With all that is going on in the world right now, and specifically the ashtanga community, it’s hard for me not to feel saddened and frustrated. I suspect anyone who has practiced yoga for any length of time has probably seen on their news feeds a lot of the same things that I have. Trending incidents like the sexual abuse allegations against Guruji and the removal of dedicated teachers from the KPJAYI list are hard to ignore. But truly, these are just the most recent and high profile incidents.
I don’t have direct experience with either of these things, so I can’t address them specifically, but for me it does bring up memories of numerous other incidents in my career as a yoga practitioner and teacher when I have seen or heard things that felt ethically wrong to me. Some of them I addressed, some of them I didn’t, but I now wish I had.
Incidents like a student dropping in as a visitor in a different program and being started on a new series, another student visiting a shala as a guest and the teacher telling my student to tell his teacher she “should” be doing this, a teacher getting a student pregnant, respected teachers spreading rumors about other teachers, “yogis” basing their social media platforms on hate and disparagement , and even walking in at the end of a “teacher” training to witness the teacher drinking tequila with his students - in the practice room.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Not everyone is going to practice yoga the way I think it should be done - and the same is probably true for you. Which is why I get to be selective with who I let influence my teaching and my practice. And so do you.
Selectivity is badass. We get to think for ourselves and do what feels right. We get to choose what (or who) is in alignment with our beliefs. The practice teaches us to watch our own minds and check our own motives. It brings us more in touch with our intuition.
Ultimately, our community decides who to respect as a teacher, whose messages get spread, who we hire to teach in our studios. We get to decide who we tell our friends about, whose content we share, and who we recommend to others.
One of the four attributes of a spiritual disciple on her path to moksha is viveka, which translates as discernment or discrimination. One of the things that is supposed to happen as we walk along the spiritual path is that we become choosier. Our energy becomes more refined and we become more discerning.
In yoga we talk a lot about peeling away layers of our psyches, going deeper, and seeking truth within ourselves. Like everything else in yoga, discernment starts with the gross and moves to the subtle. The more layers we are able to peel away, the more clearly we begin to see. We begin to wake up and pay attention. And this attention can become a tool for discriminating awareness.
Discernment creates limits. Limits to what we will tolerate, accept and believe to be true.
In the hunger to learn more it can become easy to worship teachers. We put them on a pedestal and stop seeing them as the humans they are. It’s important, albeit difficult, to recognize that teachers are humans too - just like us. And as humans we are all flawed, we all make mistakes, we all have room for improvement. When we are able to close the power gap between the student and the teacher everyone benefits. Ideally, the student and the teacher share the path and learn together.
We live in the age of information, but not wisdom. People can easily portray themselves as experts independent of their actual qualifications. Anyone can put their message out on social media - but they only have power if we believe them, if we follow them and share their ideas without criticism . Wisdom comes from experience, and there is only one way to get that.
By collectively supporting people we allow them to spread false prophecies. When we distribute one man’s opinion without critically evaluating it and sharing our evaluation, we increase the self-made prophet’s power. Social media shares and likes without actual discussion is tacit approval under the guise of information sharing. We put people in positions of power, even when they are not deserving. And that’s why, in the age of information it is more important than ever that we use discernment and that we communicate our thoughts.
Like any other form of leadership, it is easy for yoga teachers to abuse their power. As yoga practitioners we have to be selective with who influences our practices. When practicing asana we learn to trust our bodies - and when something doesn’t feel right physically we tend to back off whether its because of fear of getting hurt or a lack of trust.
But what about when something is amiss mentally? Or doesn’t feel right emotionally? As students we have to learn to see with our hearts and our heads. We have to cultivate our powers of discernment.
In fact, it’s not just our right to speak up, but our obligation as responsible humans. Change starts with accountability and people being unwilling anymore to collude with unethical behavior.
I remember years ago, I had only recently met Tim. We were in Mt Shasta on retreat and there was a discussion about the Jois Shala opening across the street from where Tim's old shala had been for decades. The hurt Tim felt was visible on his face. He was adamant that Sharath was just along for the ride and that the corporate influence was behind the wheel.
Months later Tim dropped in on Sharath's class at the new Jois Shala. Pictures populated Facebook of the legendary teacher Tim Miller being adjusted by Sharath in his hometown. To me this was the most beautiful example of humility and devotion.
Paulo Cohelo wrote, “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” I learned so much from the example Tim set in this situation. By watching his grace and humility I learned more than I have in numerous teacher trainings, 8 months in Mysore, podcasts, postures and books combined. I saw in him what yoga really looks like - how to handle your current reality with grace even when it's not the experience you want to be having.
Time has taught me that this is what I want in a teacher. Someone who leads from example.
My advice to you is simple:
- Get really clear about what works for you and what doesn’t - I suggest writing it down. Every. Single Day.
- Ask questions - and if the answer is “because I said so” ask more questions. This is how we learn to truly see.
- Don’t ignore the mismatch between someone’s actions and their words - whether this person is a colleague, teacher, lover or partner.
- Respect your ideals and know your moral ground so that when things get shaky you can hold steady and stay on your path.
- When you see someone making something better - stand up and notice it. Our voices matter - and we get to use them in both directions.
- Consume information with a healthy understanding of the author; recognize that an authoritative or pedagogical tone does not denote truth.
Maintain faith in your practice. Keep walking the path despite bumps that threaten to derail you. If nothing else, keep what works and leave the rest.
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