Looking Beyond Bikram.

Via Amy Taylor
on Mar 25, 2013
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I understand that the guru-student relationship has deep roots in yogic tradition. Call me hopelessly American, but I don’t think these power dynamics serve student or teacher.

So, Bikram Choudhury is being sued for sexual harassment.

Bikram’s patented sequence of postures, performed in miserably hot and humid conditions, have made him a wealthy man. His inappropriate comments about himself and students, as well as rumors that he has pressured students for sex, have cast a shadow over his success.

Benjamin Lorr published an expose on Bikram entitled Hell-Bent. In my review of Lorr’s book, I concluded that Bikram was a mix of good and bad; I’ll stick to that. Bikram’s skill and style have made him famous. But we chose to make him an icon. He presented a path to the suffering; we bent over backwards trying to follow it.

And now we get to watch him fall, call him names and laugh.

That doesn’t feel right. We’re consumers, practitioners and people presumably seeking a higher path. We bear responsibility for our choices and behavior. So, let’s ask how we can help the right elements thrive and the others fade away.

What are the hot takeaways for those of us striving to stay mindful?

1. Watch out for gurus, especially the self-ordained.

When will we learn? Every human is just that. Humans have ego issues, even (especially?) yoga teachers. Many believe success means filling classes. But the bigger we grow, the bigger the risk that ego will trip us up. It’s hard to stay humble with hundreds bowing at your feet. Most of us don’t have that ability; the few who do may be worthy of our admiration but never our worship.

I understand that the guru-student relationship has deep roots in yogic tradition. Call me hopelessly American, but I don’t think these power dynamics serve student or teacher. My mentors practice rather than preach.

2. Don’t support teachers and styles that don’t support you.

Check out the quiet, sustainable community class. You’ll probably get more individualized attention and can feel confident you’re not supporting corporate practices that don’t serve the greater good.

If you go to a festival or conference, think about why you want to attend a workshop. Be honest. From what you know of the presenter, is she someone you admire for reasons other than bendiness? Are you going so you tell people you took a class from this teacher? Or because you believe what you learn will enhance your practice and your life?

Flagstaff Yoga Festival’s mission is to promote the humble teachers hidden among us. No rock star teachers need apply. There’s a conference I can support.

3. Yoga can’t always replace therapy.

If you find yourself returning to teachers who degrade students or styles of yoga that ignore basic health and safety principles, you’re probably not getting what you need from your practice. It would be nice if yoga could eliminate the need for therapy and medical care. But that’s not true for everyone. Some of us wind up needing therapy and medical care to recover from ill-advised yoga instruction.

4. Even if you can’t find compassion for those who offend you, try not to delight in their suffering.

Those who hurt others are often deeply wounded. Yes, it’s our responsibility as adults to address these wounds and how they affect others. Still, many people don’t have that courage and insight. I find that sad.

How can we keep ourselves from celebrating the poor choices and ill-fortune of others? The Yoga Sutras offer some tips. The principles paraphrased below offer a good guide to negotiating life in a community.

Rejoice with the joyful.

Find compassion for the suffering.

Honor the righteous.

Remain indifferent to the unrighteous.

Of course, there are times when we need to speak out to try and prevent further harm. But whatever we focus upon is nourished by our attention. So, why not search out and celebrate the honorable instead?

When we look beyond the surface, it’s not hard to find.


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Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Amy Taylor

Amy Taylor writes about parenting, yoga and other journeys for jconline.com, GaiamTV, elephant journal and others. Find her biweekly columns here. She completed 200-hour YTT at CITYOGA in Indianapolis in 2008 and teaches classes for all ages at  Community Yoga. When she's not writing or practicing yoga, Amy loves to read, research and have adventures with her husband and twin sons. Follow her on Twitter.


15 Responses to “Looking Beyond Bikram.”

  1. Boodiba says:

    I'm still going to go ahead and delight in his suffering, but at least I'm honest about it.

  2. Thaddeus1 says:

    I'm always fascinated in moments like these, as the "self-appointed mighty" stumbled, to witness the numerous "questionings" that emerge regarding the "guru."

    I'm mostly fascinated because of any real lack of questioning, investigation or introspection. It's typically more like a school yard dog pile, than a serious inquiry or reflection on the subject.

    Now, I will grant that Ms. Taylor offers some very salient and quality points in this piece, but why couch such good advice as "yoga does not necessarily take the place of therapy," or not to waste too much valuable time in basking in others' foibles, within the context a guru-disciple dynamic? Again, it just seems "dog-pileish."

    There is no doubt that the western relationship with "gurus" has been a bumpy road, but wouldn't it make more long term sense to really begin to look into what it is about us which continues to allow such twisted dynamics as those which animate Bikram/Friend et al. to be perceived as guru in nature in the first place. In other words, might it not be in our best interest to really inquire into what a guru looks like in order to stop falling prey to the fakes?

    To jettison the guru-disciple relationship (or even question its legitimacy) on account of some westerners' inability to be discerning is the equivalent of swearing off the use of scissors because the overly bedazzled versions we tried to use failed to cut the paper. There are plenty of good, quality scissors out there, but we have to be smart enough to recognize them and their qualities before endeavoring to cut something.

    When, and if, the discussion reaches this level, then we might have a chance. Until then, I'm going to stay inside during recess.

  3. Paula Reeves-Carrasquillo says:

    My focus is on the victim. I love practicing Bikram yoga. I don't love Bikram the man; I've never met him and wouldn't know if he's more good or if he's more bad. But I do know that a woman has accused him of something that defies goodness, and he should be held accountable. No name-calling. No desire to see him destruct in a cloud of smoke. I want to see true justice served. 🙂

  4. kmacku says:

    Whereas I'm under the impression that it's only through going through gurus that we can eventually come to the one we call our own.

    Objectively, there may be criteria for a "guru." You know, things gurus are supposed to do (remove "darkness and ignorance," as per the Sanskrit word itself) and not do (sleep with their students).

    But past that, it's subjective. The guru you choose should be the guru for you, and if you sit inside watching the kids on the playground, your chances of finding them diminish greatly. And no one's saying a person can't choose a guru, learn everything they can from them at the time or discover something unsavory, and then seek another. I'm not sure how it is in India, but here at least gurus are by no means lifelong relationships.

    "A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for." ~ William Shedd

  5. Maureen says:

    There is a Buddhist saying, "Don't mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon." Bikram Choudhury, the man, is not the practice.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Unfortunately, Paula's comment unintentionally supports Thaddeus' contention. "I've never met him and wouldn't know if he's more good or if he's more bad." Why not? I think Paula means that she wouldn't judge him either way even if she did meet him because it's difficult to know something like that about anyone. But is it? And even if it is hard to know in some cases, is it hard in this case? If a teacher talks publicly about his "atomic balls" it seems like an easy call. Any teacher who refers to his own genitals as atomic balls better be joking for one thing, and better be absolutely squeaky clean for another. This teacher was neither. And if he's guilty, wouldn't "true justice" lead to his destruction? Paula already states that "a woman has accused him and he should be held accountable." Okay. Judge and jury, but okay. He has a long history, so fine. He's guilty. But then there's the bit about not desiring to see him destruct. With true justice, he'd be in jail and I think that would be tantamount to him disappearing in a cloud of smoke. Right?
    I'm sorry, I don't mean to pick on Paula, and I agree with her that justice should be served, but her comment is just so strangely stated I couldn't help but make these points.

  7. Thaddeus1 says:

    Just two quick points.

    First, my metaphor of staying off the playground refers to the superficial and simplistic dismissals of the guru-disciple tradition on the basis of false idols parading (and being paraded) around, not my own spiritual path. I wouldn't worry about me.

    Second, finding a guru is not akin to slipping in and out the dressing room until one finds one that fits. This, I would argue, is perhaps part of the problem which plagues the western seeker. One need know the qualifications of a guru and discriminate potential "candidates" on the basis of such. If not, then one is very likely to get the very kind of guru s/he deserves. A situation which plays out before our eyes over and over again.

  8. Christine says:

    I don't think the real story here is about Bikram (or Friend or Yee or whomever you'd like to cite). As Amy points out, it's about us. It's about styles and celebrity and "the finger pointing at the moon." I'm certain there are local yoga teachers stupping their students, too, and the issues are the same – both personal and community. What prompts us to invest so much personal power in these people (some of them are women, too)? What delusion makes us think (come on, you know you have) "Oh, most people suffer from that flaw, but not THIS one! THIS one is good and true and makes me better and will never let me down!" It's a delusion and it's part of the human condition, one which shapes the truths we make and live. We are the ones who invest so much in their "techniques" and swoon over their supposed knowledge and power. Every style is just someone's take on hatha yoga, and everyone has a take. Some make it into a brand, and that's just fine: how are we going to relieve suffering through yoga if people don't know about it? How do people find out about things in modern culture? Marketing. So market it. But don't mistake the man for the brand or the brand for the thing. And don't forget that you're in it for the yoga: the plain, old, day-in-day-out, sweaty, wring-you-out and put-you-back-together yoganess of it.

  9. anonymous coward says:

    I have to say, that after reading news articles on the Bikram case, the woman sueing him seems a little out of line. If she didn't like the way things were in Bikram's yoga school, she should have quit the school. Bikram yoga is built around 1 man and his teachings, and everything that comes with that … so if it's not working for someone, then they shouldn't be there.

  10. Amy says:

    Wow, what fascinating and thoughtful comments. Thank you for taking the time to continue and expand the conversation. I like the way Waylon addresses the issue in his current piece about ending sex scandals, too. Agree that Seane Corn sets a powerful example of humility and service. Thanks, again.

  11. RAS says:

    My teacher, a well-known Buddhist monk, put it somewhat differently but equally cogently. He said, "When anyone tells you that their way is the right way, the only way, and that all ways are wrong, don't walk away — run!"

  12. RAS says:

    Arguably, too much of yoga in the West is concerned with asanas (the third of the eight limbs of yoga) and not with the two foundational limbs (the yamas and niyamas).

    There's no money to be made from the yamas and niyamas. Perhaps that's why people Bikram pay them so little heed.

  13. Amy says:

    I think it's pretty simple. Is your practice making you a better person? Hot yoga leaves some feeling the bliss; others irritated and cranky. Since I'm typically in the latter group, I limit my time in hot classes. Sometimes a teacher who pisses you off has your number and that's important to know. But a teacher who sabotages your breath, space or sense of safety should be avoided.

    I'm open to the idea that a guru-disciple relationship could help some but why be defensive about the possibility that the path might not be for everyone? I suspect there are bad gurus everywhere, not just in this country. And good, of course.

    Even the new Pope acknowledged that he was being placed in an impossible position for a human being. Shouldn't we be moving toward a place of greater equality and mutual respect?

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