One of the reasons I was able to take sannyasa initiation is that I saw what fame is like. I spent 15 years on the yoga convention circuit, never quite a headliner, though I gave a few keynote addresses. My name (as Rama Berch) and photo were in all the yoga magazines for years. I had people stop me in airports, and one charming young girl in Singapore asked me, after I said I was a yoga teacher from America, “Are you famous?” I could see how I had to teach, wowing (but hopefully never dumbing-down) the yoga practice itself, in order to meet the students expectations and survive their comparisons. I kept an eye on those more famous than I, and gave five years of my life to founding Yoga Alliance at a time when a famous yoga teacher suffered accusations of a serious breach of ethics. I knew I didn’t want any more of that world. I was delighted to retire from the spotlight.
Now we see another famous yoga teacher accused of serious ethics violations. Has John Friend truly transgressed yoga’s principles – this is the first question you must ask. Don’t start with the assumption that everything in the sensationalist media is correct. Then you must ask a second question, for you may never get a reliable answer to your first question: how and why does something like this happen? I’ll begin with question #2, how and why does something like this happen?
Is it the fame or is it the yoga?
Fame is a killer. We can easily learn this from media personalities, sports figures, political figures, and even many famous preachers who’ve lost their way under the incredible pressures of fame. So much becomes available to the famous person that the average person doesn’t face. Is it possible to become famous and maintain your ethics, your credibility, your spirituality?
My answer is that I don’t know. I backed away from the opportunity to be famous. When I saw the other, much more famous and charismatic yoga teachers on the circuit, I knew I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps. I made conscious decisions to pour my time and energy into creating a faculty of Teacher Trainers who could create generations of incredible teachers. I spread out the shakti instead of taking it all personally. One well-meaning advisor at the time said to me, “You could be making 6 figures a year.” I said, “I know, but I prefer to make less and give more.”
I was an “also-ran.” My name was in the second tier of teachers on the big ads and brochures. When I made it to the top, it was because the other teachers were already booked. I was happy to be an also-ran, mainly because I knew it spread Svaroopa® yoga. The key difference between the most well-known styles of yoga poses and Svaroopa® yoga is the core strengthening vs core opening approach. The yoga world needs more opening, less aerobics, less former dance teachers, and fewer warriors masquerading as yogis. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I do mean it.
Core-strengthening vs core-opening is a nice way of saying “warrior yoga” vs “surrender yoga.” Svaroopa® yoga is about the yogic art of surrender, ultimately a training in how to become Self-Realized — you surrender into consciousness. You don’t “master” consciousness; you surrender.
Krishnamacharya created “warrior yoga” when the king of his region in India asked for his sons, the princes, to learn yoga. The princes were not interested in an ascetic’s approach to peace and purity, and had to be challenged and captured by the practice, so Krishnamacharya mixed British calesthenics with classical yoga poses. It worked very well and accomplished the king’s purpose — to get his many sons interested in their own rich and ancient heritage instead of the British culture they were aping. Note: the king’s purpose was not that his sons become enlightened, or that they become yogis, or even that they become peaceful — he wanted them to become “Indian.”
Fast forward a few decades and you have Americans traveling to India to find gurus, and some of them bypassing the true spiritual masters they met in order to find the body experts. They brought back Iyengar’s approach to poses, which he developed through years of dedicated asana practice after a short time of studying with Krishnamacharya. Later, the Americans brought back Ashtanga Vinyasa, with Beryl Bender Birch renaming it to “Power Yoga.” It was a proper naming – a name that threw out all that yoga had stood for, for millennia, to make it distinctly American. Yoga moved into the gymnasium and athletic clubs and the warrior model took over.
The sheer athleticism is fascinating. Kripalu Center has photos in their café area, with jaw-dropping poses – but I don’t call it yoga. I call it athleticism. I call it gymnastics. I call it dance. I call it showmanship. I call it vulgar. I call it dangerous.
From my perspective, a warrior yogi can become a victim of their own practice. The warrior approach is one of mastery, challenge, capture. A warrior trains, even pushes his (or her) body beyond limitations, to expand possibilities — but they are worldly possibilities. A warrior is inherently a consumer, one who sees everything in terms of whether or not he wants to consume it. That includes people as well as objects.
It’s very hard for the American mind to get out of “good-better-best.” A warrior isn’t trying to get out of it, but to be the best — in order to survive, in order to win, in order to come out on top. Then he (or she) can have anything he wants. Unfortunately, gluttony has never been a path to happiness, much less spiritual upliftment.
Core opening is a different approach, in every way. IN EVERY WAY. Core opening frees you from the good-better-best mentality. Core opening opens your heart, not just your spine. Core opening opens your mind, so you don’t feel the need to compare yourself with everyone else, and you don’t feel the need to acquire everything that you desire. Core opening opens up more than your spine, your heart and your mind — so you experience svaroopa, your divine essence. Once you have that experience, you cannot go back to being a consumer. You don’t see the world as a series of objects to acquire, nor do you see people as being something to be enjoyed (or exploited). Warriors take what they want; exploitation comes with the territory. They don’t perceive things the way that other people do.
The classical asana practice, which my Guru had me trained in when I was living in his Ashram in India, is softening. It doesn’t provide core strengthening – it is focused on surrender. Yes, your body ends up being able to do amazing poses, but not because you have six-pack abs or great biceps. Yet you don’t become a contortionist; you won’t be joining Cirque du Soleil. The purpose is not found in the poses — remember, there were no photographers around back then. The purpose of the classical practice is threefold: 1) to prepare you to sit in meditation for long periods of time, 2) to be able to focus inward in a steady and easy manner, & 3) to surrender to that greater Reality within. It was always a practice based on surrender. Surrender yogis are not consumers. They are more like native peoples, who respect the earth and ask the plant’s permission before picking the flower or the food.
If any yoga teacher succumbs to the forces of fame, or even falls into the pits created by his or her own appetites, we must hold up the mirror and look in it ourselves. Return to the yamas and niyamas, beginning with ahimsa. Do not cause harm. Even if another person (or yogi) has caused harm, whether inadvertently or even on purpose, you must not cause harm. You must be intelligent. You may need to protect yourself, You may decide on a course of action that will bring about consequences — but do not cause harm. How do you do this? You are the one who has to figure it out. And keep looking in the mirror.
Work your way through the list. The yamas guide you. Speak only truth, and speak that truth without causing harm. Don’t lie; don’t steal; give up gluttony and greed; etc.
If my friend, John Friend, lost track of the yamas somewhere along the way, perhaps the furor erupting in the yoga world will propel him back in that direction. You’ve lost your way, but without being famous, your slip might not have been so noticeable, or the temptations might not have been so great.
But then, you’re doing surrender yoga, not warrior yoga. So you’d handle those temptations differently.