Monday, February 27, 2012

Back to Basics: Yoga as I know it, 101

Of course, I've been following the Anusara scandal lately. And I have many, many thoughts about it. And there's many of you that I'd love to sit down and talk them over with - hashing it all out over a cup of tea. Or maybe a luscious glass of red wine.

But otherwise - right now, I'm feeling like it's not my story to tell. So I'm going to write about what I know . . .

Which is:

I spent two hours practicing by myself today in a mostly empty room. And it was wonderful. And I realized that - yes, I am so, so blessed to have this knowledge. Of how to get into my tight spots and feel them start to open. To sense something wonderful, and even mysterious, about such a seemingly banal process. Um, just stretching . . .  yeah, just stretching my mind open again, prying off the scabs of ancient samskaras and feeling the liberated fresh skin breathing underneath.


Mia, a Chicago yoga teacher I don't really even know (we volunteer for the same organization and briefly met once) sent me (and the other members of our little "Yoga for Recovery" group) an email yesterday explaining that she's just had a conversation with a MD who works at the Cook County Jail (where our group runs yoga classes for women on Fridays) that made her realize just how little she (and by extension, all of us) knows about the women we're teaching there.
i felt ignorant. maybe i'm the only one in the dark, but did you know that our clients are in this usually court-ordered "sheriff's women's justice program" for 120 days and are drug addicts &/or mentally disabled &/or prostitutes trying to leave the life?
She embedded the link below, which previews a documentary on prostitution produced by the Oprah channel. Surprisingly to me, it highlights the program we've connected with through our program. Lisa - the woman who starts speaking at 1 minute 24 seconds into the video - is someone I've worked with a number of times. She's our insider point person and a huge yoga booster.

Lisa lights up the room with her enthusiasm whenever she helps me set up the room for yoga, chatting brightly and energetically as we push furniture to the sides of the room. I had no clue that she's been a prostitute for 20 years. I can't even imagine.

But while we're working together to get ready to provide a yoga class to a dozen or so women, the truth is that . . . I don't even care. I don't mean that in a callous way. I just mean that - if we're working together, and if we both believe that the yoga's worth our time and effort, then - we're just  together, absorbed in that project, in that moment. And the past and the present and society and its cruelties and inequalities don't go away. But they don't divide us either. We're just there, dedicating some time to some yoga - and to some exploration, and some healing.

And while there's no silver bullet, there is a distinct, real sense that - this is valuable. It does work. How? Why? Right then, it doesn't matter. I don't have to analyze it, prove it, or even say it. I just notice that my mind is clearer, that I feel more grounded. And I see enough students lighting up, and smiling, and thanking us as they say "goodbye" to feel assured that no, it's not just me - they're getting a lot out of the yoga, too.

And it's a good feeling. 

Sneak Peek: Prostitution: Leaving The Life
Prostitution: Leaving the Life tells the story of the world of prostitution from the people that know it best - the women that live it. Three former prostitutes work with the Cook County Sheriff to help women in Cook County Jail leave the life, and gain the life skills and confidence to escape prostitution.


Now, the latest iteration in the endlessly spooling Anusara scandal story is "Science of Yoga" author William J. Broad writing with easy, jocular journalistic authority in the New York Times that since yoga "began as a sex cult," practitioners today shouldn't really be surprised when libidinous gurus color outside the lines when it comes to ill-advised or even abusive sex with their followers. OK . . . sigh. How to muster the energy to even start to address all the problems involved with framing the issues at hand in this way? Right now, I don't have it in me. So I won't.


There's a lot of interesting talk about Tantra circulating around in the newly opened space created by John Friend's current implosion. What I used to call the "Anusasra Police" formerly had Tantra on commodified lock-down - it was their thing, damn it, and they were going to control the terms of discourse so that it was quite clear that they had their copyright right there, squarely on top of it.

Well, that's no longer the case. And that's good. But still, all of this intricate Tantra talk that's been circulating in the blogosphere recently can just feel like a lot of - blah blah blah. At least to me.

Bottom line is that: I don't really care about your religion or your ideology or your atheism or your science or your whatever. But if you love yoga, and find that the physicality of asana can in fact ignite some magic for you - then it seems to me that the core issues are quite simple:

Is it helping you to heal, and through that process, helping others?
Is it helping you to grow in wisdom, and compassion?
Is is helping you to connect with something mysterious, and sustaining?

If we can pretty much answer "yes" to those questions, then - do we really need anything more?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kripalu's Reincarnation and the Anusara Scandal

This isn't the first time that a sex scandal has hit an American yoga community hard. Regardless of how the current Anusara controversy plays out, it's a good time to go back and re-read Chapter 16 of Stephen Cope's classic, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (1999). (Or, if you've never read it, buy it and read it cover-to-cover! If you have any interest in yoga, it's one of the best contemporary works out there.)

In the book, Cope describes how Kripalu imploded after finding out that its guru-teacher-leader, Amrit Desai, had been secretly having multiple extra-marital affairs for years. The wonderful thing about the story, however, is that it explains how the community eventually emerged stronger and wiser because of the scandal; newly dedicated to and organized around meaningful democratic principles.

Kripalu today (

Cope, a practicing psychologist, astutely describes the deeper psychological roots of the scandal:
Among the hundreds of people of all ages, races, and religions who have been residents at Kripalu, I can safely say that almost all came seeking some version of the idealized family. In the guru and in the community at Kripalu, thousands of seekers sought the perfect Dad and Mom . . . (they) bring a tremendous amount of idealization and projection in their relationships with teachers. We fall in love with our teachers, and with our communities, and as a result we do not see them at all clearly.
As the idealized love driven by unconscious desires projected at them grows, Cope explains, it's easy for teachers who aren't yet ready to handle this wave of adulation to become sucked into these powerful psychological dynamics:
If the teacher is not aware of his own unresolved needs to be admired, highly praised, and adored, he or she may being to believe the idealizations of his students. An air of unreality begins to infuse the entire situation . . .  Teacher and student grow further and further from an understanding of their complicated unconscious motivations. It is only a matter of time before the situation collapses of its own weight.
When the guru was exposed, all hell broke loose. Of course, as a live-in ashram, it was impossible to keep things quiet and contained when events including "shouting, screaming, and what sounded like furniture flying" were there for all to hear. ("'You fucked him. For years. You fucked him. Don't tell me you didn't!' The entire building stopped breathing in that instant.")

Did the community then draw on their yogic resources, start taking deep breaths again, tap into their inner peace, step out of their "mis-alignment," and gracefully forgive? Well . . . there was a bit more to the process than that.
Within days, the guru and his entire family were gone. Press releases were written, forthrightly declaring the details of the scandal . . .  Standing in the naked truth was difficult to bear, but we were doing it . . . We were standing in the best traditions of yoga. We had learned something. This was good.
 But the bonfire did not stop there. There were legal maneuverings. Lawyers' bills mounting into the millions. Challenges from former residents. New allegations of sexual misconduct . . .  The guru's throne was smashed to smithereens in the main chapel. The flames raged on . . . 
Over the course of the next years, the community would go through a complete death and rebirth. Many of the senior members would leave . . .  most did well. The more vulnerable remained deeply wounded by from the betrayal and death of the idealized family. The entire organization was restructured, from the board down.
. . . With several years, signs of rebirth were in the ascendent. But the dream had to die, the guru had to leave, and the idealization had to be irreparably broken. 
 Cope goes on to explain that the success and failure of Kripalu were inextricably interrelated:
It was not the scandal that forced the death of the old forms of yoga at Kripalu. Quite the opposite. It was the impending death of the old paradigm that required the scandal. It is clear that the fact of Amrit Desai's affairs had been in the unconscious of the community all along. It was not new information. Quite a few individuals held the secret. It was simply information that could not be brought to the light of consciousness until the community was more or less ready for it.
In 1994 when the scandal erupted, Gurudev had not suddenly changed. In fact, the sexual misconduct was by that time many years old. Amirt was who he had always been -- ambitious, brilliant, sometimes a sincere yogi, sometimes just a smooth performer, too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good. It was the community's own capacity to see and bear the truth that had changed.
The bonfire was just as much a sign of success as of failure.

I visited Kripalu back in the mid-2000s and loved it. It is beautiful, and has a clean, clear, positive vibe. Of course, it's not perfect. But the organization does offer tons of valuable teachings to tens of thousands of people each year.

I felt blessed to have visited; it's a memory I still cherish today.