Finding a Yoga Teacher & Knowing Who to Avoid

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For anyone who wants to practice Yoga, finding the right teacher is key. Whether you’re looking online or in your neighbourhood, whether you’re looking to become a Yoga teacher or just practicing for some sanity in a mad world. 

“How do I find a good Yoga teacher?” is a question that populates my DM’s the most, second only to atrocious pick-up lines I will spare you from. As someone who’s been teaching for 9 years, been traumatized for 2 years in an abusive cult posing as a ‘Yoga company’ by an ‘enlightened (of course) master’, and eventually found good trustworthy teachers who I’m grateful for, I decided to share my 2 cents of personal experience and knowledge on the matter. Here goes. 

This might sound like stating the obvious, but avoiding the wrong ones is THE essential first step towards finding a Yoga teacher who is good for you. 

And as obvious as it may seem, this first step is where a lot of people trip up, lose their discernment, and often begin to give away their power. 

The Yoga industry has no shortage of teachers using teaching as an instrument of power and abuse, claiming spiritual superiority and instilling deficiency stories in the minds of their students/followers.

Out of respect for your own intelligence and well-being, be vigilant and discerning in choosing a teacher. Do not just go for someone who looks the part and has the numbers to prove it. 

How do you know if someone is a good Yoga teacher? 

Here’s what I think. A good Yoga teacher is someone who: 

  • Points you toward stepping into your own power and doesn’t ask you to give away your power to them
  • Doesn’t feed the notion of hierarchy between a teacher and student, and values the mutual respect between the two
  • Has their own practice 
  • Actually likes you and cares for your well-being
  • Points you to the wonder of your own existence and doesn’t feed any ideas of being “not good enough yet” or not complete in yourself as yourself, second to none and superior to none

As T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern Yoga said – The guru is no more than a friend and no less than a friend, caring and empowering people at a local level.” And as his direct student Mark Whitwell explains: The guru is a function and not an identity of any kind. Not a social position or identity and definitely not a personal identity.

Also read: What Teaching Yoga Teaches Me

Spare Me Your Enlightenment

My first directive to anyone looking for a Yoga teacher is to avoid – like the plague – anyone who claims to be a “living enlightened master”. Anyone who sets up a not-to-be-questioned hierarchy and power differential skewed in their own favor is a flaming bag of red flags. I speak from personal experience, having made the mistake of placing my trust and 2 years of my mid-twenties in one of these self-proclaimed Himalayas-returned “enlightened gurus” with whom abuse, exploitation and brainwashing were the norm everyday. Predictably enough, this man was hailed as God himself by those in the inner circle of this cult/company and even his sexual assaults were chalked up to ‘his way of taking away your bad karma’. I’d like to name this man and his sham of a ‘company’, but I know for a fact that it would endanger my personal safety – given that the people in said cult/company have all the scruples of a thug and have no qualms in causing physical harm at the drop of a hat. As for expecting any solidarity/support from the wider community, I’ve seen way too often the crapstorm of hostility, apathy and victim-blaming thrown at women who speak up against assault. Legal systems set up in favor of well-moneyed thugs isn’t an encouraging factor either, for anyone who wishes to go public with their experiences with these spiritual scam artists. I did begin a conversation with one of the inner circle people who had a huge role in recruiting me into the cult/company, to see if there was any accountability she was willing to take for her actions. But – as someone said – accountability feels like an attack when you’re not willing to take responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. Predictably enough, she lashed out at me and refused to acknowledge any harm she caused. Last I checked, they were aggressively selling weight loss in Dubai and some major Indian cities, cashing in on people’s insecurities and further misinforming them. Business as usual. 

guru meme

Meme by Mark Wagner. As seen on facebook.com/guruphiliac

The Cult Factor

Given the long-standing and long-cherished culture of idealization in some parts of India, you could extend your arm out in any direction and hit a fake guru (I’m looking at you, Rishikesh). You know the drill. Once hailed by a few vulnerable followers as “the enlightened one”, s/he has a free pass to commit crimes, line their own pockets with their followers’ hard-earned money, and get away in a fleet of Rolls Royces. This has been recognized by many as the disease of the Yoga world. The blatant abuse of power that goes against every grain of human decency and intelligence. What makes this abuse possible in the first place is the pedestalization. That is where the disease begins. In the mind of every “follower” who decides that s/he is somehow inherently ‘less than’. 

If you’re looking for a spiritual teacher or even just a regular Yoga or Asana teacher to guide your practice, consider it your personal and social responsibility to not pedestalize that fellow human, seeing them as someone somehow ‘inherently’ superior to you. Yes they could know more than you and be smarter, wiser, more skilled and experienced at a ton of things, but they’re just as flesh-and-blood human as any of us. When the cameras aren’t rolling, they’re just as annoyed at Youtube ads as you and I are, and I’ll bet they raid the fridge for a midnight snack more times than any ancient text would approve. Regardless of how intuitive, compassionate and convincing s/he may seem, and how many haloes s/he can sprout, or even how many gemstones they seem to conjure from thin air (If only I had a dime for every gemstone-conjuring story I’ve heard). Even if they did display an array of ‘magical’, supernatural-seeming qualities or made some predictions that came to pass, it’s important to remember that even the best metaphysical skills do not guarantee the slightest presence of personal integrity. It’s great to be inspired by someone but there’s no need to idealize anyone. 

There’s a whole lot more to be said about cults that have sprung in the name of spirituality and Yoga, and many others have said it so well. If you’re interested in knowing more about this, scroll down for some informative resources on abuse of power by people who were – and still are – widely hailed as gurus. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), BKS Iyengar, Bikram (of Bikram Yoga), Satyananda Saraswati (of Bihar School of Yoga) and so many more ‘gurus’ were abusing their power like they were getting paid for it – and indeed they were. Many of their followers have long known what their ‘gurus’ were upto and still continue to openly revere them, because as Yoga teacher & author Donna Farhi so eloquently puts it – 

“…for many in the global yoga culture the personal acquisition of yoga knowledge, the attainment of yoga postures, and the economic benefits and professional currency of yoga careers heavily leveraged by association with lineage, will always win out over any necessity to take a moral stand or to take principled action. In the grandiosity of one’s own spiritual pursuit, why worry about a few sacrificial victims?”

Full article here: The Case Of Manos: When Women Become Permissible Collateral Damage

The very real and prevalent abuse of power that goes on in the Yoga community merits conversation and accountability, not just the privilege of a convenient silence because one hasn’t been personally affected yet, or because one’s career revolves around the lineage of a fallen ‘guru’ . Last year I walked into a cafe here in Mysore with a large garlanded photo of predator extraordinaire Pattabhi Jois smiling down at everyone. Creepy AF – to say the least. After a conversation with the owners about how problematic that was, they took it down right away. I’m glad they had the sensitivity and empathy to do so, something of a rarity among followers. 

When people – especially young women – ask me to recommend teachers, I tell them to stay the hell away from anyone calling themselves a guru.

Regardless of whether the unchecked power eventually leads to abuse (it almost always does, if history is any indication), the willingness to undermine oneself and pedestalize another is something that merits a rethink.  

It’s an open secret and yet a well-kept one- the abuse perpetrated by these revered teachers and conveniently overlooked by their followers because their careers, brands and identities revolve around their not-to-be-questioned ‘guru’. Every little conversation may seem a blip in the larger picture – given the hordes who still revere some predator or another as a guru – but every little bit of awareness and every little action counts toward a step forward. Into a world where abusive teachers aren’t revered as gurus or ‘enlightened masters’, for starters. 

As long as we’re still under the thrall of self-proclaimed gurus we’ve pedestalized, the Yoga hasn’t even begun. The need to pedestalize another, both before and after blatant abuse of power by them, deserves some serious introspection and deprogramming. 

Resources 

For anyone interested in reading more on the subject of teacher/’gurus’ abusing their power in the Yoga world, here is a list of a few great articles & videos. This list is in no way comprehensive, because that would take a library.  

Psychology Today: Dangerous Cult Leaders

The Quint: Iyengar teacher in The Practice Room, Bangalore accused of sexual assault by several women

The Telegraph: Swami Satyananda Saraswati was a violent sexual abuser

BBC: Why it’s so hard to stop a cult

This article documents decades of allegations of sexual abuse against Ashtanga Yoga founder Pattabhi Jois. Nine women went on record, pushing back against trauma, confusion, shame, and silencing. I can barely imagine the kind of courage it takes to speak out the way these 9 nine women did. Pattabhi Jois’ institute KPJAYI in Mysore is yet to even acknowledge or make a statement regarding Pattabhi Jois’ predatory behaviour, because clearly brand control is more important to them than taking a stand against sexual assault and standing with the survivors. https://thewalrus.ca/yogas-culture-of-sexual-abuse-nine-women-tell-their-stories/?fbclid=IwAR0bvQ6ja_p1PCEF-oMuOZX2OnxmvyGYEt20jVqRIxhlZfZvanptYQEr7-c

And some video evidence of Pattabhi Jois sexually assaulting women in his class. You’ve been trigger warned: https://decolonizingyoga.com/pattabhi-jois-yoga-adjustments/

EDIT: A few days after this blogpost, Pattabhi Jois’s grandson Sharath Jois posted an acknowledgement of harm and an apology on his Instagram account, while also minimizing 3 decades of sexual assaults to “improper adjustments” and not addressing his own role in enabling the abuse, profiting from the silence around it all along, and throwing out the few teachers who dared to speak up about it. Gregor Maehle nails it in his blogposts here: here and An Apology of Sorts

A platform by investigative journalist Be Scofield who has exposed several cults: https://gurumag.com/

Speaking of Osho and Isha: https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/why-i-hate-gurus.html

Video: Why Do People Join Cults

A Facebook page that exposes guru scams on the regular: https://www.facebook.com/guruphiliac/

A Facebook group where members share their personal experiences with fake gurus to warn others: https://www.facebook.com/groups/255247405344649/

https://decolonizingyoga.com/why-didnt-somebody-warn-me-a-pattabhi-jois-metoo-story-jubilee-cooke/

https://decolonizingyoga.com/responding-to-kino-macgregors-statements-on-pattabhi-jois-by-karen-rain/

https://karenrainashtangayogaandmetoo.wordpress.com/

https://medium.com/s/powertrip/yoga-guru-pattabhi-jois-sexually-assaulted-me-for-years-48b3d04c9456

Karen Rain Speaks About Pattabhi Jois and Recovering from Sexual and Spiritual Abuse. An interview I can only wish everyone in the Yoga community would watch: https://vimeo.com/268506462

Book by Matthew Remski on cult dynamics and abuse in the Ashtanga community: Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics & Healing in Yoga and Beyond

To end, I’d like to quote one of my favorite Yoga teachers, Mark Whitwell (a direct student of T. Krishnamacharya) on the subject of Yoga gurus and enlightenment. Whether you agree or not, I’m all for each person prioritizing their own intelligence and discernment. More power to that! 

“Spiritual transmission cannot happen in a hierarchy. Spiritual transmission occurs only in sincere friendship. The teacher is an equal friend, nothing more and nothing less. Without this quality a teacher is an obstruction and the problem itself. In the mode of Respect for each individual it is a true teacher’s responsibility to impeccably deconstruct the persuasive and pervasive social model of inequality. This is the spiritual process. It leaves each person in his or her Ground as Life, in free unobstructed relationship with everything.

 In Krishnamacharya’s words, “one who says he (or she) is a guru is not a guru. The guru is no more than a friend and no less than a friend, caring and empowering people at a local level.” The guru is a function and not an identity of any kind. Not a social position or identity and definitely not a personal identity. It is a great and natural function of mother nature that is still coming through in modern times. I see many real gurus now all over the world humbly going about their work really helping others with the tools of yoga. In fact, I would say that the mutual affection between two actual people is the most fundamental and universal means of wisdom transmission i.e. common to all wisdom traditions and cultures. My teacher T.K.V. Desikachar called the relationship between teacher and student “the heart of yoga.”

 Trying to get somewhere, as if you’re not somewhere, as if you’re not the wonder of the cosmos, is not Yoga. The practice is not obsessive, because you’re not trying to get anywhere. The guru-model has been imposed upon us by the patriarchy. The perfect person – implies that everybody else is not perfect. And we’ve built civilization on that model. It’s implied that you are not perfect yet, that you have to become perfect through some arbitrary method of patriarchy. Any person proposing that they are “enlightened” and “gurus”, and you come to that cult and try to duplicate the perfection of the teacher – the teacher who is implying that you are not yet perfect. You imagine that you’re not yet attained. And you have to become attained. And it’s all over the world. The “guru” with authority sanctioned by God to tell the people what to do. How to get to God – special access through me. And they create their power structure on the basis of that. Takes a lot to repair of your thought structures that you are less than the guru. You have it lodged in yourself that you’re not “there” yet and that you have to get there by being really good at Yoga, meditation.

You are the unadorned marvel of life and you are the power of the cosmos”. If you’re not residing in that fact, that enjoyment of your own natural state, fair enough. Yoga must be given, but here’s the point: the Yoga that is right for each person, not just any Yoga. The hallmark of Krishnamacharya’s work is that there is a right Yoga for each person no matter who that person is. It is your embrace of truth, embrace of the power of this cosmos that is arising as you and me, as pure intelligence and utter beauty. In a vast harmony with the rest of the cosmos. That is Yoga. If you put the principles that Krishnamacharya brought forth from the great tradition into all the ‘brands’ of Yoga, then you’ll be serving each individual, and that is Yoga. Each person’s direct embrace with their life. 

Yoga is not to pass on patterns. My teacher called it the ‘grotesque duplication of culture’- Passing on patterns and insisting on patterns in another person. Our modern day Yoga is like that – passing on patterns. Yoga has been popularized mainly as a male muscular gymnastic effort toward a future idea. This effort toward a future idea is not Yoga. Trying to get somewhere, as if you’re not somewhere, as if you’re not the wonder of the cosmos, is not Yoga. It’s the problem of civilization. We’re all being convinced that we’re not yet perfect. You are the power of the cosmos arising as pure intelligence and utter beauty, in perfect harmony with everything. That’s the fact of the situation. If you’re not residing in that fact, that enjoyment of your own natural state, fair enough. Yoga must be given, but here’s the point: the Yoga that is right for each person, not just any Yoga.” – Mark Whitwell

Let me know in the comments your own experiences with Yoga teachers, gurus, ‘enlightened’ masters, and everything in between. I would love to hear from you. Drop a comment here, write me at namitayoga@gmail.com and/or connect with me on Instagram @radicallyeverafter. I would love to hear from you 🙂 

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the valuable post.

  2. Mahima says:

    wow!! so many great things and amazing pictures.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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