Yoga Battles: Gurus and Cultural Appropriation
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | May 13, 2022
For many years I’ve advocated for yoga as a health and wellness profession – including the health benefits of spirituality. This advocacy means that I need to pay attention to what’s going on in the health care world and also what’s going on in the yoga world (which, admittedly, can feel like two entirely different planets at times.)
So, one thing I’ve been paying attention to recently is that there are a couple of different groups critiquing yoga in the west at the moment. On one side there’s the anti-guru camp who argue that the position of guru is defective and harmful – inherently fraught with abuse of power.
These folks use the documented abuse (sexual, psychological, physical, and financial) by gurus as the foundation for their arguments. And their complaints are certainly legitimate – many famous spiritual teachers from India have been accused of rape, money laundering, sending kids off to unregulated and abusive ashram “schools”, forcing marriages, spewing homophobic rhetoric – the list goes on.
But let’s remember that cult-y behavior and brainwashing are not the exclusive domain of Indians-in-the-west-turned-guru. Cults go way back in western culture (like way before Jim Jones) and typically were confined to Christian orientations before the 1960s (after the 60s revolution sham gurus were free to come in any variety).
Abusive cult leaders are by nature charismatic and surround themselves with protectors who enable, excuse, and cover-up. Cults are everywhere of course, but they somehow have shined most blindingly in the Americas. Still, not all gurus are cult leaders.
Before the days of social media’s instant karma, the transgressions of charlatan spiritual teachers were easy to cover up. In the late twentieth century, scandals involving Amrit Desai, Osho, and Satchidananda (to name a few) began to emerge. These guys certainly had charisma, spiritual chutzpah, and interesting things to say, but they were moths to their own irresistible flames.
Fast forward to the digital age, and today it’s much harder to get away with nonsense. Today, westerners who don’t use Google to vet potential spiritual teachers are not to be blamed, but they clearly lack basic research skills.
And, in the yoga world, abusive teachers have not been limited to Indian men. Since John Friend’s Anusara-gate broke about 10 years ago, every few months another famous yoga teacher seems to bite the dust.
IMHO spiritual abuse is the most egregious kind. When you monopolize and exploit someone’s belief system, and then your house of cards comes tumbling down, you shatter worldviews and saddle followers with years of pain to unravel including deep scars in the spiritual heart – not to mention the therapy bills.
Still, there’s nothing inherently evil in the concept of guru. Rather, folks with deep narcissist wounds co-opting the term have poisoned it. In Sanskrit, the word guru means “the one who removes the veils of darkness and ignorance.” A guru is a mentor, guide, master, or expert. A real guru is anything but an inherently evil, abusive con-person. A legitimate guru is self-possessed, caring, wise, insightful and humble.
India has a long tradition of supporting and venerating people who demonstrate deep, inner wisdom and offer clarity, guidance, and spiritual insight. But many westerners, transfixed by Indian mysticism and unfamiliar with Indian culture, have been duped by hustlers posing as gurus – and some of these guys who’ve come to the west would be either ignored completely, or laughed right off their pillowed podiums in India.
I was brought up Catholic. When I was a kid, we had a family friend named Father Marcellus, a Franciscan who my father met at some church function. He was a sweet guy who liked feeding ducks and playing basketball and taught my family how to have a Jewish seder, because, he said, Jesus was a Jew and we should follow his example.
My mother never left any of us alone with him, not because she suspected anything, just because she was careful. Father Marcellus never abused us or demanded money. He was a good guy. My parents consulted him with spiritual questions, and he cared deeply for us as a family – you could say he was kind of like our family’s guru.
What about Cultural Appropriation
Not all gurus are bad, but westerners not putting much effort into understanding Indian culture doesn’t help. Which brings me to the other group currently critiquing yoga in the west – folks who are trying to raise awareness about cultural appropriation. These people have given voice to the dismay, sadness, and anger incurred by watching western people distort, fitness-ify, and monetize yoga.
All you have to do is look at trends like “Buti Yoga” which defines itself as “Primal movement, cardio dance + conditioning…seamlessly woven throughout balanced yoga sequencing to give you an ALL-IN-ONE workout that helps you transform your BODY + SOUL. The Bonus? You’ll burn 600-1000 calories per class doing it” to understand their point.
Cultural appropriation is common in the west in general, not just in the yoga world. There’s a local brewery here in Asheville that serves Dancing “Shiva” Beer. As someone who’s developed reverence for Shiva’s teachings over the years, I have to say, that name makes me cringe. And I can’t help but wonder how a beer called “Christ Crucified on the Cross” would go over here in the south?
Or, would Catholics take offense to a fitness-y yoga class called “Genuflecting Sign of the Cross Power Burn Yoga”? (of course afterwards you can indulge in some of that tasty Christ beer guilt free!)
Yoga practitioners in the west (and westerner beer makers) would be wise to educate themselves about what cultural appropriate is and what they can do to develop greater respect for Indian culture.
Back to gurus – one of the arguments from the anti-cultural appropriation folks is that if you are a westerner and you are going to teach yoga, you’d better have a Parampara (lineage) with a guru.
So, on the one hand, we have one vocal group telling us to avoid gurus, and another vocal group saying that we must have a guru.
Both the anti-guru camp and the anti-cultural appropriation/pro-guru camp are sharing important perspectives and these issues deserve attention.
Westerners’ unfortunate experiences do not discount the foundational concept of guru and gurukula (the tradition of studying with a guru). There are plenty of serious gurus in India who have no interest in setting up shop in a western country to swindle or abuse their followers. The scandals make me wonder about the motivation of self-proclaimed gurus that want to come to the west in the first place (which, BTW, doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of scammers in India too).
Yes, there is abusive potential in a guru, but that potential also exists in every other kind of spiritual advisor. And the solution will never be to do away with spirituality completely. Many human beings desire deep spiritual connection, and they often seek out help in that pursuit, that’s not going away. Humans also often long for deep spiritual experiences and yoga is an effective vehicle. It also can help folks develop greater mental/emotional clarity and discernment.
While a westerner may or may not have a lineage, no one can police the deep, inner experiences that folks have with yoga practices – regardless of any nationalistic ownership claims.
Additionally, anyone who says they own yoga exclusively is mired in divisive thinking that otherizes and excludes sincere seekers from different cultures. Yoga is a demonstrably universal approach to spirituality which unveils the reality that we are all one human family and everyone on this planet deserves love, respect, and access to these transformational teachings.
Westerners live in an era where people can often choose their own spiritual path. That is not a luxury afforded to everyone everywhere in the world. It is a tremendous freedom – and I think it’s essential to cultivate respect for and appreciation of Indian culture if westerners wish to embrace a yoga path.
I believe that westerners can practice yoga and access its spiritual benefits with or without a guru. I also believe that westerners might benefit from using yoga practice to powder down that ego a bit and admit that they don’t know everything about yoga or Indian culture, including the role of guru.
So here are some questions I’m pondering:
- How can I both stand in my truth and respect the truths and cultures of others?
- How can I practice yoga respectfully?
- How can I better protect children and the vulnerable from abuse?
- How can I stay open, be kind, offer guidance, and don’t assume everyone else’s experience is just like mine?
- How can I be open to criticism? Be okay with apologizing and adopting new opinions?
- How can I strive to stand firm in the ethical principles of yoga and to take right action?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Please check out this free class “Subtle® Yoga To Reduce Exhaustion & Overwhelm.” You’ll also a free stick figure script.
Please wait while comments are loading...
I love the topic and your thoughtful questions here. Especially “how can I stand firm in ethical principles of yoga and take right action” … and also that the questions are focused on the self (which after all is the only sphere of control we rightfully have.) Thanks for the topic!
Thank you Alyssa!
Thank you for your post! I have studied yoga with two of the false gurus (even though I did not do it for long because it did not feel right).
I would very much like to meet an honest real guru with integrity but that might never happen, specially in the current circumstances ruling the world. However, after practicing yoga for decades I now trust that I can be my own guru letting my higher self guide me!
Thank you, that’s beautiful.
As a yoga teacher, trainer and studio owner, I have to admit my greatest challenge in sharing this work in a world of false profits and scam artists, is holding faith in my “industry”. I am so proud to be a yoga professional and work very hard to be a practitioner of the core philosophies in every way. This work is all the more important because of the inherent challenges in the cultural conflict. I am grateful for my practice as it has helped me to sit with my discouragement and still see the beauty of yoga and humanity. And am grateful to you for your eloquence and honest reflection on an increasing important conversation. Thank you. I continue to practice so as not to let yoga be tarnished by short sighted selfishness and cut throat competition and to strengthen my commitment to ethical, loving yoga living. Be well!
That’s beautiful Kimberlyn. And that you for the work that you are doing! I believe there are more people like you and less like the false profits and scam artists in this world. Keep the faith.
Well said. Thank you.
Great article and questions. I continue to be busy looking for possible answers.
Great article and so worthy of ongoing reflection, thank you. As for the “Christian” beer – well you had me burst out laughing at that one! But so true. I’m in the UK, I’ve just seen an advert for Slimming World diet club with a side view of a woman holding Vrksasana/Tree Posture…I did a double take. Appropriation?? Yes indeedy…
thank you Sarena. Join the diet club and you too can look amazing in tree pose, LOL!
Well said. I’m a yoga practitioner of 30+years and a yoga teacher of 20+years. If we can follow the precepts outlined that are so similarly minded from traditions of every culture and teach to them, it would be a beautiful world. That said, I agree with you about the careful selection of teachers. In some traditions, teachers carefully chose students to study with them, and not every aspiring student was allowed to be taught by the teacher in question. At least not without some self-reflection and serious thought about taking on that mutual commitment. I have had to refer some students to other teachers through the years, to help them find a better and more appropriate resource to practices that I could not or was unwilling to provide, given the student and the circumstances. I hope I’m a good guide and example to my students, and I admit I’m still learning myself, as the world and I change through the years and through life events.
Thank you Sally. Letting go of students is hard, but it’s important when we are trying to stand in integrity.
Thank you for your presence Kristine. Your writing is always thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Thanks Cari Lyn!
How do I practice yoga respectfully?
As an Indian yoga teacher for the past 10 years, and a student for life. We have guru’s all around us. To practice yoga respectfully is to slowly learn more about ourselves and the journey are all in. One can’t learn all yoga and yogic philosophy in one lifetime. Being respectful to the practice is to learn more about yourself each day and share your knowledge. Do your best the empathize with others and their journey. We all have our paths and respecting the choices others make to be whole.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Thank you Kristine! Very thought provoking and insightful and right on in my mind. I’ve been practicing yoga now for 16 years and teaching for 8. I am a therapist as well and have taken some of your weekend retreats (very helpful). I think continuing conversation about power, unaccountable power and its impact on individuals and our communities and society is very timely. Any teacher, guru, therapist, pastor, counselor, no matter which faith (or how much spirituality) with too much power and no accountability is at risk and those with whom they engage as well. Your questions create accountability for our own practice and for when we teach others.
I am a Yoga teacher. Have taught now for over 40 years. I truly know what the power position of the guru can be. I saw it with Amrit Desai, Michael Lee and others over the years. Positions of power can change a person and give them freedoms they should not have. It is cult like and really no one should be idolized and put on a pedestal for teaching anything, Teachers must stay aware, mindful and humble at all times. Namaste
I appreciate your comments Judy and I’m sorry that you had negative experiences with yoga teachers. I would suggest, as I said in my article, that the guru and gurukula tradition should not be dismissed in spite of exploitive charlatans who have poisoned the concept.
Thank you for this empowering article. When I first began practicing yoga, about 17 years ago, it was with a an with a man, that I thought at the time, had a great deal of knowledge about yoga. I practiced with him & assisted in his classes (3-4 classes per week, 2 hour classes) for 3 years before deciding it was time to do my teacher training. Once I began my training it quickly became apparent that I knew a lot about asana & the techniques of pranayama, but nothing much about anything else. When I spoke to him about doing my training , he dismissed it as a waste of time & money & I started to question my loyalty to him. It was then I began to realise that my yoga journey was just that, mine, not his or anyone else. Whilst I’ll always be grateful for all I learned from him, in the end I realised that his huge ego was what motivated him & that I didn’t want that to be my journey. I have been teaching yoga for many years now & have learnt many lessons along the way. I now mostly teach slow yoga & use “the great yoga wall” to assist me. Thank you for always offering such thought proving inspirations.
Thank you for sharing your experience Carmel. It’s such a shame that some teachers have used yoga as a way to avoid their personal issues and exploit others.
You’ve nailed it again! Always love reading your stuff – thought provoking and professionally stated. Keep changing the world, dear one. We need that now more than ever.
Thank you so much Helen. I’m so grateful to know you and you always inspire me!!!
A very thought provoking article. Recently I have been pondering one of the questions you mentioned: How can I practice yoga respectfully? I have been practicing yoga for about 14 years and teaching for 11 years. I am always seeking to learn more about yoga practices and yoga philosophy. This continuing yoga education and my own personal practice offers me the opportunity to both better understand yoga and yet at the same time realize how much about yoga remains unknown to me. I seem to guide my yoga classes with a melting pot of yogic thoughts, and sequencing techniques I’ve learned from the yoga teachers I follow (Subtle Yoga being top on my list!). I also share my personal yoga experience with my yoga students. I question whether what I am teaching is authentic yoga? I sometimes think I am simplifying “yoga” to a very westernized practice, so is this respectful?
I don’t have the answers of course, but I think your questions are great. I think we keep asking ourselves, and asking others for guidance as well. As Krsna says in the Gita – “Ask the right questions – the wise ones have the answers.”
Thank you for your thoughtful writing and questions. I have been observing the changes in my yoga communities (most are no longer closing with “Namaste” – which I miss). While I also noticed the latest yoga studio offering Zen and Sip (wine) and glow in the dark hip hop yoga (yes really). I realized that I am also pondering how I offer yoga to others in a respectful way. I intend to keep that at the center of my yoga classes.
wow. You can’t say “Namaste” but you can get wasted and glow in the dark. oy vey. I appreciate your pondering – it’s important. My husband (who’s a psychotherapist) likes to remind me that people will always do crazy stuff. All you can do is move forward and try to do the right thing, regardless of the wackiness that is this moment in history.
Thank you so much for this post, Kristine — balanced, thoughtful, knowledgeable. I have had a formal guru-disciple relationship with an amazing spiritual teacher, in a traditional yoga lineage, since 1997. It TOTALLY revolutionized my life on every level, and continues to do so — but I seldom even mention it in today’s climate of guru-bashing. Yet here I am, feeling safe enough to mention it to YOU, because you get it. 🙏
Thank you Susan and you are quite blessed to have found a good teacher! Om shrii guru bhyo namah!
This is such an important topic and a sensitive one as it connects to faith. I really like your questions, it seems to me that those questions keep us mindful and honest about doing no harm, both to ourselves and others. Religion and spirituality are such a garden with so many beautiful specifies and like all gardens, there is light and shadow, and those are needed for things to grow. Not all shadow is ” bad” and not all light is “good”, too much sun or too much darkness can affect plants/the environment just like it affects people. It is why the ethics of the heart and the check-in with balance are needed. We are after all human, and at our best, we share and are supportive and offer all kinds of healthy connections and caring practices, yet sometimes we do make mistakes. Forgiveness and compassion I think grow along with us. One of my most known teachers said repeatedly the outer guru is only showing/helping lift the veils, opening the way to your own inner guru. The divine qualities of most traditions are the same: compassion, love, appreciation beauty, forgiveness, patience, mercy, courage, and on. I think that is why I became more of an integrative counselor and yoga teacher, because the heart, mind, body, soul/spirit, and the quality of your close relationships ( including with yourself) can become excellent barometers of your values and well-being. I appreciate you! Thank you!
Thank you! Such lovely insights!!