1. The fantasy of restorative justice
I choked on the publish button month after month after month. Because the voices I was listening for were silent. I kept believing the silverbacks still with us would say:
I’m sorry. Our community is traumatized in part because we created a rigid culture of guru worship. I will model humility and do my part to end the cycle.
Just a fantasy? No. Mary Taylor made that move. One hero alone. She stepped out from behind the curtain onto which we project our ideas of her, becoming human, awkward and emotional. And I waited, as most of the others let her stand alone out there and take fire. Or, as they transformed the scene into an opportunity for self-promotion – the classic beta move of “I was right all along and now my hour has come.”
After Mary set the standard, I thought we would see a tide of younger teachers show the work of a soul search. We would get real about the hazards of spiritual celebrity.
If you get those moments when we are all pieces of one being, and the past is now, and the solar system is inside us, then you can read history as if everything connected. It’s an analytical tool. The question becomes: “how could a face of Being, a face of Me, act this way?” When you were 9 and you first learned about genocide, were you one of the anomalies who responded that way by nature? That tender existential soul search?
(Content warning: Oneness. Humanity of sexual assailants.) Using the analytical tool of connection, it looks like Patthabi Jois isn’t a supervillian any more than he’s a god. He’s part of a social construct built out of transference and mirrors. It is on us, now, to understand how he was made into those two extremes. Sociology 101 (Max Weber) notes that charisma is a quality of groups, not individuals. We create the godmen. That’s on us.
Why did I think all the silverbacks, and then the whole second gen, would move towards atonement? Because consciousness wants to evolve. Consciousness likes the hard lessons; they give traction and urgency. No injury; only opening. That mantra is not for the body; it’s an extreme challenge to the psyche.
I also reasoned, how could any practitioner not go to the crossroads with Patthabi Jois? Bless the wise part of this also harmful person who finally, as a ghost, is pointing us in a useful direction. You know who meets you at the crossroads, right? The devil you need. The shadow inside. In the dark night that makes you never the same again.
Going to that crossroads was the vinyasa. Inhale walk into the night. Exhale sit down with the devil and work out which part of humanity could celebrate god-man worship as women were harmed and shunned for decades. Stay there as long as it takes. Do not get up until you get the anger and the heartbreak and the fear on an empathic level. Inhale go home and talk about the lessons freely. Especially with any student who finds the conversation awkward.
That is a teacher’s basic responsibility. To model difficult growth.
We saw the crossroads, but only some of us actually went there, and even fewer came back transformed like I expected.
Eventually I learned why we didn’t get that healing “I’m sorry” from the silverbacks. The answer is that some are too broken to speak. But others: it’s that they feel entitled to their personal psychological comfort.
I take that as a warning. Growth includes psychological discomfort. Socially privileged practitioners will reproduce this entitlement to psychological comfort if we do not see what we are doing. This is dangerous for vulnerable students. Leadership includes reputational and emotional risks to protect the most vulnerable.
Throughout 2019, I believed a tide would follow Mary. Accountability would lead to atonement. Atonement would take the form of self-reflection about the social causes of misogynistic abuse in a spiritual community. After soul searching, we would see where we went wrong: collective transference through dissociative celebrity-guru worship.
Guided by humbled leaders, we would make the sacrifice of the habits that hurt the vulnerable women. The group transference. The sense of entitlement to a spiritual object in the form of a human.
A post-authoritarian era would begin. Restorative justice would be gentle. We’d wake up and stop expecting a sage on a stage, a person who can’t be expected to remember our names, to meet the most tender needs of our broken inner children. We’d tend each other’s inner children. It takes a village, not a strongman.
My fantasy wasn’t all wrong. These things are happening in places. Thank you to those broken open, connecting, making new paradigms. Your work is why I finally feel less choked.
Writing in depth here is a chosen part of my teaching practice. To be human, and fallible, as a yoga teacher in public. While silent last year, i saw so much that was beautiful – particularly the cutting edges of the ashtanga facet of modern yoga. When I have time, I’ll share what feels new in old yoga.
Ashtanga: always old; ever new.
2. Conceptual Colonization. Or, Freud and Yoga.
Here’s the main thing I learned as an ashtanga teacher in 2019. People brought up in the west are vulnerable to mistaking a cross-cultural yoga teacher relationship as a psycho-therapeudic one. Few people know the explicit theory of transference and fewer still have received psychoanalysis (I have). But for all of us whose first language is English or German or French, &c., Freud has been in the air around us a hundred years. Because of his genius, the implicit model a western mind has for healing is systematic transference, and long-run integration of that transference. This is not ashtanga method. It is psychoanalytic method.
I had to spend many, many winters with my teacher in India to get that through my skull. He wasn’t walking me through some transference drama, the way my excellent therapists have done. He was annoyed by my transference. Every time I suppressed my own emotional intelligence, instead choosing to cultivate overwhelming devotion and thoughtless acceptance of his every instruction, I killed off the human connection that’s possible when you let your whole self into the room and don’t assume the other person reads your mind and has a perfect plan for you.
There weren’t a lot of students in Mysore in those days, in the chaos before and after the big guy died. None of the social monitoring to determine who is a devotee, and who is spiritually worthy. It was largely a community of wanderers and rugged individualists. Authorization was rare. Ashtanga was cool. In that open minded, un-crowded environment, my teacher had time to chip away at my surrender mentality. Sometimes, light would shine through my thick skull. My insistent, worshipful transference would crack and we’d be two humans in a room. Yoga.
Stop before you say this reflects a complete cycle of projection-capture. That’s conceptual colonization. It’s also a reduction of the spiritual to the psychological. And it’s upsetting, because it turns my teacher into an object, me into the subject whose growth is what matters. Western mind tends towards objectification and other forms of materialism, despite a mystic current that feels more like yoga. (I first found the latter in Martin Buber.)
The common authoritarian doctrine that “people deserve their fantasy of the perfect parent” in a spiritual group setting is neither accurate to Freud, nor accurate to yoga. What it is, when applied to yoga, is conceptual colonialism.
Now that I understand my teacher as a human, I wonder why he bothered to get to the other side of my colonial mind. The bother of it, the energetic cost. I don’t know. Perhaps because I was a particularly dissociative student. Or maybe it’s that my conditioning with psychotherapy made my drive to create a transference relationship with him painfully obvious.
All I can say is that I am grateful to have gone the distance to find the person on the other side of my spiritual object. Otherwise my entire relationship with ashtanga would reduce to reactions to him as an object, and my head would explode each time I disagree with him. Most people are quicker studies, but I was especially committed to the fantasy of psychological enlightenment.
The upshot is what you see here. A certified teacher accepting herself as an everyday human. Relating to her teacher as the most mundane kind of guru — having finally understood that role in its cultural context as a person who sees what you don’t see in a limited domain. Doing all this this in the open. Without fear.
3. The psychological theory of enlightenment
Psychological enlightenment: spiritual perfection reduced to the level of psychology. The fallacy that an individual personality can be purified of conditioning, plus by a belief that the method to achieve this is surrender to a human god. If you just dissociate enough, your personality will disappear and you will never feel bad or screw up a relationship ever again. Weirdly common motivation in yoga. (Bad news: emotions and personalities get stronger because of practice.)
I suppose the psychological theory of enlightment happened because some cultures went without legitimate religion for 100 years, and in their hunger for transcendence they substituted psychotherapy and self-help for spirituality.
Western students, those looking to fill a void in our lives, can become so certain about this process that we feel entitled to our transference. “I need him to act like X,” is something I’ve said in the past, and heard a whole lot this year.
The psychological theory of enlightenment tells us we can’t wake up without someone to credibly fill the therapist-god shoes. And to the degree we buy that, we in turn think it’s fine to let our own students pedestalize us. Because, according to that theory, all students “need” a cosmic grandparent to put on their inner pedestals. (Pause to note the corrupt position that puts you in as the teacher….)
Expecting a yoga teacher to skillfully cultivate and hold massive amounts of group transference for the end-goal of teaching individuals to intergrate it – that’s not a thing. Charismatic leaders don’t do that. Ever. But we can be so deluded by this story of liberation that we feel entitled to our cathexis. Cathexis at any costs, even if there are bodies on the floor.
Expecting your own teacher to batch-file sangha psychotherapy leads to a particular, postmodern derangement. What happens is you convince yourself that any human behavior by your beloved therapist is arranged for your own learning process. They don’t do human things. They only act unsaintly in ways supernaturally designed to liberate you.
This is all kinds of trouble.
The tradition of the yoga student-teacher relationship as I experience it in India is distinct. It can be understood on its own terms, without the objectification or the reductionism to psyche.
Here’s the thing. Spiritual intelligence is different from psychological intelligence, just as kinesthetic intelligence is different from moral intelligence. None of these is proxy for another. Spirituality is its own domain. It’s not psychology. (By analogy: mastery of the body does not cause moral development; rather, an extreme focus on kinesthetic mastery might account for our immaturity in moral reasoning.)
This substitution of psychological growth for spiritual enlightenment is the motive for western mind to colonize yoga with Freudian ideals. I revere psychoanalysis, and rely on it to conduct myself professionally. But, Krishnamacharya yoga, learned with someone who has a non-internet human relationship with you, is not conducted the same way.
It’s hard to see this, because the ideal of the adoring, omniscient grandparent got baked into the ashtanga cake circa 1970. Many of us can’t imagine the practice without the celebrity worship and ecstasy that accompany group transference.
But… all along, the mystics have moved among us, doing their practice without the inflection towards a cosmic grandpa. I’ve been talking to Danny Paradise about that, recalling the days I was locked in my transference and just thought he was a punk. But yoga from the place of radical personal responsibility + connection with everything is so real. He’s been on that program as long as I’ve been alive. Took me a while to come around.
The ethnographer in me has seen the mystic Jedi approach to ashtanga in pockets around the world all along. But now it feels like the future of a spiritual practice that makes you useful, and smart, and highly respectable in a world that needs you now. The world needs disciplined independent minds because zombie authoritarianism is coming on strong.
4. Psychoactive texts
Say you grew up in a family of astrologers or yoga teachers in south India before the internet. Freudless. In theory, being exposed to westerners who treat you like cosmic grandpa could be completely alienating. Or, it could be thrilling. Humans are humans are humans. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
Because I don’t understand the Indian side of the Yoga/Freud comparison intrinsically, I’ll rely on a download about the differences and similarities between Krishnamacharya’s yoga and Freudian analysis. Yes, that resource exists. Last year I studied it like scripture.
I don’t believe much yoga can be learned in books. But, some publications aren’t so much books as psychoactive substances. This one is dense, unexciting, and lacks editing for a mass market. Good. Knowledge like this should be some trouble. This book guided me for months, from the day it came to me in Freud’s home of Vienna – where I’d first read it on the plane to Montenegro — then back to Michigan where it defined my summer studies, and then to the Pacific Northwest where its message finally germinated in my mind.
So in May, the wonderful Austrian Mysore teacher B gave me a copy of Freud and Yoga by Desikachar and Krusche as I was leaving her home. She directs the shala in Vienna, a city where Freud isn’t just in the air. He’s in the blood. A lot of those ashtangis are psychotherapists. They know the edges of their own paradigm and how to differentiate it from other modes of thinking, same as the book’s coauthor.
I returned to Ann Arbor and took on an apprentice for the summer. She arrived from a faraway country, and we got two months together to support her in her transition into the teaching life. When an apprentice comes, they practice beside me each morning before class, then watch me teach or assist daily, and then meet with me weekly to talk about theory and method. The schedule is grueling for them, and easy for me. At 43, with 20 years of practice experience, the practice has made me far stronger than the 10-year asana champs; in the same way, my 49 year old teacher is faaaaar stronger than me when it comes to the long haul of running a Mysore room.
Anyway, to ensure apprentices get the message that this is only the beginning their Million Hour Teacher Training (TM), they also choose a special topic of study and are asked to do whatever it takes to get me sufficiently interested in their topic to learn about it together with them. (Incidentally, so I feel comfortable inviting individuals based purely on their merit, and so they remember that they might fail, and so I can start paying down the debts of generosity I owe my teachers… this apprenticeship is free.) This summer, she knew immediately; she wanted to study the comparison of yoga and psychology. Great coincidence.
Studying alongside her for two months is how I finally reached the perspective in this post. We began with something evil, Swami Rama’s psychotherapy book, subjecting it to our best critical analysis. Are there clues in the text that the author is a psychopath? (Yes.) Would we have the clarity to recognize them if we didn’t know his story before we started? (Maybe.) Several other students at the shala jumped in and formed a reading group, and the lot of us are still processing the threads opened during that time.
Then at the end of summer, I taught a regional retreat at a Jiddu Krishnamurthi center in Cascadia. (Cascadia is a Unified Utopian Zone that transcends state boundaries in the Pacific Northwest.) During that time, I was studying the Sutras with Chase Bossart, the close student TKV Desikachar (coauthor of the psychoactive book, and son of Krishnamacharya). Chase had generously agreed to do a month-long intensive for my students on the topic of viveka according to Patanjali.
This combination of J. Krishnamurti (a close friend of Desikachar and his father) coming back into my life after a long absence*, plus Chase telling stories about his teacher which I’d never heard before and which may not be documented anywhere yet…. well, it all came together and caused a small fireworks display in my brain.
The following questions appeared.
These are all about the evolution Krishnamacharya may have gone through regarding the role of the student-teacher relationship in yoga. And more importantly, the evolution this seeded for us. By December I’d found partial answers to all of these, but I suspect you, internet, know much more. Please reply if so.
If you care about decolonizing yoga, or a non-racist yoga, or a yoga that has begun to atone for its misogyny and perhaps learned to be of service to marginalized people, these questions may open up our field of possible futures.
I. What was the relationship of Patthabi Jois to his teacher Krishnamacharya in the years after the student started wearing gold chains and teaching from stages? Did Krishnamacharya worry about what was happening there?
II. What models did the world of the 70s-90s have for the living saint? Did Krishnamacharya accept the role of spiritual authority that others asked him to fill, or (as the story goes) he did refuse it? What techniques did Patthabi Jois’s old students use to forge his saintly image for those who would come later? Why didn’t Krishnamacharya’s students do the same to him; and did they try?
III. What was Krishnamacharya’s attitude toward celebrity students? Did it worry him that his students Iyengar and Jois cultivated celebrity students?
IV. Who was Jiddu Krishnamurti, and how does his biography show the ways that westerners demanded spiritual services from Indian god-men in the 20th century? What made his Dissolution of the Order of the Star so inspiring (or horrifying) to other Indian teachers? What was his warning for us now?
V. What happened when Krishnamurti met Krishnamacharya?
VI. What can be known about how Krishnamacharya’s vision for the student-teacher relationship developed after he left the Mysore Palace? What keys to Krishnamarchaya’s method are revealed by Desikachar’s radical pedagogy?
VI. This is a little crazy… but did Krishnamacharya deliberately construct a path out of authoritarianism and set it in motion decades ago, in a way that people throughout his lineage could pick up when Krishanamurti’s warnings came due?
I’m still processing the summer epiphany, and don’t have words for it yet. But the more it settles, the deeper my suspicion that Krishnamurti radicalized Krishnamacharya late in life in a way we have only just begun to appreciate. And the more I wonder if he left any record of objection to the way his students created a following. Did he? Because he knew those god-men as humans and as his own students, what could he see in their shadows as they took the stage that Krishnamurti refused?
These questions don’t matter because of curiosity. They matter because they might reveal the roots of authoritarianism in Krishnamacharya yoga to be dying. Or rather: long dead.
(*My introduction to J Krishnamurti was Mark Whitwell telling me to read both of the Krishnamurtis in grad school in LA. He said that would help me understand the problems with Patthabi Jois, who was still teaching at that time. I had no idea what Mark meant, but did the reading and loved it.)
5. Authoritarianism Gets Real
How to fight authoritarianism? Some ways: (1) Write its history from start to definitive finish. (2) Give up entitlement to leaders as cathartic spiritual objects. (3) Manage transference by being a whole human person in spiritual settings, and requiring anyone in power to do the same instead of playing like a saint.
(Trigger warning: same as above.) There are dozen ways to write our history. Revenge history, the study of the moral failures of past individuals, is the long lie that “I would have never done that.” CS Lewis called this chronological snobbery. For months, I’ve been countering that impulse by listening to a lot of Thic Nhat Hanh on Interbeing. He looks at atrocity through the lens of “how could a face of humanity come to this?”
This is a level of taking responsibility almost no humans have yet found possible. But ashtanga already gave us Mary Taylor, so I feel there will be more to come among us.
Again, using the research tool of “How could an aspect of my own species have done this?,” I have understood: there would be benefits to being somebody’s spiritual object. Then you get to boss them around, and they kiss your feet for it, and they’re not real people to you, and you’re not real to them. So we get religion. Corporate capitalism. Cults. Oligarchy. It is clear. Worship of power in the form of men answers the research question.
People are people. Power likes power. No surprises there.
Now several massive democracies, nation-states founded on secular ideals that once inspired many, rush towards fascism. There is a formula. These states are usually led by men who came to power through violence against ethnic minorities and favors to religious fundamentalists. Nationalist authoritarianism is not something to watch out for. Nationalist authoritarianism is here. It’s getting stronger today, tomorrow, next week. It’s in America. India. China. Parts of South America. Parts of Europe. And more…
We know now that ashtanga has its own history of authoritarianism, embedded within a greater context of liberation and healing and discipline and play and wonder. Its history of cult behavior is short enough we can piece together our own experiences of it, and its genealogy. If you know the history of an idea, and then you know it’s just one choice among many. A bad vibe that has a beginning, can also have an end.
Looking back, you can see: spiritualized authoritarianism was one way of doing yoga. And it’s now effete. As the global nation-state situation grows violent, the stronger the need to design the spiritual future creatively. We can use the ideas and historical knowledge at hand to cut through cultures of compliance. Mystics are great at resistance, because their minds are free.
Two of the key dying democracies are on opposite sides of the world. Yoga thrives at these poles. One starts with A, and one starts with I. In these nations, authoritarianism is turning towards fascism. As we make the ashtanga of 2020, please remember the aesthetic and the attitude that accompanied the original fascist ethno-state. It started with a stage. Add a charismatic male leader, and behind that large portraits of the same man. Then on the grounds before the stage, rows and rows of adamantine bodies, moving in synchrony, the model of coordinated mental and martial power.
As fascism takes form form again in the world, I’ve been on the lookout for new uses of its visual lexicon. Because this is how hypernormalization works. My friends: fascist imagery was already re-normalizing itself last year. The First Order. The Sith Cathedral. Evangelical megachurches. The Magisterium. Michigan Trump rallies. And….
Yeah. And that. See it? I know this is really hard to look at, but please. That aesthetic, and that attitude, is in our shadow too.
And because authoritarianism is an aspect of ashtanga history, our lizard brains contain the code for how to double down on transference onto spiritualized authorities. When we could instead let the mass guru thing die. We know in our bones how to center our practice around the pedestal and the person on it – whether we obsessively love or obsessively critique that object. What an easy way to find psychological comfort in uncertain times. To fill the void of parents, and presidents, and bosses who care.
Please. This is important. There are a million ways to nurture our practice for the future. A million ways it can look. A million ways we can express care, loyalty, investment, and faith. Obsession with authority is, we have learned, the worst of all known ways.
Understand our yoga’s authoritarian streak from the inside, from the beginning. Then gently, let it end.