Putting our teachers on a pedestal is inevitable.
We hold them to a higher standard because they are imparting transformative knowledge to us. For many serious yogis, the physical practice of yoga is just part of the appeal. The bigger draw comes from the emotional clearing, the energy release and the connection to our deeper self that we gain with yoga practice.
The ability to align our mind with our body—even for a short time—creates so much space in our hearts and minds, and that extra space can help us function with more purpose and clarity in the big bad world.
We feel indebted and connected to the teacher that helps open us to this part ourselves and may help us feel connected to spirituality. Our relationship with our teachers is important to us. They may be our initial gateway to the benefits of yoga.
Ethics for yoga teachers is a topic dear to Yoganand, Michael Carroll. When training teachers, he explains how students may project all sorts of emotional issues onto them. It’s important, he explains, for teachers to be prepared for this and to set clear and healthy boundaries. The clearer those boundaries, the more room there is for teachers to teach yoga philosophy and lifestyle without being expected to practice it without misstep.
In the following interview Yoganand opens up about his experience with the fall of his Guru, Amrit Desai, and he clarifies the different roles modern teachers need to understand and navigate.
Yoganand was a monk at the Kripalu Ashram from 1980 to 1994. He studied closely with Amrit Desai who was the leader of Kripalu and who had a fall from grace in 1994. It was discovered that Amrit, a married man who had taken a vow of celibacy, had engaged in multiple affairs with women students over the years.
The ensuing scandal almost caused the end of the Kripalu Ashram. The members of Kripalu asked Amrit to leave the center that he founded. The remaining members knew there was great value in much of Amrit’s teachings, they worked to realign the program with Swami Kripalu’s original teachings, and were able to keep the doors open. This group of devotees changed the Ashram to a learning center and over time the scandal became part of the history of the center and not its defining characteristic.
After Amrit resigned, the monastic order disbanded. Yoganand stayed at Kripalu and continued exploring Kripalu yoga as a householder. He served for several years as head of the Kripalu Advanced Teacher Training Program and directed the Kripalu Basic Yoga Teacher Training Program.
In 2004, Yoganand left Kripalu, with the encouragement of the administration, to further develop Prankakriya Yoga, a distinct tradition based on Swami Kripalu’s teachings. He continues to lead workshops at Kripalu a few times each year. His studio, Radiant Well Being Yoga is located in North Augusta, South Carolina, and he travels in the South and the East coast to lead Pranakriya workshops and teacher trainings.
Yoganand’s experience changing his life after the scandal can be instructive to the yoga community dealing with the aftermath of the John Friend and Anusara scandal. Here is yet another perspective to consider as the news flow quiets and teachers and students try to find their new normal and direction for the Anusara tradition.
I was a student in Yoganand’s 2011-2012 training. As part of teaching ethics and boundaries for teachers, Yoganand shared his experiences with learning the truth about his trusted guru and how this changed the direction of his life.
This section of our training happened to take place last March when the Anusara scandal was exploding. I saw the parallels between the two scandals and realized that sharing Yoganand’s story could shed light on what the fall of the Guru means for the yoga community and what we can learn about ourselves by looking at the expectations we put on our Gurus.
In the first installment of our interview Yoganand and I talk about these issues and about his upcoming book on pranayam (yogic breathing techniques) practice. Pranayama: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Ancient Yoga Secrets will be published in the Fall of 2012.
Rachel Dalinka: Tell me why you decided to write a book and what that process entailed?
Yoganand: Well, it wasn’t really that I decided to write a book. I know that writing is not my forte. I can tell you it’s a lot of work and it’s really slow. As I’ve taught over the years I’ve had a bunch of people asking me for a book. Occasionally what would happen is someone in a program would come to me and say ‘I’m a writer. I’d like to work with you on a book.’ And, whenever someone would do that I would always say ‘well, that’s great! You know, you go home and digest the program and relax and settle in, and in 6 weeks if you still want to write a book—call me!’ Because folks get high, from the program, you know? So, practically no one ever writes back or calls me back. One person did, her name is Allison Gemmel Laframboise. She took the teacher training with me at Kripalu, I think back in 2000.
Y: So, Allison was very interested in what I was teaching and wanted to work with the material and we had a couple of meetings. I was looking for, you know, her motive, and I didn’t want someone to put a lot of work into a book and then feel disappointed for feeling it didn’t lead where she wanted it to go. I wanted to scope out what she was after.
She was also very much a yogini and really into what she was learning from me, and wanted to spend time with the material. Putting it all together seemed like a good thing to do. So, she took all of my programs; she took all of my courses. She took them several times and she recorded them, and she transcribed all the lectures. And, this was like a senior project.
From the lectures, she made some articles, and it seemed to be that we were off to a good start. I hadn’t heard from her in almost 3 years, and maybe 6 months ago, Amy (Yoganand’s wife) called me from the studio and said there was a package that arrived in the mail. I came in and opened the package and it was a book, a manuscript! Yeah! It’s about, almost 200 pages.
There was a note from Allison attached that said, ‘Here’s the book! When I was pregnant, I couldn’t work, so I did this.’ She had done a great job, it still needed work, a lot of this material was old, you know, these lectures were 7 or 8 years old now, 10 years old in some cases. We’ve been in the process of rewriting it, updating it, and we will probably self-publish this fall, September perhaps.
RD: So, the book focuses on pranayama as you teach it? That process? Can you tell me a little bit more about the thesis of the book?
Y: If you look at most books on pranayam or how pranayam shows up in a lot of yoga classes, it’s basically treated like an asana (physical posture). You know, it’s something you do, and sometimes the benefits are taught, and sometimes they’re not. I have a very interesting set of CD’s from a very well known, very mainstream yoga teacher who begins one of her classes by saying, We’re going to start with some pranayam. Sit down, inhale through your right nostril and (she counts to four and then says hold) and counts to eight and says exhale through your left nostril (and counts to eight again) and does this like ten times and then says stop and stand up for sun salute. So, the pranayam is given with no context at all; it’s just something that you do.
Y: There’s just not a lot of real instruction out there. I was fortunate to study under Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai. Kripalu was very, very much into the psychological; call them energetic, or spiritual aspects of the practice. When you add that to the technique, it just changes everything. It makes it a very powerful practice for self discovery. That’s what the book’s about.
We talk about a lot of different aspects of it and we go through how pranayam would have been taught in ancient times. We go through pranayams that are appropriate for the modern practitioner, pranayams that aren’t, and the ones that aren’t…we talk about what was intended, and what the practitioners were hoping to gain from the practice. Why they did them, and then more appropriately explore how a modern student could generate a similar effect in a way that was safer.
RD: The book gives context, history, and a little bit of how to. Is that what I’m hearing?
Y: There’s definitely how to. I would really recommend that anyone who’s going to learn pranayam learn from a teacher. There are a lot of experienced yoga people out there who already have a base. This is not written for the brand new beginning student. This is for teachers and folks who already have a base of yoga knowledge and want to learn more.
RD: Got it. So, this is almost like a train the trainer type of book.
Y: If someone wasn’t a teacher, wasn’t a practitioner, they could still read the book and get it. It’s a stand-alone book, if someone wanted to read it and practice and learn, it would be the teacher’s, teacher’s book. But, if someone was just really interested in pranayam and maybe they’ve just taken a few classes, they could certainly get a lot of information about the practice. It could be very informative for them. And, if someone’s a teacher it’ll be, I think, a very valuable resource.
RD: That’s exciting. So let’s change the direction of our talk. I was really moved by your story of your experience with Amrit’ Desai’s double life, and how making it known affected the people who were committed to him as a guru and to Kripalu as an ashram. And specifically how it affected you, and what it taught you and how you translated that into what and how you teach boundaries for yoga teachers. What were some of the biggest difficulties you had, personally, in handling the disgrace of your beloved teacher? And, how did you overcome them?
Y: The biggest difficulty was, you know, I had a relationship of trust with this person. He turned out to not be who I thought he was. That was just plain wounding. I needed to digest. I need to process.
RD: From that wounding, how did you start the process of healing?
Y: It just took time. You know, what we all did was just be as conscious as we could be, keep doing what we had to do to keep going and pay the bills and keep doing our lives—just let it happen in the background. For me, it took years. I remember noticing that there were some people who jumped right away to this spiritual thing of ‘we should let it all go. We should forgive.’. But, that didn’t really mean anything to me. It seemed forced. There was a point where it was like, it’s nothing to be proud of, it’s just done. Time to move on. It’s a very internal process for me. With any wounding there is, a psychological process that goes with it. To me, what’s most important is that structural integration process that happens on a biological or nervous system level.
RD: Right, almost like, intellectually, you can say ‘I forgive.’ But, the forgiveness doesn’t necessarily happen until it happens at that subtle body level, maybe?
Y: That’s how I see it. I think that there’s value, I think that there can be value in affirming where you want to be, but I also think that there’s a danger of denial there, too. I was fortunate. John Friend’s scandal is passing now, and his followers are spread far and wide. I was fortunate to be part of a community of 300 people who were all going through it together.
In that community was a whole spectrum of reactions. If you were to sit back, if some psychologist were sitting back and watching us all, and they were to map us going through the grieving process… everybody was at different stages, you could see this… here’s 20 people in this stage, and here’s 20 people responding that way. I think for a lot of folks it was such a painful place to be… they wanted to jump over it.
RD: Right, and they had each other to help lift them up.
Y: Right. And then, there were people who wanted to act on it. There were people who wanted to kill him, you know?
RD: People who wanted retribution, somehow?
Y: In fact, when it was acknowledged to the community what he had done, that night they hired security guards to watch his house because they were really afraid for his life. There was a whole spectrum of reactions.
RD: Right, which the human condition creates…
Y: And in different ways. I remember a woman in the community, who when she was younger, had a daughter. She divorced her husband and had a boyfriend, and (her daughter was 12 years old) and after a couple years she found her live in boyfriend was molesting her daughter. She just went ballistic. Later on, when (20 years later, now) this thing happens with Amrit, it was like, you know, it was like all she could talk about was her daughter. It was happening all over again.
RD: That wound was completely opened up.
Y: She went through the building basically smashing pictures everywhere. She saw a picture of the guru and she smashed it. She was brutal, you know?
RD: She wasn’t just smashing the guru, she was also smashing the boyfriend who molested her daughter. (Not to interrupt, sorry!) It’s just having a daughter…
Y: No! That brings out your mother tendencies. Protection.
Y: It’s a stirring. It stirs up whatever… you know, something obvious. All traumas do. They stir up what’s inside. In the healing from the current trauma there’s a possibility of re-framing the past, or changing your relationship with it. If there’s a positive side to trauma, it’s that it gives you an opportunity to re-frame who you are and re-frame your past.
RD: So, dealing with the new trauma can provide for a re-framing of past trauma?
Y: Well, you know, you can change your relationship with things that have happened in the past. This woman thought she was done with her boyfriend and what happened with her daughter and then there it was again. Processing it, through what happened with Amrit, she basically recycled or further digested the daughter experience.
If you look at yoga, every time you hold your breath when you’re doing pranayam or do a long holding posture, you’re creating a stirring. There’s the potential for that stirring to bring up some old hidden feeling, or old pattern. That’s a lot of what tantric hatha yoga is. You’re putting yourself in situations that stir you. Life does it from the outside. The betrayal of the teacher is just another example of that. The tantric hatha yoga practice is to do it inside, and if you’ve done it inside, then when it happens outside, you’re much more likely to process it in a more conscious or more thorough way because you’ve done it inside.
R: What do you think the most surprising experience you had in handling the changes that took place at Kripalu and in your life after Amrit left?
Y: The hardest thing for me was that I had been living a very non-worldly lifestyle. I hadn’t seen a movie in 15 years. I mean, I saw 1 movie and that was Joan of Arc, which was shown at the ashram. I hadn’t read novels, I hadn’t seen a newspaper. I’d been living a life very focused on doing the practice that I was doing. Suddenly, the world intruded. At that time, it really looked like Kripalu was gonna fold. Guests stopped coming. Nobody wants to come to a place… you know, all the lay community disappeared. And, there were lawsuits! There were a bunch of lawsuits. The organization had planned to close the doors that August. He resigned in November; in the coming August they were planning on closing the doors. Everybody who was a member of the community was going to have to go out and get a job in the world. Go back wherever, basically, go home.
RD: And, what year was that?
Y: He resigned in 1994 and we were going to close in 1995. A funny thing happened, towards the end. A bunch of folks (maybe about 30) decided that there were some really good things about what we did. It wasn’t all bad; a lot of what we did was incredible. It was just that the leadership was bad. The group decided to keep the place going and basically redesigned Kripalu Yoga. They took everything that Kripalu and Amrit Desai had given us and went through it, basically page by page, and said ‘I believe this. I don’t believe that.’ And, basically, redid the teachings. Just imagine taking the books of the prophets and just going through and deciding, you believe this, you don’t believe that… and coming up with something that’s sort of your version of it all.
RD: On that note, in April there was an article by Andrew Sullivan in Newsweek about how Thomas Jefferson did just that with the bible. He went through and cut out the teachings, I guess the bible that maybe John the Baptist wrote of Jesus’ teachings, the New Testament. He went through and cut out the pieces that he felt were actually Jesus’ real teachings, and threw away everything else, and tried to distill it down to what Jesus actually taught.
Y: Folks have tried to do that. You know, there are scholars now who do go back and they’ve got some criteria. They look at things… If you look at all the books of the bible, I mean, you can look at the prophets, too, New Testament, it doesn’t matter. You can see that there is something the person is trying to say. It’s very easy to see with the Gospels, the 4 Stories. Jesus’ biography is told from 4 different perspectives. The first was Mark, that’s the oldest. He’s trying to present in a certain way. The next one, or the next two, Luke and Matthew, are based on Mark. In fact, all of Mark is inside of them. They add stuff. When the scholars go back over it. What did this person add? And, then they’ll look at the verses and some of them will take a verse from Mark and change a word. Well, why did they change that word? What you get is an intention. This person is trying to say something. Mark didn’t say what they wanted to say; they wanted to change it. So, they went back and wrote in, or added, their particular way of spinning it.
RD: Their point of view.
Y: You go back and look at the prophets, and there’s all kinds of little pithy– little light statements. Each of them had a thing that was trying to communicate something. They were trying to make a point. That point might be you should change your ways. That point might be to go back to the old ways. The point might be you should have devotion… They were trying to make a point. Anytime someone’s making a point, they’re distorting something.
RD: Exactly. So, they distorted it, and interestingly, I think that that circles back to the idea that fascinates me; the deification of the guru. Mark, Luke and Matthew were preaching the Gospel of Jesus who they thought was a prophet or the son of God. In their mind, whether or not it’s accurate, Jesus was a deity. So they were spreading the word of their deity.
Y: Mark did present him as a Jewish prophet. He was a Jewish prophet. He actually made him look like all the other Jewish prophets. Then, John, the latest, wanted to deify him, made him his own religion. So, Matthew, Mark, in between each had a stance. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe it was him basically saying he was misunderstood.
RD: Who was misunderstood, Mark or Jesus?
Y: Jesus. He was a misunderstood prophet. Nobody really understood what he had to say. So, each of them wanted to make a theological statement and of course they’re going to spin it to make that theological statement. Even what we’re doing right now, you know, you’re writing this article with a certain intention and I’m giving you the facts from my perspective and the fact that you support that intention, it’s going to be hard to give it as much weight as in fact it does… There’s a bias. Anytime you may go to talk about something that happened in the past, there’s going to be a bias.
RD: Absolutely. It’s filtered through my consciousness and my perception of reality, so there’s no way that any human interaction can be unbiased.
Y: Actually, healing from a traumatic experience is developing a bias. Because, a traumatic experience disturbs your world view, or disturbs your integrity or your sense of self. If you look at a sexual abuse experience, that disturbs your personal integrity, psychological integrity, and then healing from it you can’t make it not happen. What you can do is find a way to understand it. That ‘understanding’ it is developing a bias.
Y: That might mean deciding that that person is bad, and I’m okay, I’m not bad. It might be ‘that shouldn’t have happened’ or ‘I need to protect myself to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’
RD: The next thing is, then (and you’ve answered this in some ways throughout this conversation) but more pointedly… What advice can you share with the yoga community to help people move forward from the current scandal involving John Friend and Anusara I know that may be too much—you don’t want to give the yoga community advice, but your thoughts on how people can move forward?
Y: I think that’s just way too big. There are too many aspects to what happened. If you consider this, shouldn’t we just say that people shouldn’t project onto others? Especially as much as people shouldn’t give people as much power and authority as they give John Friend and Amrit Desai?
RD: That’s it!
Y: But, then again, if you consider (in a spiritual realm) that’s how we grow. If we’re all the same, why would I study with anyone? When I find someone who has more wisdom or more maturity than I do and I open myself to that person (whether they be a college professor, a kindergarten teacher, someone who’s training me for a job) that just happens, and it’s not inappropriate. We’re geared to do that. We’re drawn to do that. Sometimes we’re going to get hurt when it happens. I can tell you ‘don’t do this’ but I could also say ‘if you’re going to do this, you’re going to risk getting hurt.’
RD: And I guess if you don’t risk getting hurt, then you risk stagnation.
Y: There’s a saying I like. I don’t know where I heard it. I don’t think it’s in any of the old books; it’s a little too new-agey for that. It basically says ‘If you get attached, the world will break your heart, but you’re not your heart.’
Y: Consider this…if someone’s going to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, if they’re going to have romance… They’re going to get hurt! That’s part of the territory. If you’re going to date, you’re going to get hurt, but I think most of us think the benefit outweighs, or at least the benefit is more attractive than the hurt.
RD: We’re swept up into the positive of the benefit and that supersedes the fear of the hurt. Drowns it out.
Y: If someone is doing something to generate intense wisdom…
RD: For example?
Y: Well, John Friend lived basically a life of practice and study. You’ve got a Jack Cornfield who went to the East and lived in a monastery and became a monk for a period of years. You got me; I’m going to Kripalu and living as a monk for 16 years. If folks are going to generate yoga wisdom, they’re going do it in ways that are very hard to measure. Having that wisdom, there’s a certain charisma that sometimes comes with it. When people open themselves to get that wisdom it means on some level taking a risk similar to the teacher’s risk. Someone might not go and live on an ashram for a whole bunch of years, but if you study with someone who has, they’re going to tell you radical things. Those radical things are going to require from you at least in your mind to stretch beyond your belief system enough to receive what they’re saying. If what I’m teaching comes from a very out there place, you have to get to an out there place to understand it. If you watch an art film that’s done by an outrageous artist, you’re going to get into the mindset of the artist if you really see the film. Does that make sense?
Y: If you look at the spiritual teachings (past life) you’re not your body, mind, heart, possessions won’t make you happy, the whole world is God. Whatever those spiritual teachings are, they’re all radical. If you’re going to study with someone who’s done them, you’re going to go into a radical place. A radical place is a vulnerable place. You’re going to risk getting hurt. I don’t want to justify what he did. I’m just saying that yoga has always been taught by eccentric people.
In the second installment of our interview Yoganand clarifies the differences between teachers and monks, householders and renunciates and the ideal of how the student-teacher relationship works. Read it here.
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Rachel Dalinka lives with her husband and two kids in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she writes and teaches yoga. One of her goals is to show the humans in her life the same level of love and compassion she shows her dog Ollie.
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan
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