Why is this such a big problem in the land of awareness?

“Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”, the robot spoke in a monotonous voice while wildly flinging its arms about. “Robot”, as it was known in the 1960’s series “Lost in Space,” was Will Robinson’s companion and guardian. Robot seemed to detect problems well in advance of our hero and always guided Will through his blind spots onto safer territory.

I often hear Robot when I read about yoga these days, and see him flailing in the distance.

There are jerks in yoga, just like the rest of life, and some of them have made it to prominence with all the adulation, power and money that goes with being a national or internationally known teacher. I started this article three years ago after the immolation of yet another notable “guru”, aka, yoga rock star, not that the terms are interchangeable but often are, the 7th to my knowledge in the three decades I have been involved in this art. The field has grown exponentially since I witnessed my first yoga sex scandal in the early 90’s, and with each new incarnation, the destruction wrought by these individuals eclipses the transgressors before them, and the improprieties have blossomed from jumping into bed to delving into pocketbooks. Local impact has ballooned to global interference, and world-wide student populations are left grappling with trying to reconcile what seemed to be, with what actually is.

Why is it so hard to hear that damn Robot? I have had to ask myself this more than once over the years.

People are people

We assume that people, in particular yoga teachers, are somehow different than the rest of the population; conscientious, open and honest, and perhaps infallible because they “practice” yoga. But people are people no matter where you find them, with all the foibles, beauties and deceits that come with being human. I’m surprised when an intelligent individual intones “but s/he teaches yoga . . . ” as if being a yoga teacher and being a predator are mutually exclusive endeavors. They may be in your head, but not in a predator’s, and the understandable tendency to think everyone is “just like me” makes you a potential target for predatory mischief.

The Set Up, Part 1: Wild promises and unreasonable expectations

Outrageous, unverifiable claims are often made as to the powers of yoga. It is so rampant it has become an acceptable marketing, writing and teaching style.

“Heal your back with 5 easy poses!” This particular marketing gimmick is easy to see for what it is; a ploy to get people to click a link, and although it’s annoying in its oversimplification of a common problem, at least it’s in English. The yoga vernacular has become a mishmash of Sanskrit, new age terminology, and idiosyncratic slang that I call “yogaease”. Like legalease in the judicial realm, yogaease borders on being incomprehensible. For example, take the following write-up for a workshop:

“Twists are a powerful way to uncoil the bound up shakti (creative energy) along the central channel of the spine and to draw the practitioner into a state of ecstasy. In this workshop, we will focus on releasing tension, toxins, ego, and doubt with asanas for practitioners of any level.”

That’s quite something for a three hour class. But this workshop description doesn’t stop there:

“We will experience the solar plexus, Manipura chakra (City of Jewels), as a place of power, intuition, and identity. As we strengthen our inner listening to “gut feelings” in our practice, lives, and relationships, we create the possibility for personal transformation with an anchor of creativity and confidence. Through the belly, the center point of the body, we cultivate awareness of breath and stoke our inner fires to maintain optimal health and balance.”

I have a concern that the prevalence of yogaease implies a tacit approval by the yoga community of this vague and unrealistic languaging. Are we unwittingly validating claims, reasonable or otherwise, and potentially setting up the psyche of the student to not question?

Think about it. If you are constantly hearing or reading words and phrases from teachers that don’t make sense, you don’t understand because they are in a different language or because they were not explained, are unverifiable, or just odd, isn’t this also the perfect playground for a predator? The “How to Boil a Frog” theory kicks in (a frog will ignore the slowing climbing temperature in a pot of water until it’s too late), and if you are willing to ignore, tolerate, or forgive “a little poetic license” repeatedly from your teacher, it’s understandable that after a few years of swimming in this murky water you might be willing to accept, or ignore, bigger and more outrageous claims. Maybe even to the point that you don’t question their integrity and leave when your teacher goes completely off the leash and says:

“I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 mega-tons each. Nobody fucks with me.” 1 

Or

“If they say to me, ‘Boss, you must fuck me or I will kill myself,’ then I do it. Think if I don’t! The karma!”2  

These well publicized quotes were reported in multiple national magazines starting as early as 2002, yet it took until 2016 for the most recent brand of ass-holiness to get their comeuppance.

There is often a level of hubris and “the rules don’t apply to me” entitlement exhibited by a predator, making them easy to spot, and it goes hand in hand with a lesson we were taught in kindergarten. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Carpetbaggers and Snake Oil Charlatans often promise the world in an easy fix, and in this day and age, also announce their sexual prowess.

There is more that makes students vulnerable to deception.

The Set Up, Part 2: The flawless yoga teacher

Yoga teachers are under enormous pressure to appear flawless. We are ostensibly in the same category as the clergy. Surely we don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and are chaste. I remember running into a student at a social function while wearing a black bustier and 4-inch black heels, which gave the impression I knew way more about sex than he was comfortable with. His eyes popped out of his head, and bless his heart, said exactly what he was thinking: “yoga teachers aren’t supposed to dress like this!”

Additionally, we are supposed to be vegetarian, vegan or at least involved in some alternative food scheme involving spirulina, kombucha tea, seitan tofurky and expensive pyramid supplements.

It is assumed we have the knowledge of a Physical Therapist, care deeply about the emotional needs of all our students and are willing to be a confidant and shrink at any given moment. But the most detrimental of all is we are assumed to have our Chitta Vritti (mind chatter) under control. In other words, we are supposed to have mastered our minds and since we have, we also enjoy a personal connection with the Divine, potentially giving us enormous power in the eyes of the student.

It’s a huge weight feeling you must live up to this inhuman image. Besides the impossibility, it reduces our ability to truly communicate if we cannot acknowledged our humanity, including aspects that are considered undesirable and therefore “dark”, some of which may simply be qualities that make us unique. If you cannot recognize your own darkness, you are doomed to be undermined by it.

Besides, perfect people are bland and boring. Often after yoga conferences, I feel a deep need to commune with construction workers.

There are teachers who willing accept and take advantage of the perfect yoga teacher image. Predators, often lacking true feelings, are good at mimicking emotion and will provide us with what we want or need. They are excellent at reading us, but we kind of suck at reading them. I’ve seen two behaviors on opposite ends of the spectrum employed to get into psyches of students for less than honorable reasons: by pandering to our desire to be special, and/or by demeaning who we are.

Pandering to our desire to be special

Yes, we are all special and unique, born perfect in every way, but that doesn’t give us a hall pass on the rest of our lives. Appealing to and exploiting our desire to be seen as gifted, a beautiful spirit, or as a blessing to humanity for contributing our unique gifts by simply “being” is common place, and can be quite a hook. Pandering is not always easy to spot, but an ad came to my studio from a yoga props producer who declared 2012 as “Happy YOU Year”, enthusiastically declaring, “welcome to 366 days of YOU!” Eww?

A vital role of the teacher is to help us evolve. Constructive criticism is part and parcel to learning and a good teacher does it with compassion. What’s up with the teacher who only tells me of my gifts, or blows those gifts out of proportion? A stream of compliments is a red flag. Here’s a trick. Say out loud what you are being told to a friend. Use the same words. Sometimes the act of hearing someone else’s words in another voice will create clarity. Do you flinch and are you embarrassed to repeat them? Or it might be the friend who says “honey, I think your pretty swell, but your teacher sounds like one of those creeps on match.com.”

Demeaning who we are

All teachers reserve the right to put an errant student in their place, and a sharp comment to Suzy may send her crying whereas to Bonnie it gives her reason to pause and consider. However, a steady one-upmanship and intentional usurping of a student’s dignity and power through negative words, bullying tactics and intentional injury is one of the single greatest reasons to leave a teacher and never look back. I’m embarrassed to say I witnessed an intentional injury by a yoga teacher and did not allow myself to fully consider what it meant. I remember trying to justify the situation, and this speaks to the power of the yoga teacher image. I rationalized that the student was annoying, needed to be taught a lesson, and maybe deserved it, right? Hardly.

There are other reliable signs that have consistently informed me over the years, things that make me step back and see if Robot may be in the back ground trying to get my attention.

Strong “gut” reactions

There is nothing new about the idea of paying attention to your intuition. However, the ways we communicate with ourselves are not always obvious. It took me years to understand that my “gut”, literally spoke to me. My Inner Cirsei Lannister used to go into verbal tirades in my head for no apparent reason when I spoke with seemingly lovely individuals. This would embarrass me and it was a relief no one could hear the castigation happening inside my head. I tried to shut my Inner Cirsei up, but this only made her more insistent. One day it dawned on me that she recognized what me rest of me failed to see: I was being conned! Now, I don’t leave home without her, and because I have learned to listen, she no longer needs to yell.

Do you have an inner auditory guide? The guide might also show their presence this way: do you keep thinking about a situation and talking to yourself about it in your head over and over? In this case, I find talking about my inner voice with a trusted friend one of the best ways to understand what I’m trying to tell myself.

When thinking about intuition, it’s worth looking at how you learn and considering your dominant senses to understand how your intuition may work. Feeling uneasy is classic, but as a musician and one who learns very quickly through sound, I don’t think it is a coincidence that my intuition speaks to me, and why this article starts with an auditory analogy.

Charisma

Charisma is a power, and it makes me wary. One can easily be caught up and pulled in by a big personality, the energy of surrounding believers, and the intoxicating feeling you are part of something greater than yourself. Within the realm of yoga and the “flawless yoga teacher” image it’s particularly easy to confuse the social ability of charisma with personal integrity. Especially when a teacher has many students, we have a tendency to let the numbers vouch for a teacher’s authenticity; why else would so many be there if the teacher wasn’t for real?

Look for the following. Does a teacher encourage the pedestal, meaning, do they enjoy and promote the notion they are “touched” or divinely chosen? Do they have people around them who challenge them, peers perhaps, or are they surrounded by those who are “lesser,” wishing to ingratiate themselves and gain favor? And most of all, have you ever heard the teacher apologize, say they were incorrect, or show any other explicit signs of humility?

There have been many charismatic leaders who have championed great causes who also had a sleazy side. Embrace the cause, not the leader.

Gobs of money, especially gobs of money that doesn’t give back

I like nice things. I own my home, I have beautiful clothing and three cats, a partner I like to travel with, and a child who goes to college. I like the thought of being successful and I have very successful friends in all fields: lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, etc. I have also worked with the outrageously successful, the 1% who have more money than God. What do we all have in common? No one owns a fleet of Rolls Royces.

There is some line, difficult to define for sure, but easily crossed by owning a personal fleet of cars. But let’s say your favorite teacher just has some car quirk and the good fortune to have made extraordinary wealth and wants a bunch of cars. Fine. Next test. Do they give back, or do they behave like the Kardashians, and all the wealth is a way to aggrandize themselves?

Our own willingness to be fooled

This is a touchy subject, so I will simply tell a story to illustrate my point. I worked at a Women’s Heath club that was jointly owned by a man and a woman. Harvey, the co-owner of the club was widely known as a shark, a lame one, but never the less routinely hit on the female employees with impunity because he was a co-owner. This was before our current sexual harassment laws and he was largely the butt of many jokes.

He had a thing for my co-worker Callie, who had been ignoring his advances for months. She would often roll her eyes when telling me the things he said to her, so I was shocked when she recounted to me that over the weekend she accepted Harvey’s offer for a massage, at the club, after hours. I was incredulous as she told me the story of how she literally put herself in his hands, naked. She was shocked, but I wasn’t, that as she laid there with her eyes closed during the massage, she suddenly felt a turgid member thump down on her forehead. I couldn’t contain my laughter at such a crude and ungainly come-on, but I also couldn’t keep my mouth shut and said, “what the hell did you expect?” Fortunately Harvey did have some scruples and when Callie said “no” he backed off, and this story simply serves as a yarn to help us ponder our own culpability when “fooled”.

Other students

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes it is the student who is the predator, targeting other students or the teacher. Stalkers like “pretty shiny things,” people that fulfill a fantasy they have, or people whom they can seek revenge on for perceived infractions. I experienced the later in the form of a female student who vented full force on me her furry with her inability to ingratiate herself with a senior teacher. As I sat in the court room, I learned it is not uncommon for stalkers to attack those close to their actual target, and I was just a stepping stone. I was granted the restraining order.

Stalkers are not always obvious in the beginning, but pandering and constant seeking of attention and approval are red flags. If you find yourself in this situation, please seek professional help immediately.

Flawed vs Fraud

The IRS recognizes it’s one thing to make a mistake, but another thing to intentionally deceive, and they penalize accordingly. As a yoga teacher, I feel the impossibly high standard I am held to and the pedestal that eagerly awaits, and in part it’s self preservation that compels me to inform all that I am human; the fall off the pedestal is never pretty. I have seen many yoga teachers in their own way eschew the lofty heights of the chosen-one because they know the danger it poses to themselves and to their students. You can expect mistakes from a yoga teacher, you can expect their ego to get the upper hand on occasion, you can expect them to get flustered and angry. But being human and making a mess of things is different than intentional deception, and like the IRS, your Robot can also tell the difference.

Over time I have come to recognize my arm-flailing android protector by having made good choices, and devastating mistakes. I also like to watch Judge Judy to see how she ferrets out the good guys from the bad. My Robot is a combination of intuition, experience and deductive reasoning that throws up red flags to tell me to pay attention and be cautious of whom I am dealing with, no matter if it’s a mega-star, or the local yoga teacher down the street.

[Image by Lif… | CC BY]

 

1 Yogis behaving Badly
Business2 Magazine, Paul Keegan

2 The Overheated, Oversexed Cult of Bikram Choudhury
GQ Magazine, Clancy Martin


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Theresa Elliott

Theresa Elliott has been teaching yoga in Seattle for almost 30 years. She is the author of “After 27 Years Teaching Yoga, I got a Job at the Mall.” and the creator of “Taj Yogadance: Dance Your Asana.” She can be contacted at Theresa@TheresaElliott.com.

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