My first yoga teacher was a devoted student of the guru central to one of the most well known scandals in yoga in North America, Kripalu founder Amrit Desai. This was my first encounter with someone who had truly – and literally - bowed at the feet of her guru and experienced the deep spiritual connection and love flowing between guru and student. As most people now know, Desai transgressed those boundaries of spiritual connection and love by sleeping with some of his students. As a married man who demanded celibacy of his followers, he shattered the community he built, leaving disillusioned, grieving students in the wake of his actions. Though this is a matter of public record detailed in books such as Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the True Self, nevertheless, what sticks most in my mind is the love and devotion my teacher continued to feel for him, even after that betrayal, even after knowing all that she did, the underlying sense of forgiveness of his wrongs and gratitude for his teaching.
It brings me to wondering – what does this teach us about how we see our teachers, and our ability to separate the good of what they teach from their inevitable human frailty? Is it even necessary to make this separation – can we accept that even amongst the ideals and principles they aspire to, imperfection is inevitable?
Even without acknowledging our regular teachers as gurus – however we choose to make that distinction – we may still expect some degree of inspiration and role modeling. We expect some degree of moral accountability, whether by showing respect to students by showing up on time and being prepared for class, or living responsibly and showing a sense of community involvement or leadership. Most teachers I know are householders teaching yoga part time and juggling classes with family, school, and other jobs. All inspire me with their commitment, their personal choices, their honour and integrity. Perhaps, by not elevating them to figures of devotion, it is easier for me to learn from them, and continue to respect them.
We tell ourselves we are too modern, too independent, too cynical to fall into an attitude of devotion, but perhaps subconsciously, something within us may still wish to bow at the lotus feet of the guru, and in that attitude of devotion, discover those feet are of clay. And perhaps a shift is needed in the attitude of the student: If we see a guru as a teacher who can bring the student from darkness into light (and we can interpret that as bringing knowledge to ignorance if we wish), who can educate and elevate, then perhaps we can stay free of the sense of submission and devotion that sets up artificially high expectations of their behaviour. Even without the extremity of Desai’s behaviour, we may still be disillusioned by teachers who are constantly injured, who experience breakdown of relationships, who aren’t vegetarians, who don’t look like a yoga journal cover model - who don’t give us what we expect. We may ask ourselves if we can still learn from this teacher. And so this is where we take our responsibility in perception and expectation. Take a step back, listen with your ears, watch with your eyes, bend and fold in the way your teacher asks, and then bow to the guru that silently witnesses, and guides and informs your actions and response; be guided by the guru within.