Gotta Getta Guru

via Gotta Getta Guru

via Gotta Getta Guru

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.

via Brahmacarya

via Brahmacarya

The guru-disciple relationship emerged from a context in which most spiritual leaders who acted as gurus were ascetics[1]. 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.

Johnny Depp VS Gandhi

Johnny Depp VS Gandhi

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[2] 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.

via FilmJunk

via FilmJunk

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.[3]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] It should be noted that Johnny Depp is being used as a metaphor here, and the the author actually adores Johnny Depp. 9 out of 10 lesbians love Johnny Depp. It’s a fact.

[3] Thanks to Maya Georg for this idea.

Tracey Duncan is the founder and editor of Yoga for Smart People, at least until someone offers to take these duties off her hands. She studied Anthropology at Columbia, Creative Writing at Louisiana State University, Massage at Educated Hands, and Yoga at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville and Swan River.
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15 Comments

  1. Destiny
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully articulated, as always.
    I will say in regards to… “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.” …I totally understand and you can see it in so many aspects and contexts. But I think “you cannot expect them to be spiritual leaders” needs to change to “you can” in regards to all healing arts, including yoga. I full-heartedly disagree with the concept of “in order to be spiritual, you have to //renounce, be in poverty, not be attracted to material things, be detached//. I think this has kept such a large portion of folks from not only becoming successful, but just getting past the poverty line, getting above just getting by. And now, if we start to look, we can see this in our American yoga culture- the big time yogi celebrities with legions of followers pouring money into their pockets while small studios struggle, OR what about a nice sized studio who’s uppers are living decently while the teachers and students struggle. How many times have you heard, “You can’t make money in yoga unless you’re a big teacher with lots of students,” and varying degrees of this? This is how we’re programming our yoga culture to view, the same way we’ve programmed our culture to view gurus- misconceived AND ill-adapted. Thank you for providing space to put words and ideas out there that in our culture to un/redo this programming! With the right programming, we CAN have business folks that are spiritual leaders [that are also yoga teachers], we can have business infused with actual Light and not bullshit light, we can be prosperous on every level AND teach yoga. ♥

    • admin
      Posted April 23, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      very insightful commentary, destiny. thanks for being so quick on the draw. on the one hand, i agree with you that practitioners of healing arts should be held to a different standard than business people, but then that opens a whole new can of worms. like who’s going to create and monitor those standards? what if we don’t all have the same ideas about what they should be? what will the repercussions of not maintaining high spiritual standards be?
      on the other hand, i think it’s possible that there are some teachers out there who are good people just trying to teach yoga as fitness classes, and i think we have to make room for them (actually i think that, as of now, we might need to ask them to make room for us).
      i don’t know if (traditional) business and yoga (in general) are compatible. for me, that’s a big question. i know that capitalism is not compatible with my personal politics. i guess my personal view is something like what i was taught at the ashram i was trained in. the attitude there is: yoga is free. students don’t pay for yoga, they pay for the care and maintenance of the yoga teacher’s body. from this perspective, charging more than you need to sustain yourself comfortably is unethical. that does not mean that yoga teachers should not live comfortable lives. i am a yoga teacher and a massage therapist and i want to use these skills to serve my community AND to support my family. i maintain a very strict code of personal ethics and it often restricts my income. that’s okay with me. if i should decide that i need to be more than comfortable, i will not violate my personal code to do so, i will just get a side job. i, in fact, do have a side job, and i will keep it as long as i need to to inure that i am not tempted to make yoga or massage into a product. these is how i stay true to my belief system.
      i think that our views in this regard align more than they diverge. i happen to know that you are an ethical business owner, and i think that you abide by your own very strict ethical code that insures that what you offer is, in fact, healing, and not “healing.” i think that you think hard about how to be an ethical business person, and i think that’s exactly what we all need to do. we don’t necessarily need to agree about what an “ethical business person” looks like, but we should try to think about it together. <3

      • Frank Jude Boccio
        Posted April 24, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Wow! I am so glad I found your site through a FB post from Carol Horton! This and the essay from Jennifer (“I Love The Way You Lie To Me”) are the kinds of conversations I and some of my colleagues have been having for some time, and it’s great to see a new and what looks to be a vital resource!

        Personally, I’ve felt more and more queasy with the commercialization and commodification of yoga and buddhism over the years. I respect the choices you say you’ve made (ethics and finances) and suspect we are in alignment on many of the same issues (re: capitalism and ethics). My personal choice has included offering my services mostly as dana. This creates a web of relationship based upon shared generosity where my students — rather than pay me a fee for services rendered — share material resources with me which then enable me to continue to offer my services to others. If what I am offered by others ever becomes too little to continue to do so, I am prepared to take up a paying job. Gratefully, I’ve not yet had to do so, though a few years back I was already to start applying at some bookstores!

        Anyway, thank you for your new endeavor here. I will indeed be looking forward to the conversation!

        • admin
          Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          Frank,
          Thanks for reading. I’d love to get a conversation started about the ways people keep their business practices in line with their beliefs. It seems like you have some experience to share. Maybe start a thread in our discussion forum?
          Cheers,
          Tracey

  2. Jennifer Richard
    Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Tracey–
    Very insightful and candid, as we all come to expect from you. I think you address a number of important issues. I like that you call a Sanskritist up to bat, deferring to her expertise, rather than the alternative, all-too-popular, I-think-I-know approach that so many take. I think it is important that we look to those who are more educated in particular fields and learn from them. Very nice, indeed.

    I like the attention you draw to individual responsibility (I will touch on this, too, albeit in a slightly different way!). Here, you make the point that we are responsible for the teachers we choose. You are also careful to point out that we can only know about them what they choose to share. So, I think the task of responsibility is, indeed, individual: as a student you must be careful to choose your teachers wisely, and as a teacher you must never fall into the delusion of your super-human-ness. In other words, students and teachers alike must not approach yoga with the kind of insouciance that is so prevalent today if we are going to have the type of revolution you refer to (last sentence).

    Lastly, I am really interested in this whole perspective of yoga an business. This is mostly because I am totally fascinated with capitalist society and I am not afraid to say that I love reading Marx, every time, and I always will. For all his wrong, he has some brilliance and poignancy that is just remarkable. You state the problem of yoga in a capitalist world thus: “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.” My question is: when everything becomes a commodity, even the ideas in our brains, how do we make it in a world such as ours without giving in to the need to capitalize? And, just as important, how do we safeguard these precious commodities from the exploitation and alienation of capitalism? It is not just us that suffer, as you point out, the yoga-as-commodity is particularly disastrous to yoga itself!

    • Yolanda
      Posted April 23, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      “Yoga Business” is a dichotomy and completely undermines the Yogic teachings. Yoga is precisely about re-conditioning our “modern” minds as to what prosperity and happiness is about. Yoga is about giving without expectations, it is about “renunciation of the fruits of your action”. If we have been lucky enough to have found the gift of knowledge, we should share this gift without the need to capitalise on anything.

      Our world is so plagued by self-interests, the majority of people do good deeds not out of selflessly, but out of self-gratification. Unless one can truly renounce the self, the principle of yoga will be lost forever. And unless yoga teachers teach proper Yogic principles, students will never learn what being yogic truly means.

      Renouncing the self does not mean poverty. It just means that your action is determined not by what you get out of it, but what and how it contributes to others and our universe. Hence we should all view our job responsibly, the job being the specific role that we play in preserving our society, regardless of how much we are paid, or whether we get a promotion tomorrow.

      • admin
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Yolanda,
        I like your classic vedic analysis. We have to be freed from the fruits of our labor. This is akin to the idea of following your dharma, even if it isn’t what we want it to be. The Gita has must to say about these lessons. Thank you for your thoughtful response.
        Tracey

    • admin
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I love these questions that you posed, Jennifer, “when everything becomes a commodity, even the ideas in our brains, how do we make it in a world such as ours without giving in to the need to capitalize? And, just as important, how do we safeguard these precious commodities from the exploitation and alienation of capitalism?”
      I don’t have answers. I am thinking now, about Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the alienation of an art object when it is removed from ritual. I am thinking about the similarity between the yoga teacher and the shaman, Or as Benjamin puts it, the “magician.” Here is an excerpt:
      “The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself, though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.”
      I don’t really have a concrete linear way to explain where my thoughts are headed here. It’s more constellational. But there is something invasive about marketing when it comes to yoga. Something that removes the ritual and creates the commodity. That’s all I have for now…

      • Jennifer Richard
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        I am going to save my thoughts for June, if that’s ok. I will say, this excerpt from Benjamin is quite a prod for the wheels in my brain. Yum yum…let me digest

  3. Caroline
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Boundaries. That’s the bottom line. (Money – another bottom line you mention – might be an exchange for services/classes, but money can serve as that boundary exchange – “you pay, I teach, we end our session”). Very, very simple and healthy.

    • admin
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Caroline,
      It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of boundaries. I think that a lot of yoga teachers aren’t sure when we are yoga teachers that should be being paid for our actions and when we are just yogis performing service to the world. I feel like it would be really nice if the simple exchange that you suggest was put into action. But, these days, we sell so much more than our services as “yoga.” What do we do with this increasing complexity?
      Thanks for commenting,
      Tracey

  4. Rash
    Posted April 23, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Great post. But I wonder if guru worship is just a reflection of society overall, especially when it comes to spiritual areas? Take churches for example (at least Baptist, COGIC and the like in my hometown): quite a few of the leaders have never even set foot in a seminary, but are referred to as “bishop,” “father,” “rev” and so on. They’re held up as role models, spiritual leaders and about as close to Heaven as one can get without a very long ladder. Then when there’s scandal (see: Bishop Eddie Long in Atlanta) we’re shocked (*shocked*) by the allegations. Sadly, perhaps it is human nature for us to look for something to hold on to, to believe in and place on a pedestal, outside of ourselves.

    • admin
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Rash,
      Do you mean of our North American (actually I don’t know where you are) society in particular, or human society as a whole?
      Tracey

      • Rash
        Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        Hi Tracey,

        Yep. I meant “our”. I’m a US expat.

        Rash

  5. Rash
    Posted April 27, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Clarification: “Our” as in North American. I don’t see too much guru/leader worship happen here in Europe, perhaps due to WWII. As a matter of fact, Europeans tend to recoil at the thought of crowning anyone a “guru,” “spiritual leader” or anything of the sort.

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