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Guru or Ego? The Cult of Personality

Updated: Feb 18

Let’s take a look at the changing nature of the teacher-student relationship. It’s no longer Guru-Disciple – but what is it, really?

For millennia, the techniques of yoga were passed down from teacher (guru) to student (shisya) in a sacred exchange. But today, in the booming yoga industry, it's (downward-facing) dog-eat-dog. The Hindu discipline of yoga is big, big business in the West. Teaching yoga has become a favored second career.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali follows the sacred eight-limbed path to enlightenment. The first limb is called "yama" and consists of 5 Sanskrit words that mean don't harm others, lie, steal, lust, or be greedy.

I’m not talking about larger than life public figures like Tiger Woods, Larry King or Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Catholic Church has experienced its fair share of sex scandals and politicians frequently get caught lying or cheating.

Yoga has become cutthroat and many of these yoga celebrities are the biggest thieves, bullies, and sex addicts - all of it under this veil of spirituality. Seekers of enlightenment sometimes get sidetracked, as is the case with several swamis, gurus and world-renowned yoga teachers claiming to be holy, or at least “holier than thou”. But…you decide.


You can't take it anymore. The greed, corruption, and selfishness of the business world have broken your spirit. You need inner peace. You step onto your yoga mat hoping for a little enlightenment: a quiet candlelit room, some gentle stretching, the chanting of mantras, a sage Indian guru dispensing ancient truths.

In walks the resident guru, Bikram Choudhury, a short Indian fellow who sits on the raised-platform throne wearing nothing but a black Speedo swimsuit and a diamond-studded wristwatch.

The heat is cranked up to 105 degrees and for the next 90 minutes, the closest you get to God is praying for this torture to stop. Then, lying in the Corpse Pose when it's all over, you begin meditating: 100 people times $20 apiece = $2,000 for one class; 2,000 students a week = $2 million per year. Given that Bikram has franchised his "hot yoga" method in 600 studios nationwide, and that 600 Bikram teachers will pay $5,000 each for his 60-day crash course this year, that's another $3 million annually. Throw in lecture fees, yoga seminars, books, videos, and a line of clothing and accessories, and Bikram's empire adds up to at least $7 million, making him one of the biggest players in the industry of yoga.

With 350 certified schools worldwide and 12 studios in the New York area alone, Bikram is the hottest form of yoga around. Using a specific sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises, this flamboyant Beverly Hills yogi created the hugely popular “hot yoga”.

In 1992 when Bikram arrived at Kripalu, he shocked every disciple by strutting into the Main Chapel wearing a bright silk robe & hurling F-bombs seated next to Yogi Amrit Desai. Choudhury Bikram is a man who expresses himself without apologies and affectionately refers to his studio as his “torture chamber”.

You ask Bikram about some other forms of hatha yoga you might want to try -- Ashtanga, Iyengar, Jivamukti -- but he scowls at your temerity. "Nobody does hatha yoga in America except me!" he bellows, offering as proof his celebrity students, ranging from George Harrison in 1969 to Madonna and Michael Jackson. "All of them are my students! All of them! ALL OF THEM! My name is Guru of the Stars."

Bikram then brags about his mansion with servants in Beverly Hills and his 30 classic cars, from Rolls-Royces to Bentleys. He also claims to have cured every disease known to humankind and compares himself to Jesus Christ and Buddha. Requiring neither food nor sleep, he says, "I'm beyond Superman."

Bikram has let this guru stuff go to his head but at least he’s honest about it! Still, one megalomaniacal yogi, you solemnly vow, will not derail your search for the pious teacher.


Yoga teacher, Tara Stiles, is finding herself in the middle of the seemingly ongoing debate about the authentic teaching of yoga. Stiles has come under fire for her nonchalant, non-conformist attitude and her capitalization on the business of yoga from fellow teachers and practitioners. Her language is plain and her goal is simply for better physical health. And Stiles, herself, asks the question, “Who made these rules?”

It’s obvious Stiles is no traditional yoga teacher. This “Slim Calm Sexy” author made her mark in New York City breaking the yoga rules.

Stiles is unwilling to pledge allegiance to a guru, a lineage or even a style of yoga. But the big issue is that she doesn’t list where her yoga training came from and says that teacher trainings do not equip yoga teachers to teach – all that plus the fact that she’s represented by The Ford Modeling Agency that isn’t in the mind/body/fitness genre. There is some question as to whether or not this agency is trying to break into the mind/body field and they see the incredible financial potential wrapped within a multi-billion dollar yoga industry.


So, is it rock star-groupie adulation or as many yoga insiders might see it - happy heart-to-heart teacher-student connection? My guess is that it’s somewhere in between.

What’s the nature of the yoga teacher-student relationship, anyway? What’s it supposed to be? We don’t have any clear standards or models.

Traditionally, Hatha yoga was only taught in the context of a strict Guru-Disciple commitment. Today, we have a completely different set-up – but what, precisely, is it?

But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments. While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

Most people don’t come to yoga looking for anything like body-mind integration. But sooner or later, they often experience it anyways. Yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory.

You may be hanging out in Pigeon Pose, trusting your teacher to lead you through this intense hip opening, trusting yourself to let go of your everyday mind for the moment, breathing deeply, becoming absorbed in the immediate experience, when BOOM! Seemingly out of the blue, an intense wave of emotion rises up and washes right through you.

It may come as a complete shock that yoga poses (asana) can unlock such strong feelings. Deeply buried emotions unavailable to the conscious mind are imprinted in our bodies (samskaras). An effective yoga class can facilitate the release of powerful, but previously unconscious feelings. Such dynamics can put yoga teachers into a fraught interpersonal space.

While I’ve never experienced rock star-like intense adulation as a teacher (oh well), I may as well admit that I’ve put some of my yoga teachers on pedestals as well. I also experienced one brief, but intense crush on a teacher that I knew was completely irrational. As a student, I know what it feels like to unwittingly transfer some of the strong emotions released through asana practice onto a teacher. While I knew that my crush was irrational, I still felt the feelings, but I was able to disentangle myself from them pretty quickly.

One of the strong emotions that comes up for a lot of students is an unmet, unconscious desire for an idealized teacher/parent figure who is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-embracing of them. In fact, certain postures are meant to open your heart which can result in a misplaced crush. Psychologically, this desire is transferred onto the yoga teacher – not deliberately or even consciously, but powerfully nonetheless. It’s called Transference.

A student unlocks powerful emotions, unconsciously transfers them onto the teacher, and the teacher – rather than sensing what’s going on and working with it appropriately – is triggered into wanting to reinforce these projections in order to meet her own unconscious emotional needs. In psychological terms, this is known as “counter-transference.” put your teacher up on a pedestal. Unbeknownst to you, your teacher is not an enlightened being, but rather a normal person with lots of insecurities – and, in this case, a deep unconscious need for people to admire her as exceptional, knowledgeable, spiritual, or whatever. So when you and other students gaze up at them with insecurity-soothing adoration in your eyes, they unconsciously do their best to keep that dynamic going.

This can be done in many ways, ranging from the subtle to the punitive. Either way, narcissism is a core problem capable of polluting teacher-student relationships.

When there are narcissistic traits in a teacher (grandiosity and need for admiration) and narcissistic vulnerabilities in the student (the need to be attached to an idealized person who approves and confirms worth), the two will mutually reinforce narcissistic pedagogy. The learner gains approval; the teacher gains compliance and admiration. And while it’s almost certain that neither teacher nor student consciously wants this to happen, it can – and all too often does – happen nonetheless. It’s a co-dependent relationship that’s bad for both teacher and student alike.

Boundaries are non-negotiable. People don’t have to like them but they do have to respect them. Yoga teachers are in a position of spiritual power and therefore should be held to higher moral standards. As yoga teachers, they are supposed to think about the student not about themselves. It is inappropriate for teachers to hit on their students. People have gifted them their trust and that gift must be treasured.

The way in which yoga is taught today typically has strong built-in protections against the abuses that can occur when teacher-student relationships really get out of hand. Since they’re typically only together for classes, they aren’t subject to the crazy intensity that can build up one-on-one or in a live-in community/ashram. Jack Kornfield writes insightfully about how spiritual communities have always had to deal with even more vexing teacher-student issues.

However, with as many as 15 million people practicing yoga it is discouraging that many students confess that a yoga teacher had been sexually inappropriate with them.

The Greek plays, the Indian Vedas, the African tribal myths, the Zen koans wrestle with these forces, which have shaped our human lot since ancient times. To believe in a spiritual life with no shadow is to imagine a sky where the sun always stays at noon.

This is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. It’s not uncommon for gurus to fall from grace, unable to stay balanced atop their pedestal indefinitely. It’s cliché but true, the higher we place them, the further they have to fall. Which raises the question, why are we placing our yoga teachers and other spiritual leaders way up there in the first place


Put a man at the front of a room packed with adoring females and trouble lurks nearby. From celebrity yogis having multiple affairs with students, to allegations of forced sex within global yoga franchises, the gurus getting grabby in class, yoga is no sanctuary from scandal.

Swami Muktananda (1908-1982) was an Indian man of great charisma who favored dark glasses and gaudy robes. In late 1981, when a senior aide charged that the venerated yogi was in fact a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite who used threats of violence to hide his duplicity, Mr. Muktananda defended himself as a persecuted saint. Joan Bridges was one of his lovers. At only 26 years old to his 73, she had a difficult time finding fault with a man she regarded as a virtual god beyond law and morality.

Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002) was the superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock. A former devotee shouted from the audience, “how can you call yourself a spiritual instructor when you have molested me and other women?”

Swami Rama (1925-1996) was a tall man with a strikingly handsome face. In 1994, one of his victims filed a lawsuit charging that he had sexually abused her at his Himalayan Institute while she was a student there. He lost the $1.9 million judgment.

Rodney Yee, the man Time magazine called the "stud muffin" of yoga, was sued by a former teacher at Yee's studio in Oakland, Calif. The teacher claimed that Yee refused to let her teach there after she confronted him about his alleged sexual affairs with students. After the lawsuit was filed, one of Yee's former students, Athena Pappas, released a statement saying that when her affair with him began, she was "vulnerable and sought his help as my teacher." Another former student has also said publicly that she felt manipulated in her sexual relationship with Yee.

The fact that Yee has appeared everywhere from People to Yoga Journal, preaching about how yoga has helped his marriage and family life with three children, hasn't done much for his credibility. Following the 2002 lawsuit, he acknowledged he had sexual relationships with his students. Yee said, “I’ve never had one-night affairs, but deep friendships that moved into sexuality.” Yee is now divorced and remarried to Colleen Saidman, one of his students.

In 1994, Amrit Desai of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lennox, Mass., resigned after admitting that he'd had affairs with three female followers - an ironic development, given that he'd made celibacy a cornerstone of his teaching.

In fact, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for high standards in 1995.

The Speedo-clad Bikram thinks the gurus are the ones being victimized. Defending the behavior of Yee and Desai, Bikram says he himself was actually blackmailed several times into having sex with students. "What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?" he says. "What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone's life." Really?

In 2010, yoga teacher Steven Jon Roger was sentenced to jail for sexual misconduct in Colorado. In the “Graspin’ Aspen” case, Roger’s guilty verdict will require him to register as a sex offender. Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., commented that unlawful touching of female students by male yoga teachers happens all the time and it won’t stop until victims start speaking up.

In many styles of yoga, teachers touch students to adjust their pose. But touching an erogenous body part is unacceptable and unethical. I remember a class with David Swenson called Hands-on Adjustment. When appropriate, a good adjustment can be as simple as a finger bringing awareness to an area. He cautioned us to avoid “high voltage areas” and if you do accidentally brush or touch, to admit and apologize. Wise words!

Unfortunately for the victims, cases cannot be prosecuted without victims’ disclosing their identities. In the case of yoga teacher and author, Mark Stephens, his victims were married women with children because he knew they aren’t going to leave their husbands if they have kids. One of his victims says she was in a pose, and he came over and wrapped his whole

body around her. In another class, he came up behind her while in downward facing dog and thrusted into her from behind. You rarely see male teachers doing this to male students! Honestly…there is no reason for full-contact style adjusting.

Even if a woman does speak up, what will happen? Most yoga teachers don’t have licenses to strip away. The industry remains largely unregulated. There is no yoga organization likely to kick you out and keep you from teaching. In fact, while Stephens was terminated from the studio he taught at, he just opened up his own studio. And the allegations against Stephens get worse (i.e. rape) which I won’t get into here. It’s very disturbing since this is a yoga teacher that trains others to be yoga teachers!

The wholesome image of yoga took another hit. The latest attention sucking scandal involves John Friend, the creator of Anusara Yoga, who was accused of and apologized in a public interview about sexual misconduct with students, teachers and married women. The New York Times labeled Friend the “Yoga Mogul” and compared him to a rock star, claiming female students flocked to him, giggling as they encircled him and pressed hotel keys into his hands. (Which at the time he denied.)

Not only was he accused of using his position to have sex with followers, there were allegations over pension freezing and violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) as well as shipping drugs to the homes of his assistants. One of the largest growing yoga schools in the world, it’s shocking to discover that the leader of this influential yoga system is not walking his talk. And the apparent hypocrisy upset many followers.

Everyone involved in John’s scandalous world made a choice except in one area; his alleged freezing of people’s pensions (FYI, messing with people’s livelihood even by accident is never ideal). The smoking and transportation of marijuana and the pension info was largely ignored. But not to the many senior Anusara yoga teachers that severed all ties to Friend, ending the future of Anusara Yoga. But then again, people are more interested in sex scandals anyway, right?

In January 2010, John Friend illegally froze his employee’s pension plan without notifying any of them. This was an illegal act. This paints a whole new perspective on the innerworkings of one of the most popular yoga corporations and the misdoings of its grand leader.

In December 2011, the US Department of Labor intervened and Anusara responded by passing out RETROACTIVE notices of the pension amendment — backdated to January 2010 — and communicated to the employees they had simply “forgotten” to do so previously and attempted to leave it at that. In January 2012, the US Department of Labor stepped in again, informing Anusara that the illegal act had not been remedied by passing out retroactive notices. They offered Anusara the chance to bring the pension fund up to date and into compliance to avoid being cited and penalized for their illegal freezing of the pension funding. This would be enough for us to quit too.

While not the most shocking of all new-agey revelations, John was also accused of endangering Anusara assistants by having packages of marijuana delivered to various places, requiring employees to accept illegal substances on his behalf. I remember sitting in a workshop with about 200 other yogis with John talking about smoking pot on top of a mountain in California with a well-known mantra musician while chanting together.

Casey Schwartz writes, “Becoming a yoga teacher allows an insecure person to act spiritually superior. But the dynamic is two-sided. For the yoga teacher to become inflated, the student must inflate.” Not only are yoga instructor’s egos becoming over-inflated, but their students are becoming more like rock-band groupies than detached seekers of truth. This in turn fuels the egotistical nature of their teachers, and thus drives this ego-driven process to repeat over and over.

Both teachers and students need to be aware of the effects of spiritual materialism and the dangers of placing their teachers up on pedestals. Mariana Caplan describes spiritual materialism as the use of “spirituality to gain power, prestige, recognition, and respect and even to avoid our own troubles.” There are any number of different forms that spiritual materialism can manifest both on and off our yoga mats, and no yogi is immune from its effects.

We live in a different world now, one of power yoga practiced in the gym rather than meditation at an Indian ashram under the banyan tree. Some see their teacher as they would any other fitness pro. Others genuinely seek enlightenment, an emotional as well as a physical release. In either case, it's inappropriate for teachers to hit on their students. Rusty Wells says, “If it feels wrong; it is wrong.”

Imagine you are back on your mat….lying in Corpse Pose, enlightenment dawns:

There are thousands of devoted teachers out there. You just don't hear about them because they're not driven by riches or fame. To them yoga is not a business at all, but a service through which they simply provide themselves with life's necessities - the very definition of aparigraha (non-possessiveness).

Each teacher is more mentor than “guru”. In reality, the only true guru is the one within – the Sat Guru. That doesn’t negate the fact that I have profound admiration for our teachers (gurus), without whose guidance we would never have come to know that yoga is just a tool. It’s up to us to use it wisely.

The teachers that I respect the most are people who hold great wisdom and power, but work in such ways that they support me in empowering myself (not them)!

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