort of. Xtns hold a slightly different set of values. I can teach the ones that Jesus gave us, especially "love you neighbor as yourself."

    Niyamas: Again, Xtns believe that the heart attitudes of Jesus are superior, but the Niyamas are admirable and excellent.

    Asana: Definitely, but not really to the original purpose of preparing one to sit still. But that's not a bad thing. Especially for kids :-). I teach asana for the building up and maintenance of the wonderful gift of a body that we have been given. And by extension, I teach conservation of the earth.

    Pranayama: Definitely. Again, not to the original purpose, but for joy and for the calming and control of the body/mind.

    Pratyahara: I teach it as sense control, both to increase your focus during asana, and to withdraw senses during emergency trips for medical & dental care. If you are going into any kind of comflict, P&P are wonderful tools.

    Dharana: I do not teach this, because I would have to teach a single-point meditation on the Xtn God, and none of my students are asking for that :-).

    Samadhi: This is opposed to the Xtn understanding of the purpose of life, so I would not teach it. fyi, most Xtns believe that the suffering in life is as much a gift as the joy, because the suffering is the forge that refines us by forming us into people who choose what is right, even when it hurts. Well, its a goal.

  15. Pankaj Seth says:

    Dale, Hinduism contains an overarching scheme known as the 4 aims of life… dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Yoga aims at Moksha, but life is comprised of all 4 aims. Yoga taken on as a vocation is pretty rare. Aiming at moksha is pretty rare, and generally reserved for the latter part of life. If the purpose of life in Hinduism were to be seen as sitting in a cave and waiting for Samadhi or death, then there wouldn't be the enormous outpouring of the arts, cuisine, mathematics etc. etc. etc.

    The Shiva-Shakti metaphysics is hardly required to announce a 'heart centered' approach to life. The 4 aims scheme announces that… announces an holistic approach which is not too desire-centric and not too ascetic due to comprising all 4 aims. Now it happens that some persons, early in life, with a one-pointedness aim for moksha… but that's not the norm. A balancing of all 4 aims is more usual.

    Also, Yoga is one of 6 classically held approaches to knowledge, to moksha too. It is complementary to the others… nyaya, vaisheshika, sankhya, mimamsa and vedanta… these approaches together take in logic, analysis, liturgy/ritual, dual and non-dual metaphysical stances. Its a vast and grand system… here's a free copy of: http://www.archive.org/details/AHistoryOfIndianPh… (2517 pages). I hope you enjoy learning more about this. All the best…

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