Yes, I Developed a Guru Complex, and This is What it Taught Me


From How Not To Teach Yoga: Lessons on Boundaries, Accountability, and Vulnerability - Learnt the Hard Way © 2021 by Tori Lunden. Reprinted in arrangement with Tori Lunden. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

The first yoga class I ever taught was at an ashram in Rishikesh, India–I know, how auspicious. I was fresh out of my first yoga teacher training and, at the invitation of the Swami, was teaching a month-long session of karma (free) yoga. I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be good at it so freaking bad. In my mind, I’d been one of the best students at the training and so my expectations of myself were high and mighty. However, there was one problem: I had next to no idea what I was doing. Any new yoga teacher is going to flail a little and I knew this but I reeeally didn’t want that to be me. Otherwise, I might not be as special as I thought. So, I covered up my lack of knowledge and subsequent shame with what I have since come to call “Yoga Teacher Armor.” Basically, I was super charming and pretended to be semi-enlightened. Only semi because I had just started teaching and wanted to remain somewhat humble.

It didn’t take much to be a fake guru. Many people assume that as a yoga teacher we already have some sort of direct line to the universal truth. Taking it a step further into teaching like we do is easy. Acting like an omnipotent being that knows the secret of the cosmos came almost without thought or planning, it flowed in a way that was almost reflexive.

I would say as little as possible and keep my answers to any questions vague but seemingly deep. I developed the habit of making meaningful, happy eye contact with everyone. I was distant from my students so they never really got to know me, but simultaneously talked about love and connection all the time. I showed vulnerability sometimes, but only when it served the purpose of making people like me more. Why did I do all this and how did I know to do it? Well, I’d watched other people who seemed enlightened act this way for years so it’s what I did. The worst part is that as long as I could keep up the act, it worked. It worked really well.

In this, the most esoteric stage of my yoga journey, I taught a lot about chakras, healing sounds, and mantras. I was, at best, a novice in all these areas but found myself easily and almost effortlessly padding the edges of my knowledge with spiritual sounding flair. This “padding” can be done with anything, by the way, but it seems to happen more easily in energetic-based yoga practices. And, Lord have mercy, did I go for it. The more I embellished, the more my predominantly Western students seemed to think I had some sort of special touch. After a while, I started believing I did too—take it from me that the line between faith in oneself and self-delusion is thinner than you might guess.

I remember one guy asking me for a personalized sound to heal his throat chakra and I gave him one, intuitively. Maybe it worked for him and maybe it didn’t, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I, more or less, just made it up based on one month of study, some cool sounding jargon, and the belief that I was allowed to do this because I was me. One day, a couple of Western students ran into me on the street and bowed down to me. Okay, they bobbed a little in respectful greeting. But in my head, they were bowing before me, a manifestation of celestial bliss, who was showing them the path to freedom and love. I’m not exaggerating. Place a lost, insecure person in even a vague position of power and they will eat it up like meatless, non-dairy, gluten-free hamburgers.

Take it from me that the line between faith in oneself and self-delusion is thinner than you might guess.

Fake Always Falls Apart

This brings us to the conclusion of my pseudo-guru tale—I got sick. Well, in truth I had a bad experience with my novice Kundalini practice that left my nervous system in shaky tatters, but for the sake of brevity, let’s call it sick (yes, I was most definitely teaching aspects of Kundalini Yoga when this happened and continued to do so after). Yoga teachers aren’t supposed to get sick. We have super spiritual powers that protect us against that, don’t we? I couldn’t tell my students what was going on, it would have broken the façade that I’d worked so hard to create, so I tried to keep it going.

I wasn’t really conscious of this deception, I was just doing what I thought all yoga teachers were supposed to do and hoping that no one noticed. Eventually, inevitably, they did. Without my ethereal charms and feel-good pseudo-wisdom, class attendance dwindled and by the end of the month I was left with three semi-enthusiastic regulars whose attendance, I suspect, was based mostly on the class still being free. I was convinced that I’d failed my first test as a teacher: fake enlightenment. I also resented my students for not appreciating the amount of energy I had put into my performance. So, when I left the ashram I stopped teaching and practicing altogether until I felt I had the strength to once again, “fake it til I make it.”

Manipulation vs Teaching

I think the greatest challenge to every modern day yoga teacher is to differentiate between teaching and manipulating. Students will often unconsciously place teachers on pedestals as though we have all the answers, but that doesn’t give us license to use that misconception to our own benefit, no matter how easy it is to do.

Part of living in society is having influence over other people and other people having influence over us. This give and take is part of healthy social interactions. Manipulation is influence that only flows in one direction and is primarily for the manipulator’s benefit. When we are manipulating someone, we are pushing them to change their perceptions and/or behaviors through the use of mental and emotional trickery. Simply put, as a teacher, it’s an end game of getting people to do what we want rather than helping them discern what’s best for themselves. It’s not about educating or empowerment, it’s about us gaining and keeping control over other people. My yoga teacher armor felt so safe because it gave me unchallenged sway over everyone in the class. 

The seeds of manipulative behaviors are usually sown when we were children attempting to get our emotional needs met. There’s no shame in that—getting attention and affirmation at a young age is a matter of survival. Then we grow up and for some of us these behavior patterns remain even though we no longer need them. There is much more that can be said about how and why we develop manipulative behaviors and what to do about it, but that is beyond the scope of the work we’re doing here. There are ample resources out there if you want to do more research, just be sure to check the qualifications of whoever you learn from. (Yes, people can manipulate while apparently educating about manipulation.)

The most common form of manipulation we see in yoga settings is charisma. I call it “manipulation light.” It’s a little dance we do with people to make them smile and feel good about themselves and, by way of that, us. It’s a calculated self we show in order to be liked and get what we want (full classes, accolades, money, take your pick). It also makes people more likely to trust us and believe what we tell them is true. It can be as easy as always having a snappy quip to make others laugh or as calculated as remembering a detail about someone’s personal life so we can bring it up later to show them we care.

As teachers, we all use charisma to varying degrees to engage the people in our classes. It’s harmless fun when kept in check and not made the basis of our teaching methodology. Where charm starts to become dangerous is when we use it without self-awareness or boundaries and we let that ooey-gooey ice cream feeling overrun our better judgment. It’s easy to say we’d never do that, but we all love attention, love people thinking we’re the bee’s knees, and love our classes being full. Manipulation and charm are the easiest route to achieving all of these. I may not play guru anymore, but I still regularly check myself for relying on humorous charm in lieu of solid teaching.

Charisma, fake personas, and pseudo wisdom that plays to people’s emotions to cover a lack of real content (also known as talking out of your ass) are just some ways manipulation can play out in yoga settings. Detecting manipulative behaviors in our own teaching can be tricky. It also takes a tremendous amount of courage.

One telltale sign is that we like to hold ourselves as somehow above or separate from other people in the class/community and situations that might make us appear vulnerably human are something to be hidden or glossed over with spiritual rhetoric. Another sign is that as people progress in their practice they seem to become more dependent on us for answers. This dependent behavior is common in students when, as teachers, we purposely hurt or stir up their emotions under the guise of teaching them something. This is sometimes called “truth telling” or “tough love.” It’s neither.

The truth of it is that many people are very unknowingly susceptible to being manipulated. It’s happened to me many times in yoga/spiritual circles; it’s not something to be ashamed of. People often come to yoga looking for something that is missing in their lives. An easy way to fill that existential hole is a person in a position of authority telling them they are a good person and that they belong. The point of their yoga then becomes less about their personal learning and practice, and more about changing to meet the teacher’s expectations so that they can continue to belong.

Let’s just take a moment to reread that sentence, because it’s a doozy. The point of their yoga then becomes less about their personal learning and practice, and more about changing to meet the teacher’s (our) expectations so that they can continue to belong. People often mistake this conditional acceptance and subservience as a deep personal connection with the teacher. In truth this is the farthest thing there is from it—manipulation is the opposite of connection. Remember, healthy influence is supposed to go both ways. This dependency driven dynamic is why manipulation is so effective at filling up a room. Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, get a man to think he needs you in order to eat and you’ll have him hooked on fish for life.

Spiritual Bypassing

It’s hard not to want to be the teacher with all the answers, and the quickest route to feeling like that teacher is to fake it. Which brings us to spiritual bypassing. Also known as that thing other yoga people do, right?

Mastery of anything requires both theoretical and experiential knowledge (knowing stuff and then repeatedly trying to apply said stuff to real-life situations). The premise is that we read or hear teachings that are meant to guide and inspire us; this is us gaining theoretical knowledge. We then take this theoretical knowledge and try putting it into practice and see what happens; this is how we gain experiential knowledge. In doing so we learn a whole lot more than the theoretical teaching alone could ever tell us. This real-life application of a theory is also known as praxis, if you want to get fancy.

Teachings that give us a sense of where our spiritual road might lead are a double-edged sword. What can and often does happen is that our desire to progress can cause us to bypass experiential learning/praxis and go straight to an imagined endpoint based solely on theoretical knowledge. It’s akin to our spiritual rubber never having met the road.

Spiritual bypassing is easy to judge and even easier to do. For many of us, it was how we were taught to practice and teach. Again, the easiest way to feel like a good teacher is to act the way we think a good yoga teacher would act; ethereal, calm, compassionate, detached, wise…(you know the picture). The problem with this approach is we haven’t done enough of the prerequisite work required to genuinely achieve these states. We’re just guessing at what they look/feel like based on an image—this is spiritual bypassing. And it’s almost impossible to bypass without acting like a bit of a jerk.

For instance, when a student says something like, "The way you teach doesn’t respect my needs as a fat-bodied person," and the teacher replies with, "You need to let go of that ego-based identity, we’re all one and the same," the teacher is using bypassing to avoid facing a valid critique. Another one from my own past is me telling a teacher, “I’m just having a really hard time right now,” and them responding with, “That’s only your mind’s perception, you need to be more in your body and less in your head.” See how that works? Using a spiritual bypass to shut down unwanted dialogue about all things uncomfortable, anyone?

To our greater detriment, all the confusion, failure, and ongoing effort of practice that we skip over when we bypass is the prerequisite work that ultimately qualifies us to teach. My favorite example is, “Let it go.” Letting go of something is an organic process that occurs as the result of our personal healing work (many many ways to go about this). Letting go as a stand-alone bypassing action is usually just well-intentioned denial. This is a great short-term solution for being a messy human but it gets us nowhere in the long run. The truth is that what we do not deal with adds up and will eventually start to weigh on us. If we do it as teachers, the weight of faking it can get very heavy indeed and manifest itself as bullying, disillusionment, imposter syndrome, and a number of other problematic behaviors.

I believe that this lack of experiential knowledge is why bypassing and manipulation are so often seen together—we use one to compensate for the other. It’s a package that can sell well for a while, but, deep down, we know that sales depend on us keeping our charming guru armor on and never really being seen for who we are. That’s a horrendous load to carry. Bypassing continues to be popular because many of us simply don’t know better until we know better. We were taught bypassing as a spiritual endeavour by our teachers and so we went with it, unaware of the consequences.

I think, to an extent, bypassing is a natural phase of yoga. We start with high intellectual ideals and through time and practice this is cured into something more experientially based; this is called integration. Wise teaching requires integration, and integration is only possible when we take time to learn and practice without the immediate impulse to teach our initial assumptions. Wisdom isn’t given, it’s earned.

Using the “Exotic” to Feel Legit

This section is geared toward my fellow non-Indian yoga teachers. If you fall into this category and find yourself already coming up with counterarguments for whatever I might say here about using sacred practices from other cultures, let me say, “I know the feeling.” If you fall into this category and find yourself already feeling smug because you see yourself as a woke ally to all peoples, let me say, “I know the feeling.” If we’re aiming to be open-minded yoga teachers willing to look at truths that differ from our own, I recommend staying somewhere in between these two extreme positions—it requires a bit more thought but it’s worth it.

A discussion around the roots of yoga and how to respect them while simultaneously allowing for innovation and evolution is a book in itself, and some really great books have been written on it. I’m not going to go into the finer points of what is and isn’t cultural appropriation here; I’d rather give you links to teachers who have made this issue the focus of their work and let you learn from them. What I will share is my favorite definition of cultural appropriation: “Using the wisdom of elders without regard for their descendants” (original source unknown). Basically, utilizing the wisdom/practices/name of yoga (or any culture, religion, or philosophy) whilst consciously or unconsciously believing that we are somehow better than Indian people.

The issue with my early teaching persona wasn’t so much that I was a white lady teaching an ancient Indian religion, it was that I was picking and choosing the parts of it I liked and doing whatever I wanted with them for personal gain.

I got away with it because I was teaching people who knew even less about Hinduism and yoga than I did. I did it because using the flashier aspects of Indian culture and Hinduism made me feel like a legit yogi. It’s a lot like spiritual bypassing; I got the yogi feel without doing the experiential work and, in the process, missed the point. The problem was not with me, or with the content, but with my flippant approach to the content. Looking back, I was excited to belong to something meaningful, something with depth, and so I acted, dressed, and taught in a way that I thought signified my belonging. And while these signifiers worked on folks who didn’t know better, they alienated and disrespected members of the very culture from which they were taken.

The issue with my early teaching persona wasn’t so much that I was a white lady teaching an ancient Indian religion, it was that I was picking and choosing the parts of it I liked and doing whatever I wanted with them for personal gain.

Another illustration of this behavior is that after I stopped mantra as a personal practice, I continued to sing mantras at the end of my classes. I joked to friends that it was “insurance” in that, even if someone didn’t like my class, my sweet voice singing to them in an ancient language would ensure they left thinking I knew my stuff. In retrospect, I often make jokes about things I’m not quite ready to admit yet.

Seemingly “exotic” spiritual practices can be like a trump card in that anyone who doesn’t know better will usually assume we know how to use them and have earned the right to do so. That’s how they are easily misused for manipulation and bypassing.

This is one of the reasons why cultural appropriation is so offensive; it’s not just borrowing the sacred, it’s distorting it with an (possibly unconscious) ulterior motive. Again, I’m not saying your practice of yoga or any Indigenous spiritual tradition is by default appropriative, I’m saying get clear about why you’re practicing this way and look for the impact this practice potentially has on the culture in which it originated.

I highly recommend two commitments here:

1) putting work into researching what cultural appropriation is, what it is not, and the multitude of issues that exist under this sometimes overused heading. By that I mean read up on multiple opinions and definitions that you both agree and disagree with and think about what you read. Like yoga, this isn’t about finding a right answer, it’s about shifting perspective.

2) Find a qualified guide/teacher to help you start doing the internal work of uncovering your personal biases, assumptions, stereotypes, etc. and feeling all the emotions that come with that. This second half is absolutely necessary in order for this information (theoretical) to become a shift in perspective (experiential). Without this second part, we are likely to fall into bypass-mode again and run the risk of becoming either closed-minded for the sake of personal comfort or using this new information as a points system we can use to feel superior to and police others with. Neither response does much good.

Journal Prompts for Self-Reflection

 Your Story: Ever Faked It?

 Do you or have you ever subscribed to the guru model (Westernized or traditional) of teaching/learning yoga? Write about your experience (good, bad, anything). What is/was it like as a student and what is/was it like as a teacher?

What are your thoughts on the “fake it until you make it” strategy of teaching? Pros? Cons? Have you ever used a fake persona as a teacher? Was it yoga teacher armor or some other method? What were your motivations? To what degree was the persona problematic? To what degree was it beneficial?

Do you rely on charisma as a teacher? How much and in what situations do you depend on it more? Why do you think that is? Who are you without it?

Do you ever notice yourself “padding the edges” while teaching? When and how does it happen? Why do you think it happens?

Have you ever been manipulated by a teacher, or witnessed it happen to another person? How did you realize what was happening? How did that affect you?

What are your experiences with spiritual bypassing? Think about examples of theoretical and experiential learning from your own practice and the different impacts these two forms of learning have. If you can’t think of any, keep an eye out for them in your practice.

Do you use sacred objects, language, and/or practices from cultures other than your own when teaching? What is your purpose in doing so? How do you ensure you honor these practices, rather than simply appropriate and profit from them? What is your gut reaction to being asked to explain your motives?

What questions do you have about cultural appropriation? Are you willing to put in the time to research these questions to find answers for yourself? Why or why not? Be as honest with yourself as you can about your motives and explore their origins.

How does the idea of “gurudom” apply to newer trends in yoga such as self-help, life coaching, and movement science? How can manipulation and playing guru play out in these areas?

Any other aspects of faking it, manipulation, bypassing, appropriation you want to hash out? Go for it.

About the Teacher

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Tori Lunden
After two and half decades of spiritual searching, Tori's outlook on life can be summed up simply as,... Read more