Guru is not great *
I was listening to a podcast recently where a meditating neuro scientist called Sam Harris was interviewing the infamous cult leader / spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen. SH was taking AC to task over his creation of basically a cult disguised as a spiritual community, and the mental (and physical) chaos via his teachings (teachings that he would refer to as crazy wisdom) he had caused his followers. It was a fascinating listen – but my main take away from it was near the end of the conversation when SH asks AC if the idea of the Eastern Guru in the context of the modern world is now both broken and unsalvageable with AC agreeing
I wrote recently about the big black dark cloud hanging over Ashtanga Yoga in light of the allegations of sexual abuse against Pattabhi Jois – the guru of Ashtanga Yoga. It seems this dark cloud is nowhere near finding any light of resolution as more allegations of abuse and senior teacher cover ups come out into the public sphere (mainly via social media). Having been to Mysore numerous times I do admit I drank the Kool Aid along with everybody else but if I’m honest with myself I spat it out when no-one was watching. It felt weird (and still does) that people would need to elevate another person into a Guru – an ideal being. I didn’t understand it. I’m of course not saying its wrong obvs, I’m just saying it’s not for me. I’ve been studying Zen Meditation for the last 10 years or so now, and one of the biggest lessons for me in this tradition is that any Zen student trying to give their responsibility away to the Zen Master – a responsibility that says ‘please show me how to live my life’ gets this thrown right back at them and the admonishment ‘take responsibility for yourself’! I think it’s time for Ashtanga to learn this lesson. I don’t know what it is about Ashtanga but some of its teachers love to have the power of this responsibility- they want to become the Guru themselves instead of wanting to awaken the Guru in the student. A word of advice here to students, any teacher/ Guru / Paramaguru (sigh) teaching ‘it’s my way or the highway ‘– choose the highway every time. And by ‘my way’ they usually mean ‘the traditional method’ – it’s pretty ironic (and tragic) that there’s countless teachers teaching contradictory ‘traditional methods’ as my good friend Luke Jordan says ‘let’s be done with the silly insistence on a militaristic mythological ‘correct method’.
I can also admit now for the first time to anyone who is vaguely interested that after quitting last Summer a Mysore programme I was teaching in Los Angeles ( because of the aforementioned black cloud) I was seriously considering packing in teaching altogether- I know some teachers already had. One teacher wrote that they felt Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga were synonymous so this person could no longer in good faith practice or teach Ashtanga Yoga. I have never felt this way – personally I always attributed the Ashtanga practice and sequences to Krishnamacharya (Pattabhi Jois’s teacher). I have some copies of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram darsanam : a quarterly publication from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. There are various photo essays in these magazines showing students moving through what was called Vinayasa Krama sequences that Krishnamacharya had created. To me these sequences were almost a carbon copy of the (mainly primary series) Ashtanga sequences – coincidence me thinks not. There are also You Tube videos of a young BKS Iyengar moving through parts of the advanced Ashtanga sequences in the early 1930s and we know who his teacher was. I will add a small caveat to this point by admitting that apart from some written testimonies from his students we don’t really know what kind of teacher Krishnamacharya really was. There are reports that he regularly hit and chastised students and by giving him the honour of the Ashtanga creator I might also be swapping one feet of clay for another. I digress.
What pulled me round and back onto the mat and into the classroom was the inspiration I found via student testimonials I had received. They literally brought tears to my eyes, they brought the comfort of knowing that despite everything I was of some value to a few people, and that’s good enough for me. And after 20 plus years of both teaching and practicing I don’t need anyone else’s approval, I don’t feel I have to justify myself for wanting to teach Ashtanga Yoga in a non-traditional and secular way. As I mentioned in a previous blog I don’t need to connect to Ashtanga either when I’m teaching or practicing via a third party (Mysore/ Pattabhis Jois / Sharath etc) – I connect to students via my own experience, the 20 years plus of blood sweat and tears that I’ve put into it. Peace Out/Off J .
I was listening to a discussion via You Tube (link below) between LA artist Earl Sweatshirt and his mother Professor Cheryl Harris. PCH was telling a story that a couple of years back after the terrible news of the 45, ES had asked her could America be fixed. She was heartbroken to say no it couldn’t but something new had to be built. Personally I think this is analogous to Ashtanga Yoga – it is broken beyond repair in its present guise and it needs to be rebuilt. This rebuilding process will need intelligence and compassion for the student and making sure their internal/ external needs are of paramount importance, and the adherence to some bogus idea of sticking to some militaristic mythological ‘correct method’ should be left in the rubble.
A very good friend of mine and a senior Ashtanga teacher told me a true story of how many moons ago he had joined the Hare Krishna movement, as he saw this as a real opportunity of furthering his spiritual understanding and practice. After a few months or so he noticed that the students who were becoming more ‘spirituality advanced’ as decided by the Hare Krishna hierarchy, were actually the students who were selling the most books on the street. He left the movement. I can see similarities with Ashtanga Yoga here where flexibility is rewarded with status – how spiritual eh! For me there is nothing spiritual at all about a sequence of physical movements that help to increase ones strength and flexibility, the only thing spiritual is the person doing the movements.
* Thanks to the late Christopher Hitchens for the inspiration for the blog title.