Yogis Behaving Badly and Notes From a Concerned Practitioner
The following articles are well worth reading. The first is from the September 2002 Issue of Business 2.0. I am presenting excerpts from the beginning and end of the piece. Follow this link to read the full article.
The second is a piece from e-Sutra member J. Brown. At my request, he has edited it specifically for our list.
The rest of the post contains fascinating comments from e-Sutra members in what turned out to be a rather intense dialogue.
Yogis Behaving Badly
For millennia, the intricate techniques of yoga were passed down from teacher to student in a sacred exchange. But today, in the booming yoga industry, it’s (downward-facing) dog-eat-dog.
By Paul Keegan
You can’t take it anymore. The greed, corruption, and selfishness of the business world have broken your spirit. You need inner peace. Everyone’s walking around with a yoga mat these days, so you fly to Los Angeles, yoga capital of America, hoping for a little enlightenment: a quiet candlelit room, some gentle stretching, the chanting of mantras, a sage Indian guru dispensing ancient truths.
But when you arrive at one of the most popular yoga centers in the country — the Bikram Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills — it’s a giant mirrored studio crammed with more than 100 buff and sweaty devotees of the resident guru, Bikram Choudhury, a short Indian fellow sitting on a raised-platform throne wearing nothing but a black Speedo swimsuit and a diamond-studded wristwatch.
Later on, Bikram brags about his mansion with servants in Beverly Hills and his 30 classic cars, from Rolls-Royces to Bentleys. He also claims to have cured every disease known to humankind and compares himself to Jesus Christ and Buddha. Requiring neither food nor sleep, he says, “I’m beyond Superman.” When you ask how he can make such wild statements, he answers, “Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.”
Needing inner peace more than ever, you take off your shoes and enter a little studio on Manhattan’s East Side. The Dharma Yoga Center, quietly run since the 1960s by a respected yogi named Sri Dharma Mittra, is just what you’ve been looking for all along: a small room with carpet and dim lighting, chants of Om-m-m-m, and a few people in baggy sweatsuits moving through their poses.
Later, lying again in the Corpse Pose, enlightenment dawns: There are thousands of devoted teachers like Dharma Mittra out there. You just don’t hear about them because they’re not driven by riches or fame. To them yoga is not a business at all, but a service through which they simply provide themselves with life’s necessities — the very definition of aparigraha.This was the idea behind Swami Vivekananda’s historic visit to Chicago in 1893, when yoga first arrived in the United States.
From: J. Brown
Notes from a concerned practitioner/teacher.
After years of study in several “styles” of asana and pranayama practice (i.e. Ashtanga-vinyasa, Iyengar, Sivananda, & Viniyoga), I have become increasingly aware of the problem/trap that many of these standardized systems present. People come to yoga class for different reasons, but the experience that we have when we do and our ability to receive benefit from it is determined by the teachers we choose and how we use what they teach us. As the yogic forms are being adopted by the physical fitness industry and used for their purposes, the essence of practice is often being lost. This concerns me greatly.
Often it seems that people are practicing asana that do not serve them and in fact impose struggle and injury on the student. More than bringing about the proper functioning of the body, Hatha practice is intended to be a vehicle for cultivating thought and behavior. If in our practice we are constantly struggling to attain something that is always in the future, carelessly throwing ourselves into positions that make us feel inadequate, then this is the pattern we are reinforcing. If we teach ourselves to be measured, patient, and to experience joy in our breathing and moving exercises, then we create a model by which to do anything in this same way. If an asana does not encourage grace, ease and well being in the student then perhaps this is not the right asana.
Again and again students come to my class after years of practice having never received any instruction on how to go about facing the challenges that asana presents or having received instruction that actually encourages them to hurt themselves in the name of “tapas” or “opening”. Often it is described as a cathartic experience to simply get through their practice and what a torture it is some days to do so and how this is all part of the practice, to use force and will to plow through overwhelming obstacles, striving to receive clarity or peace. This is not an asana experience that is leading one towards yoga. How we go about overcoming the obstacles in the present moment is the practice not where we will end up at some point in the unknowable future.
There is no linear progression to asana. No one pose is more advanced than another. To do a simple thing with ease, precision, and joy is infinitely more advanced then doing something complex without. To do something that hurts your body or in some way makes you feel inadequate is perhaps the most beginner thing you can do.
The art of having a Hatha Yoga practice is developing the tools to know what you need on a daily basis and then provide it to yourself. One’s asana program must be allowed to breathe and change with the phenomena of ones life. To stick to a set system as if it were a formula for “enlightenment”, to be enjoyed by only those capable of withstanding the torture of an unforgiving and inappropriate practice, is horribly silly and ultimately destructive.
I invite others to take issue with my comments.
May all beings be free from suffering,
May our practice contribute to peace, and
May we have the strength and the courage to overcome any obstacles that lay before us.
OM TAT SAT
From: Judith Lasater
Thank you for sharing the comments of “J. Brown” as well as the suggestion to read the www.Business2.com article. The latter I had already read.
My reaction to the magazine article was simple. Teachers who act out of their own interest and not the students’ interest are not really yoga teachers AT ALL in my opinion. They are teaching exercises with Sanskrit names. To me, a yoga teacher first and foremost takes the student’s welfare into account; this welfare is what comes first and foremost in every case, regardless of the teacher’s desires.
The student-teacher relationship is at the core of the process we call “yoga”. Unless and until there is a deep integrity and respect there, anything that follows will be a waste of time at best, and potentially deeply damaging at worse.
As to the comments of “J. Brown”, I enjoyed them. Perhaps this is so because I agree with these comments so heartily.
My question is, when are US teachers and centers going to refuse to support teachers who cross sexual, personal, even financial boundaries with students? I believe that all us us must share in the responsibility when what is considered “yoga” is inflicted on the public since many of us are not willing to speak out and act to protect students.
Sorry for my intensity, but I am passionate on this issue and growing a bit impatient as over and over again I hear from students who have been physically and emotionally damaged by teachers who do not understand boundaries, and have surprisingly little training in even the rudiments of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, not to mention the Yoga Sutras or the entire context of yoga studies and what it means to our life to study yoga.
In fact, I like Ken Wilbur’s approach on this issue. In my words, we do not learn yoga to become more comfortable in this world, but rather to look deeply into our uncomfortableness. We practice yoga to transcend our attachements and suffering and that is often a messy, difficult business. By pushing ourselves in asana, we are sometimes using yoga to avoid yoga, to avoid looking deeply into our heart because we are distracted so much by the difficulty of our hamstrings. Yoga practice thus becomes just another way to avoid ourselves, much like drugs, tv, overeating, etc. How sad I am when I do that and when I guess that others are using yoga in that way as well.
Thanks for listening. I continute to enjoy the dialogues on eSutra.
May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.
Judith Hanson Lasater
For those who don’t know, Judith was the key architect of the CYTA’s pioneering set of ethical standards for yoga teachers, which have since been adopted by other yoga groups and schools. I admire her long-standing, passionate dedication to this issue.
Thanks Leslie for running these two pieces.
Re Yogis behaving badly, although we probably could have guessed how some of this would play out, the beans are now spilled: Some emperor(s) have no clothes!
Kudos to J. Brown, whoever he is; his words remind us of the basic integrity of the practice.
Thank you for these two lovely little gems. My only defence of the more vigorous ‘systems’ that are out there is that they provide a doorway in. For a few, force and will will eventually lead them to taking a deeper look at what and how they are doing yoga and their life. From this place some grace and union may emerge. The Yoga craze we are now experiencing reminds me a bit of the Shirley McClain books that came out about twenty years ago. Many folks read them because they were written by a celebrity (including my mother!) and some were opened to a different way of ‘being’ in the world. So let the craze run its course and let grace and union emerge.
It is only the truly courageous that choose to follow this path of yoga – truth can be a hard thing to live in.
Yoga in the Rockies.
I so enjoyd reading and totally agree with the comments of J. Brown,
especially “how we go about overcoming obstacles in the present moment is
Thank you and God bless,
Barbara Bobrow (White Rock, BC Canada)
From: Jenny Chandra Picciotto
Re: Yogis Behaving Badly
Dear Leslie and other readers,
I did read the entire article. My reference for this response is one of reflection about what I wish for my self and those students who enter into a relationship with me as a yoga teacher. The comments made here are personal observations and opinions and I invite others to contribute their thoughts as well. I cannot make sure everyone behaves the way I wish they would. But I can be reasonably informed about what my expectations in the relationship are, and watchful to discover if I am safe and comfortable in that relationship.
Personally, I am not overly suprised by this article, or the fact that there are yoga teachers who have alternate views about profit, sexuality and content than what I choose for myself and my students. People practice yoga for many different reasons and with many different personal agendas. America is a unique culture, and there are lots of hatha yogis who don’t embrace yoga as a spiritual path, but a purely physical one. Certainly in America, yoga teachers are produced and begin businesses for the purpose of making money and supporting themselves. (Obviously, this generalization does not apply to all yoga teachers, there are those who teach purely for the joy of sharing).
In Indian culture, the search for God was considered a sacred path and Yoga one of the 6 ‘darshans’ or worldviews. The public was generally supportive of sadhus and holy men/women that took renunciation and had nothing but their desire to become enlightened to live on. Some were beggars, some mystics. Villages considered them to be wisemen and teachers and offerred food, money and shelter to them. (Again a generalization, sorry! Can’t be true in all situations, some were/are charlatans and fakes, and some did not support them.) Similarly, in America some yoga teachers are driven by the desire for money (rather than the repulsion from money which is at the opposite pole, but with the same focus as beggars), others are spiritual seekers. Buyer beware! We live in a world of polarity! Expect to see it all!
The potential of being powerful or influential has always been a risk of falling from spiritual heights (or political ones…). It is known in Christianity as temptation, in the marketplace as corruption. The need to look deeply at what motivates the actions one takes in the world are what is called for. Patanjali YS III 52 states “Even when the highest celestial beings admire you, you should once again avoid attachment and the resulting pride, because of the potential for the revival of the undesirable.” and YS III, 56 “When the purified mind becomes equal in purity with the Transcendental Spirit, then absolute freedom arises.” (from Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as interpreted by Mukunda Stiles) Is pride influential in the actions of these teachers? What is their internal experience of Spirit and their place in the cosmic dance? Are they pure in mind, and free of afflictions, passion and desire, attraction, attachment? Do they experience ‘kaivalya’ (absolute freedom), or are they at the mercy of their residual impressions, still turning on the Wheel of Becoming like the rest of us, with lessons to learn, some difficult, some easier to swallow? Only they can reflect on and learn from the experiences life has presented, consider their innermost desires, acknowledge their humanity, and choose their goal.
Perhaps we can draw lessons for our own struggles from their example, but unless we can read their minds, we cannot begin to understand what lessons they are learning internally. I am reminded of a story of a monk who lived across the street from a prostitute. He spent most of his waking hours deriding her in his mind for the unholy life style she lived and thinking continuously that she should be punished and made to stop. Conversely, the prostitute yearned continuously to have the luxury of being a monk and pursuing knowledge of God, instead of raising a family and having to earn a living by selling the only thing she had, herself. When the monk died, he was astounded to find that he had been sent to hell, and the prostitute to heaven. That which one meditates upon, one becomes.
In my opinion, these teachers are doing what they need to do and are where they need to be – in front of the magic mirror of life. Life is showing them it’s lessons as it does for one and all, even if we are blind to them. Ma World is confronting their ego with it’s source of identification, that which it seeks to fill the (perceived) void in the heart, it’s source of suffering. It is an opportunity to become more consious of the internal residues which keep the individual in conflict with the other. It is a challenge, to overcome, to let go, to stop the war, the separation, and the ego based action which produce further seeds of future suffering. It is a call for awakening.
May we all look honestly into our own ‘magic mirrors’ and determine which of the ‘me’ images reflected there is Real. May we take responsibility for what we project onto others. May we all learn to live from Reality, and leave the Illusion behind.
Asatoma sat-gamaya Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya Mrityor ma amritam gamayaa OM…Shanti…Shanti…Shanti…
From: J. Brown
To those who found agreement in my “notes”:
Thank you for responding so.
The sea of misinformation that is the current yoga industry can sometimes be overwhelming, more often than not I feel somewhat apart from my fellow teachers.
It is comforting to know that these thoughts make sense to others.
(Behold the power or the internet).
May our behavior embody our beliefs,
and may we have the fortitude to maintain integrity.
I forwarded both articles to my students as a kind of a warning. I wanted them to know that they also had a responsibility to their practice. And that the practice was about surrender and inner wisdom. I am very much a optimist and feel that most people believe what they are teaching/preaching is the truth. And in fact it is” A “truth for them at that time. But in the end it is the student that needs to be aware and take make sound choices about their body and practice. Especially when there are so many new teachers out there. How are they to learn as well all did with training mistakes, success and more training
We must remember that this is a journey for all of us! Both student and teacher. And it is a basic teaching that we should hold no one in judgment. I hold my students very close to my heart and want to deliver the truest message possible , but alas I am still and always will be a student myself. I have just understood the following quote in a profound way in my practice and my life. Does that make me or anyone else a bad teacher. I don’t believe so. I feel that is a journey and the lessons come as the come whether they be through scandal or inner awareness. We fool ourselves if we think for one minute that the students in front of us are not there to hear what we have to say and learn our lesson in one way or another. Nothing is arbitrary it is all divine. Please don’t get me wrong. I believe that the job of the teacher holds an overwhelming amount of responsibility, as I have been one for over 15 year in one form or another. I am speak more about support and compassion and the strength of the yoga community. Perhaps a helping hand to those new at the trade or lost on the path… Isn’t that really what the heart of yoga is about?!
“In fact, I like Ken Wilbur’s approach on this issue. In my words, we do not learn yoga to become more comfortable in this world, but rather to look deeply into our uncomfortableness. We practice yoga to transcend our attachements and suffering and that is often a messy, difficult business. By pushing ourselves in asana, we are sometimes using yoga to avoid yoga, to avoid looking deeply into our heart because we are distracted so much by the difficulty of our hamstrings. Yoga practice thus becomes just another way to avoid ourselves, much like drugs, tv, overeating, etc. How sad I am when I do that and when I guess that others are using yoga in that way as well.”
Love and light
I don’t know if you heard about this but it might warrant a thread.
((LK: I’d consider this to be an extension of the “Yogis Behaving Badly” thread. ))
New Form Is Revolutionizing the Spiritual Exercise
By Judy Muller
L O S A N G E L E S, Oct. 13 – Yoga – an ancient spiritual practice of
intricate poses passed from teacher to student in a sacred exchange. Yoga –
a booming business of glamorous poses in which millions of dollars are being
That’s an unusual way of describing the Hindu discipline, but as yoga’s
popularity spreads, it is being adapted for different audiences.
“America is changing yoga,” said Paul Keegan of Business Magazine. “It’s
turning from a spiritual discipline to a fitness routine and a marketable
The very concept of “selling” a spiritual practice has offended some
That aspect of the growing Bikram movement troubles Max Strom of the Sacred
“If the intention is to make money, I think it is not a good thing because
it’s like franchising a church,” he said.
But don’t tell that to Choudhury. According to him, he is beyond criticism.
He bragged, “I am bulletproof, waterproof, fireproof, windproof,
money-proof, sex-proof, emotion-proof. Nothing in the world can take my
peace away from me.”
Or, for that matter, his net worth, which is estimated at $7 million.