1: a personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism
2a : a teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern
b : one who is an acknowledged leader or chief proponent
c : a person with knowledge or expertise
I recently binge listened to 30 For 30's podcast all about Bikram Choudhury. The podcast dives deep into the 26 posture practice he "developed", the yoga teacher's rise to fame, the students who have been greatly influenced by him (for better or for worse), and the disgusting accusations that have driven students and studio owners to distance themselves from the man behind the yoga trend that has swept the world.
Although the podcast covers content I'm already familiar with, the five-part series brilliantly shines light on the dark side of yoga culture. Bikram's story is not special. A male yogi from India comes to America and gets famous for teaching yoga to celebrities and claims he can fix the ill. He acquires millions of devoted students and then feeds on those who put their trust in him. A quick Google search can give you the names of a handful of other yoga teachers who have walked a similar path to Bikram. It's gross, unsettling, and a big reason I've questioned my occupation for many years.
I hadn't considered the word "guru" until I was in my first 200-Hour Teacher Training in 2009. During a lecture on Sanskrit and pranayama one of my teachers referred to the lecturer as "Guruji" while asking him a question. She was referring to him as an expert, a spiritual guide. This man most definitely was an expert and guide, but I instantly paused at the title of "Guruji". With the quick addition of a title this man was put on a pedestal. He suddenly become powerful in my mind.
Some would say Bikram was/is a guru. Bikram was an expert in his field and offered guidance on how his students could survive on and off their yoga mats. Just as I allowed the term guru to elevate the lecturer in my first teacher training, millions of Bikram practitioners have elevated the man behind the practice to a level of power that became problematic. He exploited his power. He used his power in ugly, cruel ways. He, along with many other high level yoga teachers and spiritual guides, have made me wonder if I should continue on my path as a yoga teacher.
A few years ago I was leading a yoga teacher training when a student asked, "How did you find your guru?" I gave this student a blank stare. She then went on to ask if I had studied in India and had a guru there. Again, I stared blankly. Eventually I collected my thoughts and explained I had an influential teacher in San Francisco, but wouldn't consider him to be my guru. I gathered the student was dissatisfied with my answer.
A year or so ago I had a student refer to me as her guru through a social media post. I don't want to diminish this sweet student's show of respect toward me, however the post made me a little uncomfortable. If I take the above definition of the word into consider I suppose some would consider me to be a guru. I've put a great deal of time and effort into my studies. Through those studies I have a lot of knowledge to offer, however I'm no expert. I'm definitely no spiritual or religious guide.
Perhaps this all just means I have a weird, unsure relationship with the term guru. Perhaps the ongoing issues with yoga teachers exploiting their power as educators and guides steers me from labeling someone as a guru. Perhaps the simplicity of not considering myself or many of my teachers as Hindu paves the way for me not even consider the title.
I've said it once, and I know I'll say it many more times, it's all about power. I do not blame the victims of Bikram's disgusting deeds for putting their teacher on a pedestal and handing him power. They trusted him. They believed in him and the practice he provided. The practice had offered so many of them a method to heal, cope, and revitalize their lives. Why wouldn't they put that man on a pedestal? Bikram is the villain, not the yoga. Bikram didn't realize he was simply the vessel in which the teachings are meant to be offered through. He was a crappy vessel, but he offered a method that'll hopefully outlive his distasteful name.
Bikram and many other influential yoga teachers have given all of us in the yoga world important concepts to consider. Yoga teachers shouldn't guide the practice to be powerful. Yoga teachers shouldn't guide the practice to be famous. Yoga teachers definitely shouldn't guide the practice for the money. Yoga teachers should guide the practice because they have a calling to offer up a method that benefits a student's physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing without the need to be the star of the show.