How yoga can turn a jerk into an even bigger jerk

No one in the yoga and/or meditation scene can have failed to notice the many scandals that have beset high-profile teachers of everything from purely physical yoga to strict Zen meditation. These scandals usually relate to abuse of power dynamics, most often exemplified by an authoritative male teacher systematically taking sexual and/or financial advantage of his students (Bikram C. and Kaustubh D. being recent examples; but sometimes the abuser is female, as in the recent Jīvamukti debacle). Then there are the countless unreported instances of yoga teachers, lamas, and gurus occasionally crossing boundaries and treating their students inappropriately, whether it’s a suggestive comment or a quick fondle of breast or buttock that’s later called ‘innocent affection’. How can this be so very common? Surely at least some of these teachers had genuine spiritual realizations; how can they have gone so wrong?

For we cannot doubt that any such teacher has indeed gone wrong. Any teacher who oversteps a student’s boundaries and doesn’t stop immediately has either lost their intuitive ability to feel what’s going on for the other person—a necessary skill for any spiritual teacher to have—or is contravening their sacred vow to benefit all beings. Or both. No excuses can be made for any teacher who ignores the principle of consent. 

Consent means not only obtaining a ‘yes’ before proceeding with any sexual relationship with another adult, it also means recognizing that when a power differential (or perceived power differential) is in place, a ‘yes’ is insufficient grounds on which to proceed, because the student feels an inhibition against saying no in proportion to the degree to which s/he holds the teacher in awe, and the degree to which s/he believes (consciously or subconsciously) that saying ‘no’ could be detrimental to their spiritual progress (sounds crazy, I know, but there really are teachers who imply that). Therefore the ‘yes’ is unreliable to the exact degree of the (perceived) power differential. Any teacher with integrity knows this, and to ignore this fact is to incur some very serious karma indeed.

This issue, then, touches on a question of vital importance to the ancient yoga tradition: does the practice of yoga (broadly construed) inevitably and automatically lead you toward the stated goals of yoga, that is, awakening, self-realization, and liberation from delusion? Two very different answers to this question are found in the tradition. Classical Haṭha-yoga argued that the practices work regardless of the view or perspective on reality held by the practitioner, and therefore to speak of ‘yoga philosophy’ is missing the point. This perspective sees the practices much as we do technology: they are designed to have a certain effect on the practitioner, and if the design is sound, the effect will be there. These assertions were made in Haṭha-yoga texts from 500 or so years ago, texts largely bereft of profound spiritual teachings, produced as they were after the Muslim conquests cut off the royal patronage of yoga and other dharma traditions. I think that in the 500 years since then, we have accumulated ample evidence that this falsifiable proposition (that the practices produce liberation/enlightenment regardless of one's view) is, quite simply, wrong. 

However, if we look back a little further, to the era of classical Tantra, we find a diametrically opposite teaching. Some Tantrik lineages argued that there must be alignment of View (darśana) and Practice (sādhanā) for the Fruit (phala) of yoga to appear. What this means is that the perspective on reality held by both the teacher and the student substantially affects the performance, and therefore the outcome, of the practice. This strikes me as irrefutably logical, given the basic axiom of all yoga, the mind-body connection. (In fact ‘connection’ understates the case: in the yoga tradition [and Āyurveda] the mind is said the be the most subtle aspect of the body, and body the most tangible aspect of mind. They exist on a continuum.)

Given this axiom, we should expect that for yoga to accomplish its goals, there must be alignment of mind as well as alignment of body. That is to say, it matters what view of the nature of reality you hold, because certain views empower practice and other views disable it. Even more importantly, your fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality must become aligned with the goal of yoga for you to have any chance of actualizing that goal. In other words, there must be alignment of View, Practice, and Fruit. Everybody is of course free to want whatever they like, but the role of the qualified teacher is to inform them if the practice they are doing does not in fact lead to the goal they say they want, or if the view they are holding subtly undermines the practice they are doing.

On the basis of this Tantrik teaching, I would argue that the practice of yoga does not necessarily automatically lead to self-realization, or to the beneficial and virtuous conduct that is one measure of that attainment. We already know (I hope) that depending on the teacher and student in the given instance, yoga can be a mere workout, or an exercise in escapism, or an exercise in self-aggrandizement—or something entirely different. But the stakes are high when yoga includes the transmission of practices beyond āsana. Why? Because the full practice of yoga (including the mind training, awareness cultivation, and energy-body strengthening techniques so vital in the original tradition) is radically empowering. In fact, from the Tantrik perspective, the whole purpose of yoga can be characterized in one word as empowerment. But without aligned View, the classical tradition argues, such raw power amplifies the preexisting ego, and thus makes a jerk into a more powerful jerk, and makes a dangerous narcissist even more dangerous and narcissistic—just as it makes a kind person into a saint. This is why Tantra, in both Buddhist and Shaiva forms, offers ‘orientation to right View’ as the first and most fundamental practice. (For example, in the Recognition Sūtras, there are seventeen chapters of View teachings before the practices are given.) This emphasis on orientation to a healthy way of thinking about one’s practice, its goals, and its motives, has been lost in the modern yoga scene—to everyone’s detriment.

One of the most effective View teachings that is virtually forgotten today is that of the Six Realms, something much too subtle and complex to get into here, except to say that it explains why so many prominent teachers succumb to scandal: because the exact psychological pitfalls that make them hungry for fame, power, and influence also lead them to believe that they are in some sense ‘above the law’, that the ordinary moral code doesn’t apply to them; that they are exempted from it by the very divine dispensation that allows them to achieve prominent success. This is of course a delusion, for in reality Western-style capitalism rewards those willing to work hard, self-promote, and take advantage of others, not so much those who humbly embody yogic values and happily sacrifice profit on the altar of benefitting others. Not having the Realm teachings, the casual observer might conclude that yoga is mostly bullshit, because look how many famous teachers are charlatans!  But that’s exactly the point—the most famous teachers are exactly the ones most likely to suffer from the psychological condition traditionally called god-realm delusion, within which one can actually believe that having sex with a spiritually immature student is a form of empowerment that benefits the student, even if she doesn’t realize it at the time. Or they might suffer the lesser form of god-realm delusion, in which they know they're performing a potentially harmful action, but believe they’re too clever or special or ‘important to the mission’ to get caught.

The evidence for these forms of delusion is abundant. We’ve been shocked by the degree of abuse uncovered in the cases of Akhandānanda (of Mangrove Mountain) and Sathya Sai Baba (of Puttaparthi), and will no doubt be shocked by yet more cases, such as that of Gregorian Bivolaru (of MISA/Natha), whose heinous crimes in the name of Tantric spirituality are yet to be fully revealed. Students are often taken in by the fact that such teachers have impressive charisma, even apparent miraculous or psychic powers that the naïve student takes as evidence of spiritual attainment, despite the fact that the tradition itself declares that such powers are evidence of nothing other than a dedication to acquiring them.

Since yoga can grant plenty of power prior to self-realization, and since self-realization never happens to someone who doesn’t prioritize it over power, pleasure, and influence, the tradition invites us to look to the teacher’s conduct with their students and in their everyday life as the primary evidence of their attainment. If their conduct—kindness, consideration, humility, insight, and genuine interest in the student’s well-being might begin the list—does not suggest successful integration of their awakening, nothing else matters. After all, waking up is easy compared to integration, so that’s what you need the most help with. This of course should not be taken to mean that the teacher must always live up to an abstract notion of ‘perfection,’ but rather that s/he is much more often than not seen to be steady and centered, unconcerned with self-image, undemanding of obedience or even loyalty, not emotionally reactive to others’ behavior, and living primarily from a place of compassion and understanding. This might seem a high bar, but it is exactly what the yoga tradition demands of its teachers: that they be yukta, connected to the source of contentment within (and therefore free of avarice), and samāhita, self-possessed, relaxed, ‘together’ people.

~ Please—I invite you to notice that many, many teachers are living their yoga; they are not perfect but have deep integrity and really desire to serve and benefit others. They’re just not the famous ones, because their psychology doesn’t predispose them to that level of success in the capitalist system. There are even one or two famous ones with literally zero skeletons in their closet (I know because I’m proud to call them friends). ~

Perhaps you’ve become partially convinced of the importance of ‘orientation to right View’ so stressed by the premodern tradition. Why then has the West lost such a crucial part of yoga, indeed its very prerequisite? I propose it is because yoga is a marketplace in which teachers hesitate to tell their students—their customers—what to think. And nor should they. But View orientation is something different: it is lovingly offering an opportunity for contemplation to the student. For ‘right View’ (samyag-dṛṣṭi, literally ‘aligned view’) does not necessarily connote a specific doctrine, but rather an orientation to the practice that leads to the greatest benefit for all. 

A single example of right View will suffice, since it is such an important one for all branches of the tradition: that of effective motive for practice. Classical Tantra teaches that if a student holds any of the three impure motives, the practice might work for awhile, but cannot bear its real fruit of awakening, self-realization, and liberation. The various ‘impure’ (read: ineffective) motives are detailed here.

The third impure motive is the one that gives rise to the phenomenon of accomplished yogis who are real jerks. It is the motive of doing yoga in order to acquire, whether it be acquisition of power, influence, and fame (titan realm), or acquisition of a sense of privilege, specialness, divine dispensation, and/or exalted status, together with the refined pleasures that accompany such status (god realm). Yoga done with this motive cannot grant self-realization, because it is fundamentally misaligned with reality—since the truth is that our real self is inherently worthwhile and therefore needs nothing added to it to complete, improve, or justify it. (Again, for more on this, go here.)

You begin to see, I hope, how the View teachings anticipate the pitfalls of the spiritual path and help you avoid them. They also educate the student in what to watch out for in a teacher. Though the practice grants empowerment, power is not the litmus test of a teacher with real attainment; rather, their conduct and their ability to benefit their students is.

Of course, we all start the practice with some variation of ‘impure motive’. Fortunately, a heart that longs for truth will inevitably be lead to the pure motive, either intuitively or by discovering the View teachings just in time. Pure motive simply means walking the path out of humble love for yourself, with the longing to discover and express your deepest truth, in order to benefit all beings (read: everyone in your life).

May yogis of every stripe exercise discernment and attain the pure motive. May all beings be free.

~

The sequel to this post is here.

To download an audio recording of a teaching that further discusses the contrast between classical Tantra, neo-tantra, and modern yoga, go here.

 ~

LEARN MORE: based on everything I've received from my teachers over 26 years, I made a list of the eight most hazardous pitfalls on the spiritual path, which when addressed are also, in my view, the eight keys to sustainable awakening. They include lack of alignment of View, Practice, and Fruit, impure motive for practice, energy leaks, and the Six Realms. These 'Eight Great Pitfalls', which when addressed can become the eight keys to sustainable awakening, are discussed in more detail in this free video.

ENDNOTE: I could have put many more hyperlinks in this blog, which would have allowed the reader to read about the various scandals alluded to. But I do not believe such reading is beneficial to the spiritual life. Morbid fascination, a dominant theme on the internet, focuses mental/emotional energy in a different direction from that of spiritual practice and the awakening process. It is enough for the student to know that they need never suspend their ability to question and think for themselves, and that they are never obliged to accept inappropriate behavior from any teacher, no matter how beloved.

Having said that, I wish to point out to my readers that the latest edition of Tantra Illuminated does not include the list of teachers on page 436 that the previous editions did, because I don't want that list to be seen as recommending all of those teachers, and because three of the teachers mentioned in that list have been guilty of serious ethical transgressions. In both the recent case of Shankarānanda and the older case of Swami Rāma (now deceased), we can be certain of sexual abuse; in the case of Satyānanda (now deceased), I don't know if any of the allegations against him have been proven, but if even half of them are true, he (as well as the other two) possessed none of the self-mastery that defines both a yogī and a swami. This raises the important question of whether the disciple of a false guru can have real attainment; based on my experience, s/he can, and perhaps Niranjanānanda (one of Satyānanda's two successors) is evidence of that truth, though the troubling question remains of how much he knew and kept silent about. 

Lastly, as long as I'm warning people about problematic teachers (by request), if any of my European readers encounter the allegedly Tantric group known as MISA or Nātha, please be aware that it is a dangerous cult, now thankfully falling apart. MISA was the most egregious example of using the actual spiritual teachings of nondual Shaiva Tantra to legitimate an extremely harmful cult environment.