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guru power structure rework: shift to discerning, guiding teachers and student wisdom

It’s been an interesting time in the yoga world. 

When recently teaching yoga philosophy, our group got into a great discussion on gurus, inappropriate touching, and the state of yoga and where it’s headed.

It started as we were reading a yoga text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This manual advocates the guru model:  the guru model teaches that a student requires devotion to a devoted guru within a living lineage to ensure the student is on the right yogic path and to unlock the "secret codes" of yoga. This code was conceived in ancient India by men, for men.  It's time, I think, for a 21st century update. 

Our class discussion was also just after the publication of the New York Times article “Yoga Is Finally Facing Consent & Unwanted Touch," which you can read here

During the past year as the #MeToo movement has revealed insidious sexual and criminal misconduct in entertainment, corporate and other workplaces, the same has come to light within the yoga community.  Victims voices, predominately female but other genders including male as well, have been speaking out for a very long time; their voices are finally being amplified.

Here’s the truth: a number of yoga teachers and gurus have long been exploiting their fame and power.  The power dynamic within yoga was traditionally male dominated: until fairly recently, women weren't even taught yoga. Indra Devi is the first well-known western woman to teach yoga and she had to convince Krishnamacharya to take her as a student as his Brahmin status prohibited him from teaching women. Ironically, years later Krishnamacharya predicted that women would be the ones spreading yoga throughout the world...and here we are!  Today, women make up the majority of students in classes and the majority of teachers in the West. Where does this leave us?  Some things to consider:

Re-work the power structure of the guru model.  I do not mean you don’t need a teacher, you do.  And I don't mean that teachers don't have abundant value, they do. I instead mean that the idea of giving up your power to another person is not healthy. We don't need blind devotion, but the guidance of an experienced teacher, and, importantly, our own discerning participation. The answers are within us, each of us. Any good teacher supports this notion.

When I was a student of Ashtanga, the practice never felt right. First series (where everyone has to begin when starting Ashtanga yoga) never felt okay in my body. This style has a lot of advanced externally rotated sitting poses and my hips where extremely tight in that rotation. I would get cranked into those poses and cry my way through them. Afterwards, when my body had cooled down and I would stand up from sitting, my knees felt like they would buckle out from under me.

Well intentioned students in Mysore practicing along side me would say things like “maybe your knees need to open up."  After a short while, I followed my intuition:  I gave up first series and gently worked on the poses I knew I needed to practice in order to safely open my hips and not destroy my knees.  This was my own discerning participation, my own internal guru.

In addition to the poses of the first series not feeling right for my particular body, the practice itself felt draining, depleting and impossible to maintain. Now I of course know why. For my constitution (vata/pitta), Ashtanga is a very aggravating practice. Somehow, I had the wisdom to walk away, even though I felt badly about it for a really long time. I felt I wasn’t being a real yogi. Only one teacher said to me “Good for you for knowing what’s right and being willing to give it up."  Her name is Laura Miles, a well-known LA teacher whom I had practiced with when I lived in Santa Barbara. She had never succumbed to the hype of postural achievement and always approached yoga as a spiritual endeavor.

The lesson:  It’s up to us to be discerning teachers and students. We must require integrity from ourselves and those we study from. Teachers must be held to high standards of honesty and transparency and students need to foremost trust themselves. Students must not be undermined nor dis-empowered by their teachers.  Trust yourself. Don’t be afraid to question teachers and methodologies. Not every approach is right for every student. Yoga is not a one path system, there are many paths to the same destination...achievable with positive, inclusive, supportive direction, and trusting your inner guru.

Women, I think, will move this new framework forward:  women are the majority of teachers and the majority of students.  But there's room for allies.  So, everybody: tune and listen to your inner guru:  we're all students and teachers in this new era of yoga.

About Nikki Estrada

Nikki Estrada has been in the yoga scene for more than twenty years. She leads workshops, teacher training and immersions nationwide. Nikki began her formal training in India, focusing on Ashtanga, a very physically challenging style of yoga. She is currently a senior yoga teacher and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nikki's Vinyasa-based classes are a synthesis of her years of yogic and Ayurveda study and personal experience, with an emphasis on spirituality, intelligent alignment, meditation, and living life more joyfully. Her videos can be found on www.yogainternational.com. More information about Nikki can be found at www.nikkiestradayoga.com She resides in northern California with her husband and two daughters.

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