Yogis like to argue as much as any other subculture, despite the mislabeling of us as pacifist. But one fact that most yogis can agree on is that the overwhelming percentage of yoga practitioners in the US are women. Probably as much as 90%, though in some city centers, where yoga is more mainstream it might be more like 70%. Regardless, women make up the largest demographic. And as women, it makes complete sense to be extremely upset by the sexual use and abuse by male teachers in the highest echelons of yoga. From the Indian men who brought yoga to the west, right down to the recently humiliated John Friend, male yogis have been abusing their power the way men usually abuse power – sexual exploitation. So yes, the yoga women, in my opinion, have every right to be angry, rageful even.
But lest the pot be accused of calling the kettle black, I think it is important to look at the other side of the equation. No one, to my knowledge, has ever called out the abuse by women in the yoga community. From the highest echelons of female yoga teachers, down to the newest girl graduate from her weekend Teacher Training, women yogis abuse their power the way women usually abuse power: by being cruel, demeaning, spiteful, catty, cliquey, condescending, manipulative, and downright mean.
I’ve been studying and teaching yoga since 1997, and have witnessed first hand the power of the female yogini. The Yoga Diva is a well known phenomenon in yoga circles. The teacher who “borrows” books (forever) from the retreat library or makes undocumented international phone calls; the Diva who swans around the room with her regiment of handmaidens, refusing to make eye contact with the students who’ve paid thousands of dollars to study with her; the Diva who insults and gossips about students, calling them fat or inflexible or lazy, often behind their backs. And then there are the Diva Students. The ones who come to class late, then move peoples’ mats around to get their preferred space; the ones who talk, loudly, about other students during break; the ones who co-opt class time asking long, self-involved questions referencing their own studies with Indian Gurus and their many positive attributes.
Yes, the imbalanced male yogi takes advantage of his followers sexually. But the female yogi uses her sexuality too, prancing around the front of the room in wee, tight clothes, sending her sexual power vibes through the room, just without the lay as the end point. Instead, she uses her sexuality to empower herself and manipulate her students. She causes the men to want to serve her, to put her on a pedestal and thus increase her own importance and social standing. She causes other women to fear her and become obsequious servants in large and small ways. These women in power also undermine each other in their quest for more prominence. They cattily criticize their fellow teachers and ridicule the less accomplished students. They use their power positions as fodder for their own comedic enjoyment without regard for the feelings of these students.
After I lost my own yoga studio in northwest Montana in a bloodless coup, I went into voluntary exile in Baja, Mexico. I drove down in a VW van with my nine year-old black lab, Tippy, to see if I could find what I had so quickly and drastically lost – my faith, my sense of hope, my personal power. Yoga is like that, I thought. The in-breath, the-out breath, here, then gone. Stability, then crashing to the ground. Maybe, someday, I would find the constancy of balance, the fine art of the tiny, constant adjustments that keep you steady no matter what goes on. But I didn’t find it there. Not in Baja.
There, I smoked a lot of pot. Tried to write a book. Decided to finally abandon my country because of politics I hated. And I took a weeklong yoga retreat with a Yoga Diva.
She was a big deal in the yoga world. She had a following. Videotapes. A clothing line. She was a good teacher. She taught a vinyasa flow class to lots of loud thumping music. She offered a spiritual aspect to things. She went surfing.
But she was not a nice person. She had a way of listening but not really paying attention. She was devoted to her own being. Her own practice. The perfection of her own body. She surrounded herself with men. She had a devoted following of yoga boys who would do anything for her. She had a few women in her inner circle too, but it was clear that she was the alpha. If there were women around her, they were obsequious, submissive. They brought her glasses of fresh orange juice, and she beamed a huge smile on them. But she was not kind.
One day we were focusing on heart openers. First, you start with hip openers. Because the hips are where we hold emotion, and for most of us, the hips are very tight. We in the western world don’t use our hips much. We don’t squat. We don’t dance madly. We don’t swing when we walk. From hips, we moved into shoulder openers. The energy of the body runs in X’s, so the hips cross over to the shoulders. Tight right hip, tight left shoulder.
When it was time for the heart openers, we laid on our stomachs and did mini cobras, then big cobras. Lifting up our chests, lifting out of our shoulders, using our back muscles to hold us up. To support us.
I was moving very deep into this practice. I could feel my neurons firing. Feel my muscles lengthening, and softening. I could feel myself opening up. Here in the heat of Baja, with the rhythmic ocean pounding just meters away, I was dissolving into my true nature. Love. I could feel it start to spread upward from the power in my sacrum, up my spine and into my heart.
We were now into the deepest part of the class. Backbends. Urdhva Dhanurasana, upward facing bow. By now, this was easy. I practically floated up, beyond the ‘muscling’ that I used to do. It felt like an intrinsic energy was lifting me up of its own accord. I could have stayed in this backbend forever, it felt so easy. So right.
The teacher asked if I would demonstrate to the class. I beamed. Maybe I was wrong about her after all. Clearly she saw the power and the softness, the love and the goodness that I was emanating, not only in this one pose, but during this whole week. And she was going to make me an example for the class - this is what love in action looks like.
The class circled around me and I bent my knees and bent my arms back so the palms of my hands were by my ears. I inhaled a deep breath and exhaled, floating gracefully up into an arch. She made a slight adjustment to my arms, and I lifted even deeper into the pose. This is one of the most powerful heart opening poses because it is one of the most vulnerable. You are literally offering your soft underbelly up to the world, with nothing to protect yourself.
She backed away from me as I continued to breathe easily. “Look at those hairy Patti Smith armpits,” she said at last. “Ugh,” she said, quieter, as a few people around her giggled. She took a step closer and put a hand under my back and said, “Your low back muscles are weak, you need to strengthen them.” She stood back again and said, “Okay. That’s good. You can come down now.” She walked to the front of the room to drink her fresh squeezed juice. Everyone returned to their mats, and I sunk onto my back, hugged my knees to my chest.
There was a serious east coast/west coast demarkation in the yoga world at that time. New York, where I’d been studying, was still rebel, counter-cultural, hippy. New York yogis ate granola with hemp milk, and did not shave all their body hair off. This yoga was still grungy, still evolving out of the free-love 70‘s. On the other side was L.A., where this teacher based. L.A. has always been a ‘beauty’ town, more plastic than all-natural. L.A. women dyed their hair blond, they plucked, shaved, tweezed, botoxed and implanted.
There was always condescension between the two ranks. One being looked at as overly obsessive, narcissistic, faux, while the other was looked at as unclean, unkempt, feral and tribal. Around the “turn of the century,” bit by bit they’d all come to be taken over by the hairless ethic. Fakeness became more and more the coin of the empire, and even a truth-seeking sport such as yoga was not immune to the Roman Coliseum fervor of the day. This new ‘plastic’ ethic would steamroll over every other human endeavor.
As I lay on my back feeling the wound of humiliation, I started to say the heart chakra mantra, yam, over and over again, so my poor, sweet, open heart, would not slam itself shut again because of that skinny, tanned, waxed and ugly-hearted woman. Welcome back to Mean Girls Yoga. I hugged my body close and resolved to keep my heart open. These girls could be mean for all eternity, but my devotion was to the practice. It was to Truth and Love in the core. But not just my own core.
I knew I wasn’t the only lonely soul on this planet aching for kindness and connection. True community. My eternal optimism, which by this point was starting to look scarily close to self-lacerating insanity, kept going back to the same trough and expecting a different outcome. But I knew there was the possibility of real change in this system.
I knew that I needed to cultivate compassion toward this teacher too. I had to be the bigger woman, even in my current ‘small’ state. The cycle of behavior needed to stop, and all I could do was to stop myself from taking her cruelty and making it my cruelty.
This guru abuse is pervasive. With men, it is death by one blow. With women, it is death by a thousand cuts. Maybe, eventually, it could evolve to the death of the ego, or rather, that part of the ego that still rules, is still mean, shifty, unconscious. The exposure of the truth is a way of ripping off that protective layer. Forcing us to grow. Which is, after all, why we became yoga teachers in the first place.