Yoga is a practice, it is a study, it is discipline, it is a pleasure but most of all it’s a way of being. Yoga opens us in ways we never thought imaginable, usually starting with the body but ultimately opening our mind. Yoga can be intense, relaxing, strenuous, easeful. Yoga is many, many things, but easy to define, it is not. From simply good exercise to cult-like status, yoga has been called many things. Here I explore the many faces of yoga, and the dangers of the practice so many of us love.
“Am I exercising or being spiritual?”
The world of yoga is, at best, confusing, and at worse, vague, misleading and dangerous. Attracting anywhere from 0.5million to 2.5million people in the UK each year (figures widely vary and there doesn’t seem to be any official stat anywhere – well, on Google at least), as yoga grows and grows in popularity, so the spotlight begins to shine more brightly on the dark and sticky bits no one really wants to look at.
My teacher told me a story recently about a party she was at, where someone she was talking to told her he’d tried yoga once, and didn’t like it. She asked why not. “I didn’t know when I was meant to be exercising, and when I was meant to be being spiritual,” he replied.
Not only can yoga be as challenging as other forms of exercise, but the guise that it’s all “spiritual” can be used in ways that range from frustratingly confusing (as the guy at the party found) to dangerously abusive, as Holly Faurot found.
Abused as a child, recovering from an eating disorder, Holly became a yoga teacher at Jivamukti Yoga in NYC in 2009, and is now in the middle of $.16million dollar law suit against Jivamukti for sexual harassment. Holly claims that her devotion to her teacher, known as Lady Ruth, was exploited in order that Lady Ruth could abuse her. Holly’s lawsuit claims the Jivamukti’s teachings about the student-teacher relationship are “more akin to a cult”, and that “Eastern philosophy and beliefs, as superseding western sexual harassment and anti-discrimination laws.” (Read more on the case here).
Whether Holly wins her case to not is yet to be seen, but the blurred lines between the student-teacher relationship remain fuzzy and indistinct, particularly when the word guru is involved.
Well, the Guru says . . .
Calling someone a guru instantly gives them status above us. It gives the impression of higher wisdom, knowledge and insight. Some schools of yoga practice very strictly according to their beliefs around what the guru has said. In some schools, questioning or challenging the guru is forbidden, and can even get you thrown out the door. With a culture like this, and yoga students keen to show their devotion, it is easy to see how students can be misled, exploited, and at worse case scenario, abused. If we come to yoga vulnerable, traumatised, disconnected from ourselves and our bodies or unable to understand boundaries, it’s easy to see how the guru culture of yoga can be used to manipulate us.
From yoga ‘celebrities’ masquerading as gurus, to a general lack of clarity over what it takes to actually become a yoga teacher, it is too easy for people to turn up at a yoga class and willingly hand over their power to the person at the front of the room.
With that in mind, here are 3 steps to help you keep your yoga journey a happy, safe and empowering one.
Open your mind – don’t let someone else control it
Yoga opens the body in weird and wonderful ways. With practice and time, we start to feel different in our skin. The body feels more easeful, we may feel more space where once there was tension, and with this openness comes a change of mindset. By practicing with awareness, we not only open the body but we open the mind. Beliefs that we once held to be true can be gently explored and turned over, habits we have accumulated may no longer serve us and – if we want it to – yoga can open us up to complete transformation. It’s easy to see why yoga is becoming more and more popular; in a world where chronic tension causes mental and physical suffering yoga can seem the perfect antidote.
This is all wonderful. But allowing ourselves to blindly follow a faith that we probably understand little apart (and where there’s a good chance that your teacher understands very little), is not a good idea. Yoga can help you learn more about yourself than anyone around you can know – use this to empower yourself. Don’t let yourself succumb to an ideology or way of practicing if it doesn’t work for you.
Trust your instincts
Picture this. You’re in a class. You’ve been working hard on the mat, and probably working hard in the workplace as well. You’re tired today, and your shoulder is hurting. A posture you usually do no problems today seems more challenging. Your teacher approaches you, and you know they’re coming in for an adjustment. What do you do? Do you push through the pain hoping for a breakthrough, not wanting to let the teacher – or yourself – down? Or do you listen and respect the messages your body is sending you, and ask for a modification? Be honest about what you do, and the reasons you’re doing it. If you want to impress or emulate your teacher, don’t. You are the only person who has the honour of being in your body. Don’t abuse it.
Yoga can be an incredibly empowering tool when we use it to put ourselves back in touch with ourselves. In this way, we are able to distance ourselves from all the external influencers, to connect more deeply with our sense of truth and purpose. If we simply continue trying to become the person we see at the front of our mat, we are still living in darkness, in illusion and no closer to the truth of the deeper connection that lies within.
Know your boundaries
Boundaries are crucial. Some things sound obvious, but in the yoga studio, can get lost. For a start, only you are in charge of who touches your body, and where. If you aren’t comfortable being adjusted, tell the teacher before class starts. You don’t have to say why if you don’t want to, and you certainly don’t have to apologise. If a teacher touches you inappropriately, find out who they are registered with (the main bodies in the UK are British Wheel of Yoga, Yoga Alliance and the Independent Yoga Network) and report them. If you’re in a studio, let the studio manager know.
If a yoga teacher insists you practice in a certain way, but you don’t like the way it feels, find another teacher. At any point when yoga starts to cause you pain of any kind, stop. Re-evaluate. It can be a lonely time if you ever start to question your yoga journey. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt or betrayal are surprisingly common, but it’s so important that you don’t let you fears keep you in a situation causing you harm. Speak to a trusted friend or family member, or perhaps a therapist (particularly if there are unresolved issues in your past that may be causing you to form unhealthy habits in your yoga practice). Whatever you do, don’t ignore that voice that nags at you to stop what you’re doing.
The greatest gift of all
Yoga offers us the tremendous gift to connect, with one another, but also deeply to ourselves. Teachers are there to offer you guidance, advice, support and love – but ultimately it is your own heart that will be your greatest teacher, and the best teachers you will find are the ones that let you journey your own path. Have respect for yoga, for the wonderful traditions and practices that have been passed down for so many years to give us so much joy today, but most of all, have respect for yourself. This can be the most wonderful gift to give yourself; respect, love and kindness. No one can argue with that.