I saw an ad today on craigslist looking for a “marketing guru.” In fact, if you search jobs on craigslist new orleans, you will find a bunch of ads looking for gurus. If you search the whole internet for gurus, you will find everything from stock brokers to bicycle companies. Guru is a word we throw around as though as it were synonymous with being really good at something. This leads me to believe that we Westerners might not actually understand the meaning of the word guru. Which would be fine, except that so many of us are actively looking for one. Advertising, even.
In yogadom, we are slightly more self-aware of our use of the word. We study gurus and we learn from people who learned from gurus, and we want gurus for ourselves. We even know a bit of Sanskrit. Still, we suffer from a sort of translation-based ignorance. Many yoga teachers translate the word guru as “remover of darkness,” and while that isn’t necessarily incorrect, it is something of a simplification. Sanskritist Marcy Braverman Goldstein, of Sanskrit Revolution, provides a more nuanced approach to defining guru:
1) The word ‘guru’ is cognate with the Latin ‘gravis’ and the English ‘gravitas’ and possibly comes from the verbal root /gur meaning ‘to raise, lift up.’ It means ‘heavy, weighty. . . any venerable or respectable person. . . a spiritual parent or preceptor’ who offers mantra initiation (Monier Monier-Williams, p. 359, b). The teacher is ‘heavy’ with wisdom and helps disciples work through karma that weighs them down.
2) Traditional or folk etymologies in guru-śiṣya lineages include the following: ‘gu’ means ‘darkness’ and ‘ru’ means ‘light.’ The guru guides disciples from the darkness of non-knowledge to the light of knowledge. Or, in the Guru Gītā, ‘gu’ means ‘what transcends qualities’ and ‘ru’ means ‘what is without form.’ The guru bestows the state that transcends attributes and form.
The guru, then, is not simply the window cleaner to our cloudy ego mirrors. The meaning of both the word guru and the tradition of taking gurus cannot be squished into an easily digestible sound bite. Our collective desire to simplify the complexities of this relationship leads me to believe that, culturally speaking, we might not be ready for gurus. Because, in reality, the concept of a guru is as foreign to us as sushi used to be. Sure, we can co-opt it and make it at Target™, but what was once simple and fresh gets covered with crawfish and cream cheese and slapped with a fat neon price tag and an expiration date.
The guru-disciple relationship emerged from a context in which most spiritual leaders who acted as gurus were ascetics. That means that they took vows of poverty, celibacy, and whatever else their lineage required. The point is that they took vows that defined and confined their physical and spiritual behavior. And disciples often left their whole lives behind for the opportunity to study with their guru. They sometimes waited years for the privilege of becoming initiates.
In modern North American yoga culture, most of the people we call gurus are actually celebrities, and instead of being initiated into a way of life, we pay admission fees. Yes, there is often a financial transaction between the traditional guru and a disciple, but it is not a purely financial relationship. We, in the West, take workshops with famous teachers and proclaim them as our gurus. We abandon our shoes, not our families, not our homes, at the studio door and call ourselves disciples.
So, then, who’s at fault when our gurus act more like celebrities than gurus? Is it the fault of the celebriguru for leading us astray, or do we have agency in this relationship as well? I would argue that, in contradistinction to more traditional guru-disciple relationships, we do have agency. We do not give up our lives, our families, and all our worldly possessions to follow our teachers. For most of us, the price we pay for initiation is not complete and total spiritual surrender. It’s more like $4,000 USD and it comes with a side of Yoga Alliance certification and a really nice ass.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, it should be acknowledged that there is a significant power dynamic at play between yoga teacher and yoga student. As Hope Bordeaux points out in her essay on sex abuse in yoga communities, “the teacher-student relationship can replicate the imbalance of authority between an adult and a child.” This is undoubtedly true. However, drawing on this metaphor, we are, in this scenario, like children who get to choose our parents. We even get to shop for them. The problem with the marketplace is that in a showroom full of Johnny Depps, Gandhi doesn’t look that hot.
Does our agency give teachers the right to abuse power? Of course not.
It does mean, however, that our conversations about fallen yoga celebrities like John Friend and Bikram Choudhury need to become more sophisticated. We need to acknowledge the role we play in turning charismatic leaders into egomaniacal power fiends. We should’t be surprised when people who have taken no actual vows break the promises we only wish they had made. We can’t keep choosing Johnny Depp and expect him to act like Gandhi.
To be clear, I am in no way blaming the victims of any yoga scandals because they chose teachers that turned out to be scumbags. Part of the problem with yoga in the marketplace is that we don’t come into it as informed consumers. We don’t come to yoga class knowing exactly what we’re looking for. Most of us want to be stronger, healthier, and more flexible. We aren’t aware from the get-go that we are looking for something deeper. It is not obvious to us that the teacher we picked because of their six-pack abs is going to turn into a spiritual force in our lives. And also, maybe, a scumbag.
If we did, we might choose our yoga teachers differently. For most of us, it goes without saying that spiritual leaders should respect their followers and obey the golden rule and be more than a pretty face and a flexible body. But if, when we choose a yoga teacher we’re actually choosing a spiritual leader, then what?
Frankly, I’m not sure what the answer to this question is. What I do know is that we need to deeply interrogate the yoga culture we are forming so that we don’t build it on an unstable foundation. Does every yoga teacher also need to be a priest? No, but perhaps we teachers should be more clear with the public about what it actually takes to open a yoga business: 200 hours of training and enough money to hang your name on a sign. Zero vows not to have sex with students.
We need to understand that celebrities and gurus are not the same thing. Here in America, we know a lot about how to make celebrities, but we don’t have that much practice with gurus yet. Being good at something, even asana, does not make a teacher a good person. Having a really well-developed vinyasa style doesn’t make a teacher into a tour guide to universal consciousness. There are great asana teachers that give inspiring dharma talks who don’t want or need to be elevated to the role of gurus.
Maybe some teachers are just yoga teachers and not role models. But because we judge our yoga teachers the way we judge our celebrities, it’s hard for us to stomach their flaws. We want them to be beautiful and strong, but not slutty or sexualized. We want them to be approachable and down-to-earth, but we don’t want them to have bad habits. We want them to be business geniuses, but we don’t want them to commodify our spiritual experiences.
As co-creators of this celebrity-guru culture, I think we should make it unacceptable for yoga teachers to sell asana styles as brands of spirituality, but we can’t do that as passive consumers. We have to claim our own agency in the process. We can borrow great ideas from other cultures and make them new and take ownership over them, but in order to do that, we can’t blindly consume whatever generic yoga teacher x puts on the table.
What I’m about to say might seem inflammatory, so check in with your ujjayi and hear me out.
Yoga teachers who own for-profit studios that are actively trying to sell you expensive pants and designer yoga™ are not gurus.
They might be yoga teachers, but they are definitely business people. A business person can be good or greedy. They can be honest or abusive. You can expect them to have transparent business practices, but you cannot expect them to be spiritual leaders. It’s not fair to expect people who are just trying to pay their bills and contribute a little peace to the world to be perfect. As consumers, we need to stop asking business people to be our gurus. The lure of being loved is just too powerful for most non-enlightened beings to resist.
Conversations about what works within the confines of our culture and what doesn’t are long overdue. Modern Western yoga culture is special. We have made an amazing gumbo by mixing traditional philosophies with popular culture and modern science. We can start changing the things about our yoga culture that aren’t working by simply respecting it for what it is: something new and still forming. If we just start there, so many new possibilities for cultivating our culture are created.
We can stop trying to transpose old ideas onto it that may not fit. Or we can stop pasting our shiny ideas onto ancient ascetic practices. Maybe we can change old ideas into things that do fit. Maybe we can change in order to embody old ideas. Whatever mixing method we decide on, we need to curate our ingredients more mindfully.
If we want to make yoga celebrities, we can do that. I can think of ten super hot yoga teachers who would jump at that bait. If we want to make more yoga entrepreneurs, great. There are plenty of teachers out there with cool dvds and great marketing schemes. If we want to have gurus, we can have those, too, but we have to get a little more educated about what we’re asking for. We have all seen what happens when we aren’t careful. Yogis get broken, teachers and students alike.
We are a cultural landscape of opportunities. North American yogis have taken asana to new heights of beauty and alignment. We spend millions (billions?) of dollars each year on classes and books and workshops to make our bodies more flexible and less fragile. If we just put a little bit of that innovative energy towards actively creating a culture that supports spiritual growth without trying to capitalize on it, we might really have something revolutionary here.
 It should be noted that this is not uniformly true. There are many historical and contemporary gurus who are householders and who are considered legitimate. There are also many kinds of gurus, a fact which, I think further demonstrates a fundamental misapprehension of the concept of guru.
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