The problem with "Yoga Docs," or, why Grandma might think "Yoga is a cult," aka, "The Guru Problem."

I’ve been sitting on some thoughts regarding some of the media’s portrayal of yoga in Western society. Most recently, I watched the documentary about Bikram Choudhury and his horrifying yoga lens and oppressive teaching. As alarming as Bikram’s methods were / are, I was equally disappointed in the film’s inability to clarify what yoga truly is. Maybe this is because the definition of yoga is so broad an all-encompassing? Maybe it is because the truth isn’t as sensational as the instances where megalomaniac men use yoga as bait to lure in people to abuse and manipulate. The one glaring omission from all of these? Nobody stood up to say, “all of this happened, and this is not yoga. Yoga is…”

Let’s take a look at some of the offerings we can all sit and consume from home that could make anyone’s grandma think “all yoga is a cult.” This isn’t a complete list, just a list of things I happened to see or hear this past year.

Wild Wild Country (2018): I remember seeing Osho books next to the Rumi anthologies in college bookstores back in the 90’s. A guy I dated quipped about “free love.” I’d kind of forgotten about Osho until my brother suggested I watch Wild Wild Country. This Netflix doc series covers the rise and fall of the Rajneeshpuram cult. Rajneesh/Osho and his minions used some aspects of yoga, hypnotism, psychological abuse, sex, violence, and power to manipulate and abuse as many as 2,000 people who lived on it’s commune in Oregon. As horrifying as this doc-series is, apparently it doesn’t even include some of the worst happenings on the commune, like sexual abuse of children, and an alleged plot to purposely cause an AIDS epidemic. Unreal. I’ve added Jane Stork’s book, “Breaking the Spell: My Life as a Rajneeshee and the Long Journey Back to Freedom (2009),” to my reading list. In case it isn’t obvious, this is not yoga. But there are still people buying Osho’s books and paying to go to resorts and meditation trainings in his name!

Holy Hell (2016): CNN films documentary about the Buddhafield cult. This autobiographical film by artist Will Allen introduces viewers to Michel, aka Jaime Gomez, aka many other names… an actor turned hypnotist/guru who uses yoga as a tool to manipulate followers into submission. We come to see the obsessive vanity of Michel, as well as his requirement that followers be fit, young, and beautiful. What blew my mind about this film was the perspective shift… Allen made this film over the course of 22 years! He began filming in an obviously loving, admiring way when he was young and we can see the shift in his lens as he begins to see the truth about Michel. Viewers will see a lot of mind-bending hypnotism, ego, sexual abuse, idolization, manipulation… this is not yoga. Yet there are still Buddhafield events and followers, and Michel is still a guru leader!

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019): Another Netflix documentary. This one was a little different, because in the yoga world even today, Bikram is a household name. It is a brand. Bikram Yoga. It is a noun! “My sister does Bikram.” I recall seeing Bikram Choudhury on late night TV, in People Magazine… there are studios in nearly every city branded Bikram. I have also been cautioned by many teachers over the years, “Bikram yoga is not real yoga. People love it but it isn’t for everyone.” And now I know why. Again, this man used yoga to coerce, manipulate, emotionally and sexually abuse, and most of all, PROFIT (cha-ching!) thousands upon thousands of people. Again… this is not yoga. Hot yoga? Ok. Maybe. Bikram is alive and well. But let’s not give the Bikram brand any more money!

Uncover, Season 1, Escaping NXIVM (2018): This is a Canadian (CBC) Podcast, and this season is not about yoga per se, rather, about yet ANOTHER cult known as NXIVM (pronounced Nexium). NXIVM is so many things, but I think this organization would say it is an “executive training” business, very guru-style self-help if you ask me, with a guru leader named Keith Raniere who claims to be not only the smartest man in the world, but in many senses a Messiah. Why is this on my list? Because threaded throughout the season, we hear how members targeted yoga studios and yoga practitioners, the yoga community is tangentially linked here, and it bugs me! Not once does anyone say, “this has nothing to yoga,” rather, it makes it seem like taking a yoga class makes you susceptible to being recruited into a cult. Maybe yoga students are seekers, more open-minded. But yoga itself is not a cult. And of course, there are still people who follow Keith Raniere, who consider him a guru.

The common theme here, in my humble opinion? Megalomaniac men using yoga as a tool to elevate themselves to guru status, and then using that power to manipulate, control, and abuse. THIS IS NOT YOGA. Sadly, the truth is, there is a problem with gurus. A google search can reveal hundreds of abusive gurus over time. It has gotten to the point where whenever I am curious about a type of yoga practice, or even want to read a new book, I need to do some research to find out whether or not that person has hurt people. Often they have. It is a sad reality. This is not yoga.

So we have a problem. There has been the question, “Can you separate the art from the artist?” Well, I have come to ask, “Can you separate the yoga from the abusive guru?” I cannot. I simply cannot. What can we do to resolve this problem? Would Netflix be interested in making documentaries about the positive, real contributions modern yoga is making in our society, while also honoring tradition and history, and not appropriating? We shall see. Something tells me it won’t be happening anytime soon.

Pondering, Yoga for non-yoga people, Yoga off the mat

Kids need yoga, but not like you think

This past week, I had the opportunity to teach a fourth-grade Girl Scouts troop about yoga. I received training in teaching children, but it’s not exactly my area. A lot of what I came across in researching “kid’s yoga” was for little kids, not pre-teens. Some websites recommended simple games with little to no asanas. Some books had lists of poses renamed into playful but rather silly names. I was beginning to doubt whether I’d done the right thing by agreeing to teach tweens, even as a one-time gig. I kept hearing my YTT teacher’s voice, “teach what you know.”

I know yoga, and I know tweens. I have a nine year-old daughter myself. It’s a tender period of adolescence. It finally dawned on me that kids need the concepts of yoga as much of not more than the physical activity. Honoring our bodies, honoring differences, breathing and visualization techniques to calm ourselves when stressed, “down time” when we are unplugged and not “working,” be it schoolwork or chores… sharing this with all people (all ages) is why I wanted to teach yoga in the first place!

So I let go of “planning” a sequence for the class and brought my yoga toolkit with me. I had three IKEA bags full of mats (mine and borrowed), blocks, and blankets. I brought my 3D printed moonlamp, as I knew the sun would be setting during the class. And I brought my knowledge of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, the sutras, and my general practice in my head.

When we arrived at our reserved room at the library, Dove helped me arrange the mats and blocks in a circle. As the rest of the girls arrived, I made it a point to connect with each of them. I let their energy and spirits lead me. I answered the question, “Is this a yoga pose?” with “It might be!” at least seven times. I also dispelled the rumor that the moon lamp was a “fortune-telling ball.” Nope. Just a lamp!

We had fun with a few partner poses. I led them through asanas with breath, like cat and cow. We did puppy pose with our tails in the air, then stretched and grew into downward facing dogs. I led them through a short guided meditation (“like a story”) in savasana. They LOVED it. The first thing out of one girl’s mouth after “Namaste” was “Can we do this again?” That particular student used her own money to buy two yoga mats the following day, so she could “teach her mom yoga.”

My goal = achieved.

Now my yoga teacher friends are asking, “Did you like teaching that age group?” YES. I did! “Will you be doing it again?” Yes. I’m not sure who, when, or where, but yes. If you have any leads, let me know!

Books about yoga, Living with intention, Things my yoga teacher said, Yoga off the mat

Truth in yoga

Almost three years ago, I started taking yoga classes with my (now) mentor. On occasion she would speak of truth when closing the practice. Something along the lines of living truth. I was perplexed by this. What was this truth she spoke of? Was it some secret I was not privy to? Was it a Hindu concept? This particular class is at a Christian community health center, so I wondered, is this truth she mentions God? Jesus? Something about it made me uncomfortable, because generally I am a secular person. I have my own connection to the universe and spirituality, and kind of avoid the whole organized religion thing.

I think it took me a year to even talk to my teacher about yoga at all, and months beyond that before I gained the courage to ask, what is this truth you speak of? What if I don’t agree with it?

She recommended a book by Deborah Adele. I will forever be grateful that this was my introduction to the the ethics of yoga, known as the Yamas and Niyamas. Adele’s book is a perfect laymen’s guide… had I been pointed to Patanjali’s Sutras at that point, I may have run the other way.

One of the Yamas can be summarized as Truthfulness, as a code to live by. Adele explains this as being truthful in all affairs of life, but also to one’s self. Imagine living in such a way where we all could say and do as we wish, without judging each other or ourselves. To live our truth is to live fully. To work against our truth generates misconceptions and negative energy. And who wants either of those things?

This definition of truth is taking me a long time to embody. Years! It’s not like I walk around lying, it is more that I am (we all are!) so conditioned to act against our truth to maintain whatever reputation we believe we are supposed to have.

Example: as a parent of an elementary school aged child, I feel like I’m supposed to be up to my neck in PTA duties. But my truth is, I don’t wanna. I like showing up when I can, when there is an event that supports Dove, or the teachers, or the school… but do I want to organize that event? I could do it! But I don’t truly want to. Do I want to sell wrapping paper, or fundraiser for whatever this year’s “a-thon” is? Nope. I am being 100% honest with myself (and you!) here. So. The ethical thing to do is to NOT do these things. This is soooo far from what I used to think I should be doing. But now, living my truth, I know it is better for me and all those involved to decline these pressures and send twenty bucks directly to the PTA instead, for them to do as they see fit.

See what I’m getting at here? It’s ok to say no if you want to. It’s ok to wear sweatpants to Target if you want to. It’s ok to take a knee for anjaneasana if your body needs that. You do you! Be true. Live your truth. I know I’m trying.


Home yoga practice

Sometimes we need to be led

I’m a yoga teacher now, but I still want to go to other teacher’s classes. Now more than ever I dare say. In my personal yoga practice, I have a tendency to end up in my favorite postures or flows. Or I might get a little too comfortable, a little lazy. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Today I attended an all-levels class taught by my mentor and friend. Attendance was on the low side (not a bad thing on an Election Day if you ask me) so she led us into some reverse binds. It was a challenging class. The kind where cues to downward facing dog were met with sighs and groans of relief.

I like binding. Completing that circle, however it can be done, feels good. But I tend overlook binds in my personal practice. Not for any reason other than I don’t often consider them. But that might have changed today.

Challenge can be good. Reaching outside your comfort zone and finding that other hand is so rewarding. In many cases being a follower isn’t the best thing. (Ahem. Election Day). But as a committed student and practitioner of yoga, it can be good to be led.

My yoga teacher said..., My YTT, Yoga for non-yoga people, Yoga on The Farm

You are right where you need to be

When I decided I wanted to teach yoga, I was unsure what that would look like. I knew the population I wanted to reach: “non-yoga people.” People who might not set foot in a yoga studio, or those in recovery, those who need healing.

I am nearly finished with my 200 hour yoga training, and I keep hearing my mentor’s voice in my head: “You are right where you need to be. Always stay true to yourself, because there are people out there that need what you have to offer.”

I have a small group of loyal, dedicated students who have been with me on this journey. These include one who have offered me their land to practice and teach on, one who has pledged to be a student for life and thinks I should open my own studio, and one who admits to not liking group exercise classes at all but loving my yoga classes. They all keep coming back.

My exam to complete my 200 hour yoga teacher training is coming up on October 20, 2018. This has been a voyage unlike any other. I am eternally grateful for my teachers, my peers in training, and my students. I still don’t know exactly what me being a yoga teacher will look like, but I’m pretty sure I am right where I need to be.

My YTT, Pondering

Early summer

We are in that sweet spot of summer here in Texas, where it is hot but not too hot; in fact, mornings are downright gorgeous. Everything is green and happy, kids are out of school… it feels so fresh. Early summer. I am starting to think of this as an entirely different season than the deep, scorching summers we endure in our part of the south.

I am deep in yoga teacher training and, as hippie dippy as this sounds, it feels like I am in early summer in terms of the seasons in life. I am green and happy, soaking it all in, just growing and starting to really root in.

I am teaching my first real yoga class this coming Saturday, and I am but a seedling.

Advanced Yoga, Books about yoga

Letting go of assumptions, making triangles (Pigeon as a triangle)

Instagram, TV, and advertising sometimes show images of advanced yoga practitioners in difficult poses. Lithe, bendy people, smiling in the sun, backs arched gracefully, wearing white unitards. The common representation of yoga is that anyone who practices or is successful at practice has a ballerina build. It is unfortunate, because it gives the general population the impression that you have to be in peak physical shape with 6% body fat to do yoga. This is SO not the case.

Example: This morning’s class was mixed level, leaning to advanced. We worked up to camel and then up to this:

(Beautiful photo of Pigeon pose from page 119 of Hatha Yoga Illustrated, by Martin Kirk, Brooke Boon, and Daniel DiTuro. Photos by Daniel DiTuro).

But here’s the thing.

There might have been twenty students in that class. We all had our own variation of Pigeon going on. And THAT is yoga.

You start where you are at the time you are practicing. You breathe and make shapes with your body. I have never before thought of Pigeon as a triangle before looking it up in this book, but now that I am more interested in the building of a pose more than before, I see it. We were all working towards this beautiful triangle. Not to be confused with actual Triangle pose! That is a post for another day.

Anyhow. A fellow student asked, “is this a pose that you would be unable to do if you have a large body?” (I am paraphrasing. What she said also covered people who might generally be considered overweight).

Our teacher affirmed that there are different bodies but we all have ways to get there, and it is more individual body mechanics than anything to do with the size of body.

In all honesty, had I been shown the picture above, I don’t think I would have thought I could come close to Pigeon as pictured. However, with the right guidance, being led into it, I’m proud of how far I made it. (NOT pictured – hahaha).

So here I am, working to let go of assumptions and expectations. Thinking about triangles. And cooking dinner all at the same time. Gotta get everything ready so I can attend tonight’s YTT class!