Lineage or Family Business?

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A lot of people in the yoga world are feeling confused. Changing social tides and startling revelations are calling into question the foundations on which many a career have been built. Deep vacuums have been created with the passing of primary teachers, previously held secrets are being exposed, and the emergence of a neo-orthodoxy is attempting to lay claim to what was once considered an open-source transmission. Those who continue to feel a calling are rightly searching their souls for clarity as the always precarious mix of business and wisdom tradition becomes ever more blurred.

Scandals involving inappropriate behavior by spiritual leaders are nothing new. The guru/disciple relationship inherently lends itself to corruptive power imbalances. However, the cultural shift of awareness around the systematic mistreatment of women, across all sectors of society, has cast the indiscretions of teachers in a new context which not only seeks to hold them accountable in ways they never have been before but also considers those who knew and remained silent as complicit. Senior students are removing photos from their altars and feeling compelled to make public mea culpas for promoting abusers as avatars. The newly emboldened voices of victims cannot be unheard and no one wants to be on the wrong side of history.

The role of yoga teacher is indistinguishable from what it was only a few generations ago. 

Anyone who started practicing yoga before, say 1995, remembers when yoga teachers were primarily torchbearers. The only road to legitimacy was by way of a respected teacher’s nod. Teachings were passed from person to person and if you proved yourself to be a worthy student and demonstrated competency then you became a lineage holder. Many of the early teachers presented this as “India’s gift to the West.” Being forthright and determined in practice was how you earned position and it was considered an honor to be asked to teach.

The emergence of hours-based teacher training and the boom of yoga-related business have transformed the idea of a yoga teacher into something between fitness instructor and life coach. Many of the charismatic leaders who once bestowed license to teach are no longer with us and there is a new call for objective metrics to establish a clearer scope of practice and definition for what a yoga teacher does. Teachers no longer feel a need to cite their teachers in their bios, some are purposefully deciding to omit influences that have become tainted by scandal.

It’s difficult to reconcile the paradoxes that exist within people. This is particularly true when it is revealed that the same teacher who helped us has hurt others. 

It’s easier to dismiss #metoo stories that implicate someone you have loved and held in high esteem than face the painful reality that they have failed you. When this person has played a significant role in facilitating practice and direction in your life, and sometimes has become the facilitator of a livelihood, it’s hard to accept that the same person would mistreat others so terribly. Having both love and disdain for someone at the same time is profoundly confusing. Increased scrutiny of our practice is forced upon us in light of the truer picture.

More questions than answers abound. Thoughtful practitioners seem to be either in a state of crisis, denial, or retreat. One thing is for sure, there are victims who have not been heard and attempting to silence them or simply carry on without any acknowledgement or support would be a discredit to all the good that yoga does for people in the world. If there is something to be redeemed by what we’ve learned from these flawed figures then we can only do so in the light of a full and transparent reckoning.

Last-ditch efforts to assert control are a sign that it’s time to evolve.

In the brewing tumult, the successors of the gurus charged with upholding the official lineages have sought to take back the gift that was given by their fathers and assert authority and control over whatever remains of the old order. Purging the list of officially authorized teachers, establishing new allegiance and requirements in order to maintain status, or attempting to assert new trademarks smells more like the desperate power grabs of small men than the sound actions of those who embody the best that yoga offers.

While the current situation is deeply unsettling, and is likely to get worse before it gets better, the moment is also laden with possibility. Fear and shame may override the day for a time but it’s a worthwhile bet that the piercing clarity of undeniable compassion and humanity will ultimately prevail. Even if that’s just wishful thinking, it’s a far better story to tell. Hopefully we can find our way through the storm with enough humility and grace that we will be prepared for the brief calm that inevitably comes thereafter, for only there in the harsh aftermath will the unknown be free to sprout and take root.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.

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