Does the Guru-Student Model Work in Modern Yoga?

April 26, 2016    BY VK Harber

“Not to examine the teacher is like drinking poison; not to examine the disciple is like leaping from a precipice.”
Padmasambhava

I recently re-watched I’m Your Man, a documentary about the mystic/poet/musician Leonard Cohen. Among his beautifully articulated ponderings on his creative process, spirituality, and life, he talks about his ordination as a Zen monk as the natural and necessary evolution of his relationship with his Roshi (master teacher). That relationship was both the way and the means for his spiritual transformation. And as he says in the documentary, if Roshi had been a math professor rather than a monk, Cohen would have been studying math rather than Zen Buddhism.

The essential and intense nature of the guru-student relationship in various Eastern spiritual traditions is familiar, but perhaps not well understood by many yoga practitioners. It is a relationship that must be entered with great care and thorough examination both on the part of the student and the teacher. Within monasteries and other dedicated spiritual communities, there is time and space for this process of discernment. What about in the context of the modern yoga industry?

What about in yoga studios, yoga teacher training programs, and yoga retreats, which offer few opportunities for one-on-one interaction and a deep level of mutual relationship examination, yet often use language that borrows from this relationship model?

In my own work within my community at the nonprofit yoga studio I cofounded, these are among the issues we try to address. It is our belief that modern yoga culture can and should become a social justice movement, taking cues from other popular mass movements that implement decentralized principles of organization. These principles include horizontal power structures, open access to knowledge, collaboration, and peer support and accountability. Imagine what yoga could be if it were practiced in this way! Gurus become knowledge-sharers; teachers become holders-of-space; students become collaborators; and all hold each other to account in support, love, and integrity.

In the yoga industry, stories of manipulation, abuse of power, violence, ego, and control are far more common than any of us would like to acknowledge. When outrageous allegations begin to gain traction, we comfort ourselves with the belief that this only happens when a yoga teacher achieves a certain level of fame and recognition. The higher the podium, we often say, the bigger the shadow.

In the yoga industry, stories of manipulation, abuse of power, violence, ego, and control are far more common than any of us would like to acknowledge.

But there is shadow everywhere, and in the yoga culture (which has become so much about spiritual bypass, or using spiritual practices to avoid dealing with unresolved wounds), lip service is given to illuminating the unconscious, but with little follow-through. While there may only be a few gurus who rise high and fall hard, there are many “masters” who use the guru-student model as an excuse to recreate structures of oppression. The frameworks of shadow work and peer supervision—which provide opportunities to examine conscious and unconscious behaviors with compassion and understanding, both individually and in community, and serve as a protection against these abuses of power—are simply not a part of yoga industry culture.

The result is ego-driven madness. Lineage is an often-invoked excuse for preserving hierarchy and patriarchy. Well-known teachers are often surrounded by people who admire them or rely on them for income, especially in intensive yoga teacher training settings where there is often little opportunity to give and receive feedback. Studio teachers are rewarded with money and recognition for packing classes, while the intimacy and vulnerability found in a close teacher-student relationship is often lost. Franchises are built and sustained on the reputations of popular teachers.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the return of a pure guru-student model. I’m advocating for an end to that language and model within the context of this industry. I would also advocate for acknowledging some uncomfortable truths, beginning with the fact that the industry is very lucrative for some. This may in part be responsible for our having replaced discernment with unquestioning loyalty, and allowing physical prowess to trump spiritual health. We’ve confused exhibitionism with vulnerability and guru groupies with lineage bearers. We’ve perpetuated manipulation, control, and violence, all under the mantle of empowerment and peace.

My years teaching yoga have convinced me that people really yearn to experience embodiment and connection. People are hungry for spirituality, even if they do not name it as such. And they want to take this off the mat and into their daily lives. The willingness to follow teachers with little to no examination can be seen as evidence of just how much we all yearn to be in relationship. So much so that we are willing to overlook the inherent problems in a model that was never intended to be practiced in the context of capitalist industry.

How do we reconfigure this relationship toward dedication to the practice, rather than to the teacher? How do we honor lineage without recreating and reinforcing interlocking systems of oppression? Teachers who are committed to shadow work, accountability, and the ongoing work it requires to see and name privilege, racism, sexism, classism, and ageism is a start. But there is more. How can we all approach yoga, not as a product to consume, but as a decentralized framework for transformation?

How do we reconfigure this relationship toward dedication to the practice, rather than to the teacher?

Essential to decentralized movements is their ability to adjust to present circumstances and needs. Buddhists might use the word upaya, skillful means or action that is appropriate in its time and place. Upholding the guru-student model without the practices that keep it safe and beneficial is not skillful means. Commitment to this ideal does not allow for flexibility to adjust to the needs of the times and the circumstances in which we live, both as individuals and as a society. We are living in world that needs people whose hearts have come alive with a desire to revolutionize our broken systems and to serve humanity. We are living in a time where everyone, rather than a select few, needs access to the wisdom that resides in the lineages of our deep traditions. And we are in a time and place that allows for connections and relationships unbounded by location, opening space for collaborative models of spiritual transformation.  

VK Harber
V.K. Harber is a yogi, contemplative, and writer exploring the intersection of yoga, new monasticism, feminism, and social change. She is a co-founder and co-director of Samdhana-Karana Yoga, and has over 1,000 hours of teaching experience focused on underserved populations. She is also the spiritual director for Hab Washington, an ecumenical and inter-spiritual "new monastic" community which offers formation in radical spirituality and sacred activism.

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