Why I don’t believe in Gods, Heroes or Gurus

Comments Off on Why I don’t believe in Gods, Heroes or Gurus Written on February 29th, 2012 by
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I could never get into gurus. Every charismatic guy who can grow a beard and change his name can set himself up to be a guru. There are a few women doing it too (although the beard growing is not going so well for them). Now with Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to keep your flock abreast of your every fart from anywhere on the planet. However, when leaders become gods and followers become worshipers, it doesn’t usually end well.


The dynamic isn’t healthy. It means we separate the leader from us. We make that person out to be something other than us, perfect. This person is perfect so he/she can unequivocally show us the way, and we don’t have to figure out this mess by ourselves.
The problem is you can’t place all your trust completely in another human, because well, they are human. To be human means you make mistakes and sometimes, big ones. The very word, guru, which originally just meant “teacher” now implies a magical aura, a person who is part demi-god. Gurus place themselves on a pedestal and their followers keep them up there. They become drunk on their own power and learn to justify anything.  It happens in politics, and on Wall Street, why not yoga? Then suddenly, the invincibles fall from grace. Hard.
This all hits very close to home because recently, John Friend (the head of Anusara, the yoga I practice) was caught both with his pants down AND manipulating pension funds. Does it get any more cliché than that? The headlines are good but the situation also isn’t quite so simple. The pension fund business seems to be more of an irresponsible accounting error and he wasn’t having sex with anyone that was unwilling or underage. But it doesn’t matter, his reputation is in the crapper and now trampling on it seems to be the sport of the day. Check out this Times article.
One of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton (see TED talk), went to a tabloid newspaper in the UK and asked them to come up with headlines given the bare bone plots of some classics. For Othello, they came up with “Love crazed immigrant kills Senator’s daughter.” For Madame Bovary it was, “Shopaholic Adultress Swallows Arsenic after Credit Fraud.” And finally for Oedipus, “Sex with Mum was Blinding.”  The zeal with which we tear down our former heroes these days is a bit reminiscent of Salem witch hunts. We no longer see a fall from grace as a tragedy, but rather as an opportunity to feel a little superior, to thank the universe that we aren’t that person, and to pat ourselves on the back for not being that stupid.
When I went to see John Friend teach last year, there were hundreds of people in his class who clearly thought he was the best thing since (I’m not going to say sliced bread because let’s face it, boring invention) the ipod.  I have to admit, I got caught up in the momentum of the day myself.  My body did anyway. I was able to do some yoga feats that I’d never done before and I haven’t been able to do since and that was exciting. Clearly, the man knows how to teach a damn good class.
However, at times I felt like I was at an Herbalife convention (which I had the privilege of performing at around the world- scary how passionate people can get about herbs and protein shakes).  At these conventions, participants walk around in a daze, each convinced that they are going to make a million dollars just as soon as they can convince everyone they know to sell herbs on the side. I got the slightest whiff of Herbalife at John’s workshop and it made me want to back out of the room slowly.
John sincerely believed that Anusara was literally going to save the entire world.  Being a yoga teacher, I believe in its power to change lives. I’ve seen it happen in my own and in other people’s lives. It’s why I teach. That said, any hint that one type of copyrighted yoga is headed for world domination (maybe it’s the German in my blood), and I get squeamish. Like Picasso, his creation is clearly good, but the creator himself needs some work. And he has a lot to answer for.
I have been very lucky to find some amazing teachers in my life. People who have helped me in a variety of ways, whose opinions on yoga I trust. That said, I don’t trust them in every arena. Yoga teachers sometimes have terrible taste in art.  I also always know to take anything they say in class with a grain of salt.  I hope my own students will try out the corrections I suggest to them, but then see for themselves if they work.
As teachers, it is our responsibility to show our students that we aren’t invincible, that we struggle too. We are learning every day as much as they are. We might be a little ahead of them on the journey and can show them things, but we can’t act as if we’ve arrived and they haven’t.  We also can’t be threatened when we are questioned or challenged, but use those opportunities to grow.
As students, we can’t put our teachers in a place that is out of reach. We also can’t think that everything they say or do is absolutely right, just because they know more than we do about yoga.  We have to make sure our own small quiet voices that tell us the right or wrong direction for us doesn’t get drowned out by another’s. Our questioning can be simple (should I really be lifting and spreading my sit bones just because she said so? Is this suggestion really for my particular body?) or more profound (maybe I need to say something to this person, even if what I’m about to say might cause hurt). Ultimately, we can use the guidance of our teachers, but we have to navigate truth and how it plays out in our lives alone. And we have to see our teachers and our students as people just like ourselves. We can’t separate them from us by putting them on a pedestal or patronizing them.
In the end, I don’t see this scandal in a negative light. The yoga world has gotten trapped in an image of itself and an illusion of bliss. Yoga isn’t Burning Man or incense or organic clothes with Sanskrit written on it. It’s also not vegetarianism or being able to sit on your own head, although those are nice.  It’s very simply about bringing awareness and love to all that you do and to every interaction you have. You start with your body and expand from there. Life is very complicated, the how is not obvious most of the time. We also forget or get distracted. That is all part of it, loving the mess we are and that we are in. We do the best we can and forgive ourselves and others when we fall short. And that can be hard to do, but we really are all in this together whether we like it or not. I see all this as a welcome awakening, even if a just little rude.

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