An Open Letter to Yoga Teachers…..
by: Laura Riggs
There has been quite a bit of drama circulating lately over the internet in the teaching community. It seems to lead to a larger question of what should or should not be expected of you as teachers? Sadly, there seems to be a small uprising of teachers who shirk the importance of their responsibility nor do they seem to understand that as leaders (and, like it or not, that is what you are) you owe it to the community to maintain a certain level of decorum when it comes to being a representative of what yoga actually is. Even more disheartening, is that this small minority, through the means of the world-wide-web and social networks like Facebook, seems to be growing in voice and number. Instead of carrying our yoga off the mat and into the world, we are doing the reverse of carrying our suffering from the world and put it onto our yoga mat.
To this small minority, I ask that you take a moment away from trying to gain attention and followers on Facebook/Twitter, for a meaningful assessment of the impact of your belligerent, rebellious attitude towards yoga. Stop and consider for a moment the impression that you may be leaving on the general population with all of these shenanigans. By your actions, as well as the words you write on the tabloid pages of Elephant Journal, you have demonstrated that do not take yourselves seriously (and not the good way of having a sense of humor, but in the way that shows you have no concern for interacting with the world in a responsible way), you have a flare for the dramatic, you can’t/won’t hold down a real job, you are doing a disservice to the profession of teaching yoga, you relish being the center of attention more than you care about your students welfare, y’all smoke way too much pot, drink too much beer/wine, and use yoga as a mask to permit yourself to engage in activities unbecoming of an ethical human being in the community.
Naturally, over-generalized statements such as these are going to receive quite a bit of backlash from many “teachers”….mostly from the ones who are culpable of the above said behavior will be the ones to retaliate and profusely deny the statements I have made. Those who partake in the immature behavior we have all had to witness as of late, and those who are the self-proclaimed, “yoga rockstars”, will certainly have a plethora of excuses, justifications, as well as attacks on my credibility for having the gaul to write such a letter to the teaching community. However, those who are more experienced in both their personal practice, as well as their teaching, and are confident enough (and most likely NOT as infamous), will understand that this letter was not addressed to them, for they, too, have seen and expressed dismay as to how rampant this behavior has become over the past several years.
Yet, leave it to us Westerners to go and fuck up a 5,000-year-old tradition, intended to serve people’s higher purpose in life, use what we deem fits within our neuroses, and discard the ancient rituals and teachings that conflict with our overtly narcissistic need for fame and notoriety. It seems that it wasn’t until we started elevating people to this “yoga rockstar” status, that the behavior became a complete embarrassment to the profession and downright appalling to the tradition. Now, instead of doing the challenging and necessary work to let go of our attachments and aversions, we see all of the psychoses of these rockstars incorporated into the so-called “teachings” of yoga as a necessary part to living some sort of “extraordinary life”.
In the days when I did lead yoga teacher trainings, I would tell the trainees that the beginner and the advanced student equally understood that they knew nothing about yoga, but the intermediate students were the ones you had to watch out for, for they resided deeply in the ego. The intermediate student (as well as the intermediate teacher) learns just enough about yoga to believe they know more about yoga than anyone else, and they are most willing to share their profound knowledge with the rest of us…. Granted, when you only sign up for 200-hours of teacher training, because you think that it would be completely rad to be a yoga teacher, you are signing up to receive a training that is quite rudimentary in content. Sadly, of those 200-hours, only about 20 focus on “Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyles and Ethics of Teaching”. Observing that many modern day teachers have no concept of the value of sanskrit, the importance of ritual, or why they should lead by example, it becomes painfully obvious that a mere 20-hours, devoted to the crucial foundation of why any of us practice (or teach) yoga in the first place, is simply not enough.
If you dig deeper into the tradition, you will discover a yoga teacher’s primary purpose along the path is Seva. For those of you who have chosen not to revere the potent power of Sanskrit (and I would also speculate this is the same personality type also refuses to learn Spanish because they rather enjoy their abundant arrogance), Seva means “selfless service”. As in, service to God. A visual of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa should also come to mind when attempting to embody Seva. For, when you do review the history of our lineage, yogis were saints. This is why not everyone was, or is, a yogi. It is a difficult path that requires a great deal of selflessness. The practice of Seva demands that you love the world so much that you want greater happiness for others than yourself, that you want to make others’ lives better than your own, and that the students’ spiritual growth is of the absolute highest importance. Too often, the intermediate teacher’s own ego gets in the way and behavior like sleeping with their students, or writing blogs about how the words Thank You are the new F**K you, or promoting ingesting alcohol after having just cleansed the body and mind and setting up opportunities to covet another student during yoga class, or thinking that being inebriated themselves while trying to teach a yoga class (and you know who you are), actually serves MY spiritual growth as a student. It unequivocally does NOT serve my spiritual growth, nor does it serve your own growth.
Had you read or studied the work of Patanjali, you may have gathered that yoga is only achieved through the cessation of the chatter in the mind. My yoga, or anyone else’s yoga, is fostered through this practice of quieting the mind. Agreed, it isn’t about putting your foot behind your head, or doing a really cool handstand or some new variation of an arm balance. Of course, had you shown up for your lecture on the history of yoga, you would know that all of the asana practiced in the West was simply an adaptation of gymnastic movements 100 or so years ago, during the British colonization of India – they were tools we Westerners thought we needed for getting our racing thoughts to subside (Yoga teachers in India keenly observed Westerners take great issue with actually sitting still for longer than 2-seconds without thinking “what’s next?”).
If you had given yourself the opportunity to complete more study than what can be found in a measly 200-hours of training, you would also have learned that Tantric Yoga is the yoga of ritual, both in practice and intention. Contrary to “contemporary” belief, Tantric Yoga is not the practice of getting high as the means to bring you closer to God. Rather it is a practice showing up repeatedly and being present to the necessary work to purify your thoughts, intentions and actions (to let go of all attachments and aversions). Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, these poor yoga teachers have paid thousands of dollars for a contrived education that has short-changed them on receiving a proper understanding of what actual yoga represents. It should be the ongoing duty of a teacher to seek the knowledge that awaits you beyond a scant 200-hours of training. After all, education serves an evolutionary purpose. To continue to evolve as an instructor, as a human being, you must continue to learn. To believe that enlightenment somehow happens simply because you teach yoga is not only reckless but demonstrates that you have chosen complacency over evolvement. To think that you somehow know more about yoga than anyone else, or what a 5,000-year-old ritual has to teach you, because you are comfortable in the confines of your attachments and aversions, speaks to the lack of credibility you actually carry as a yoga instructor, even though you may be a “rockstar” in the making.
Where the whole idea of “yoga rockstar” came from, I will never know, but it needs to make a hasty, quiet exit from Western mainstream philosophy, so that we can all get back to the primary focus and intention of Yoga, without all of this ancillary commentary. Yoga has one intention, and one alone, which is the union of body, mind and spirit in each and every moment. It is not about fashion, great playlists, which style of yoga you practice or which style is the best, and it is most certainly not about who is the “greatest teacher”, nor about striving to be a “yoga rockstar”. After all, how many rockstars do you know actually have their shit together? How many rockstars display a well-formed union between their body, mind and spirit? As we label yoga teachers as “yoga rockstars” we reflect, quite accurately, that none of them have their shit together (and quite possibly shirk all responsibility to creating this union in themselves or their classrooms)….which then leads to the disastrous display of students who show up to class high on ecstasy, reeking of weed, or carrying red cups of suds into the studio for “hydration” and think this is how you achieve enlightenment….all because that is what the intermediate teacher taught them, as they led by example…..is this really the vision you want to create for the yoga community as a whole? Unfortunately, it has already begun to happen and it makes a mockery of Yoga. If you, as teachers, want us believe that you hold any type integrity, then you may want to step up your game, take responsibility that this is the culture you are creating, and make some changes in your own behavior if you want to see it shift.
Integrity does not mean that you run around touting how you smoke pot and everyone else can deal with it because you were “honest” about it. Integrity means having honor, showing respect to, and showing a courteous regard for all living beings. Go smoke pot on your personal time, if you must, but do not believe that it enhances your spiritual growth or your students, nor does it promotes life, but rather it is just another distraction and the ego uses to take away from life and add to your suffering. All of these behaviors displayed by you “rockstars” are mortifying impediments to raising the level of consciousness for all. They are not honorable and they most certainly are not yoga.
If you prefer to live a lifestyle weathered by suffering, that is your choice. If you prefer to have students who will cater to your ego, fawn over your playlists or your rebellious nature while you quote Billy Joel as a spiritual truth, or you want students who are eager to join you for some suds after class, then consider that you are not really a yoga teacher, but simply teaching a fancied up version of Jazzercise. Those of us who are serious about our dedication to uplifting those we serve would ask that you PLEASE stop trying to pretend that you are a representative of a tradition that we have served with great reverence, respect and veneration for decades now.
After all, I can’t focus on quieting my mind when you all want to talk for the sake of hearing yourselves speak.