The Urgent Need for Standards in Yoga Teaching

The public has been hoodwinked. What seemed to be a sincere social phenomenon of hope is turning out to be shallow and even dangerous activity. Most of the public has been intimidated by Yoga or just think it is silly. It has been confined to an obsessive minority, a privileged demographic who unwittingly duplicate the misogynistic patterns of muscular gymnastics and male dominance. Mr Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and many teachers within their derivative schools and styles have been called out for verbal, physical, or sexual abuse of students and their assumption of ridiculous spiritual authority. Many brave people are coming forward to share their stories. With great compassion for the Yoga world and for all those who are enamored or repelled, it is time now to see through the hoax of these early experiments with Yoga in the west and add appropriate standards to these brands to make them effective and safe.

My earnest suggestion for many decades has been that we must to go back to the teacher of the teachers: Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and see what he was offering. If the essence of Yoga, the few principles that Krishnamacharya’s scholarship brought forth from the great tradition, were to be included as the standard for teachers to adhere to, the public could rest assured that they would be getting something profoundly useful, rather than a dangerous hit-and-miss affair within the arbitrary methods invented and imposed by false authorities. These would be matters of: the breath, no adjustments, and no interference with the student’s pranic process. Most importantly, the teacher-student relationship must be equal, mutually negotiable, and non-hierarchical. Krishnamacharya was the teacher of the young men who popularized Yoga, yet curiously his principles were left out of the popular styles, and many articles and books about the origins of modern Yoga either leave him out altogether, or project the gymnastic methods of modern Yoga backwards in time onto him to a greater extent than is justifiable.

Many students of Mr Iyengar have brought softness, caring and intelligence to his approach. They are to be commended for this, and the way forward from here is to now include in practice what Mr Iyengar’s Guru actually taught. It is time now to give people a real Yoga education and stop short-changing them. It is a bitter pill to swallow, to acknowledge that you have been swindled. But once you digest the pill, it is a huge relief. I am not being down on any teachers or brands because they are well-meaning, and often giving relief in some ways, yet unwittingly complicit in perpetuating patriarchal patterning. Even the founders were naïve men born into patriarchy and knew no better than to claim authority and make up patterns for the sake of business.  

But you know better than to claim authority and sell another pattern to the already-patterned bodies of the suffering public. I want to assure everyone that their learning in the various schools of Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and others does not have to go to waste. In fact, the entire portfolio of asana that you have learned can be enriched with the wonderful principles that Krishnamacharya brought through from his scholarship and life of practice.

In order to step out of the cultural patterns of patriarchy that have been given to us, we need a whole new framework within which to place Yoga. Small tweaks to flawed systems are not enough. Even now, many of those who are publicly discussing the patriarchal dynamics in Yoga are continuing to teach the performative patterning that is engrained in the public mind as being what Yoga is—the assertive, straight-line, angular alignment (on life that has no straight lines), asana without breath and bandha as their central feature and purpose, muscular struggling as strength without receptivity. The way Yoga is taught today is part of patriarchal patterning that enables abuse. Anthropological studies of rape culture and white supremacy have shown that many behaviors and activities that fall short of outright violence or abuse are actually the supporting grounds for these behaviors and enable them. We could call this the “pyramid of Yoga abuse”—see below. This is not to judge anyone who is teaching within these patterns, but to empower you to step outside of them and inspect them for what they are.

PyramidofYogaDisempowerment1.jpg

The pyramid shows how disempowerment and injury occur through a whole structure of behaviors and norms, some not seen or noticed to be destructive, but which nevertheless create the context in which injury and abuse occur. They are all expressions of the same underlying misunderstanding, which does not recognize the inherent power and intelligence of each person as Life itself.

One thing that this graphic is intended to show is how the obsession with correct ‘alignment’ and the ensuing practice of teachers making gross bodily adjustments or the more polite phrasing of offering “assists” on the student, is a deeply troubling norm and dangerous grounds for abuse. Even when there are not predatory intentions, it normalizes the practice of students deferring to the knowledge of a teacher rather than tuning in to their own intrinsic sensitivity and bodily intelligence. In Yoga, there is no need for manipulation of another’s body. Alignment is not created by the willful mental intention of the teacher and the student’s unfeeling duplication toward an ideal shape. Yoga is the whole body breathing and alignment is created by the breath and the bandha (the intelligent co-operation of muscle groups). Alignment occurs naturally when the breath is understood to be the central feature of the asana and when the student participates in the polarity of strength that is utterly receptive within their own system. 

The whole question of “correct” alignment only arises because Yoga is being taught as the imposition of pre-packaged ideals upon the already-perfect life of the students. For actual Yoga to begin, we must throw out anything which introduces the psychology of an external authority to the intrinsic intelligence of the student: whether this is the teacher presenting as more advanced than others, the glamourizing of extreme gymnastic postures, moods, or energetic states; the wielding of knowledge to make others feel less; or the whole co-optation of Yoga by media-driven ideas of sexiness. Yoga cannot take place within these hidden hierarchies of attainment. Actual Yoga dissolves externalized authority, in all forms, and empowers the student in their own life.

Krishnamacharya was very kind to publicly acknowledge Mr. Iyengar’s teaching work, even though his much younger brother-in-law had left him as a young boy and had not studied with him for many years. Krishnamacharya said that Iyengar “did the best he could.” Privately Krishnamacharya was very upset when the news of Iyengar’s bullying behavior came from Pune. I saw that Krishnamacharaya was frustrated and saddened by this news. He could not understand why it had happened or why western students allowed it and even glorified it. (I have spoken to some early Western students who confessed that it fitted their unconscious ideas of what a good teacher should be like based on their experiences of the English school system, where beatings were still acceptable.) Mr. Iyengar was Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law and the family obligation was felt. I saw a rare visit to the family where Mr. Iyengar confessed, “I am not qualified to teach Yoga, but when the Americans called me Guruji I did not deny it.” With his family, he was contrite and humble. Krishnamacharya remained supportive and generous to his family throughout his life, but he was dismayed with the aggressive direction that Yoga had taken. His son Desikachar left an exciting engineering career and strenuously committed his life to correcting the excesses that had occurred. He felt a great weight of responsibility to make his father’s teaching available in the world because he saw that it was not being made generally available.

In 1992, after studying with my teachers Krishnamacharya and Desikachar since 1973, I went to the U.S. for the first time to find a publisher for Desikachar’s book, The Heart of Yoga. It was a genuine shock to see what was being taught in Yoga studios, as it bore almost no resemblance to what I had been studying. And this was even back before the fashion and prop industries had got on board. Returning to India, I described the situation to Desikachar. He just said, “Please, if you can, do something about this.” He knew that the public was not getting the Yoga teaching that his father had promised his guru to bring to the world. I agreed that the public deserved to know what real Yoga could offer them. 

I was recently travelling and teaching in China, and I was saddened to see teachers continuing to spread these patterns onto sincere Chinese students. I was shocked to see class after class of well-meaning teachers forcefully imposing themselves, pushing malleable bodies and vulnerable bodies with the promise of future attainment. It is fashion, style, media imaging and the charade of Yoga sexiness. It is more of the same world-wide patterning that is creating body dysmorphic dysfunction for women and men. At the same time, it is a dissociation from the actual tradition of actual Yoga, which is each person’s direct intimacy with the power and beauty of their own life. The West has begun to have this conversation but is still imposing its patriarchal Yoga patterns on the East, even selling Yoga brands and styles that are no longer acceptable in some western Yoga contexts. The Chinese students we met did not have an alternative framework. The whole thing must be seen as a hoax for Yoga to begin. Then we practice the Yogas of participation: your direct intimacy with life, not a search for future ideals within hidden hierarchies.

For a proposed list of standards including a downloadable poster version for your teaching space, see the “Standards” page under Resources.