Self-Reliance – A Homage to Emerson

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I have received frequent inquiries from practitioners who find it difficult to continue their practice in the light of the abuse revelations and also the continued denial or non-addressing by many teachers. This article is about how we can deal with these issues, re-frame what happened and ultimately reclaim our practice.

If the abuse revelations can teach us anything then it would be that projecting godliness, perfection or spiritual powers on anybody is neither good for the projector nor the one on whom they are projected. Most of my spiritual teachers have fallen into the trap that they let the adoration of their followers go to their head. Facing that I went through a fair bit of disappointment and resentment and I often asked myself, “how could they”? But I realize now that this was and is easy for me to say because I could learn from their negative role model. I equate being adored by my students with downfall as I saw my teachers fall. The lesson here clearly is if you project superhuman qualities onto a human, their human frailty will soon stand-out much clearer for all to see. I have therefore learned to pre-empt such projection by telling in the right moment stupid jokes about myself. It seems to always work. The great lesson that we have learned then as teachers is to not let your students idolize, lionize or deify you. It may have a sweet beginning but always a bitter end. Better stay off that pedestal and remind students of your weaknesses.

The other thing that we have learned is that projecting unrealistic expectations and qualities on our teachers is not good for the students either. We try to live our yoga dreams through our teachers because we think it’s too hard to reach them ourselves. By talking us into that they are an embodiment of everything we’d like to reach we believe that some of their greatness is reflected on us without us actually doing anything for it, it just rubs off on us. You simply join a movement and by proxy you attain part of the greatness of the respective teacher. But that never works. We are kidding ourselves!

The abuse revelations not only in Ashtanga but in so many other current movements show us that we can’t wait for other people to fulfill or even represent our yoga dreams. We have to rely on ourselves. And if we are not used to that it can look like a hard thing to do. I am again reminded having a conversation with a friend over 20 years ago about the fact that our teacher at the time was possibly not the person we made him out to be. She said to me, “It sounds too difficult to rely on myself in spiritual matters. I just want to find a person that I can totally devote myself to and they sort out all my problems in return”. Now in hindsight it sounds totally laughable but it’s exactly this attitude that enabled the abuse. If there had not been a large network of people who needed to devote themselves and needed to adore KP Jois he could not have done what he did and could not have become who he became.

While it is important to name and call out the abuser, after all that is done we need to look at the support structure that we, the Ashtanga movement provided and of course in this regard Ashtanga is not different from any other spiritual movement. This need to adore, this need to devote to a leader and this need to project capabilities away from ourselves onto others is nothing new and even the fight against it, the call to take ones power back is nothing new either. Take for example Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, written by the great American Transcendentalist in 1841. While the ideas expressed in Self-Reliance may not have been invented by Emerson, he became the first conduit through which they expressed themselves eloquently. Prior to Emerson, when you felt something was wrong or your needs were not met you mainly complaint to or about the government, the church or any other authority you believed to be powerful. Emerson said, don’t wait, don’t complain but do it yourself and do it now.

While some may call this yet another example of neo-conservativism or neoliberalism, it is apparent that Emerson’s call co-created in the United States of the 19th century a culture that believed that the only person that stopped you from becoming who you could become was you. Look what a change this self-responsibility made possible? I do think it is such a call for self-reliance is again needed in today’s spiritual culture. Self-reliance also helps with developing non-conformity, another idea that Emerson developed. Truth is something, so Emerson, that you find while reflecting on your own self ideally alone in nature and not by conforming to group pressure around you. Groups and communities are only too easily lead by demagogues and charlatans over the next cliff.

If teachers do not meet your ethical standards you may consider practising alone. Teachers can only continue to ignore the abuse issues because students keep supporting them and thus enable the enablers of abuse. Teachers are really just giants with clay feet. If students withdraw from them, their feet and thus the whole tower of deception will crumble and come down. Don’t say, “uh my teacher just won’t change, just won’t apologize”. You will find out that if you change, your teacher will change, too. They will have to change if they start losing students. Try it out. It works like magic!

At this point it is easy to simply drop out, thinking that if the teacher is corrupt the method must be corrupt. But what if there is nobody that could lead you in this quest? What if you have to lead yourself and find your own way in the dark? What if this yoga needs your contribution and your support?

It is this attitude of self-reliance that we need to find within us. When we start yoga we often do it for community reasons, to find a community of like-minded. We may also look for some messiah-type leader to lead us out of the darkness. But all of these things are actually forms of external stimuli. The true meaning of the term pratyahara is independence from external stimuli.

Pratyahara means that practice-wise we stand on our own feet. We do not practice because of the amazing teacher. We do not practice because of the support we get from the outside, from the community around us (although we may take that as nice boons if it works out but shouldn’t compromise when it doesn’t). We practice because deep inside we actually want to. Because the practice (in its many forms, not just asana) brings us back to that place within us where we are whole. So practising yoga is nothing but a return to our origin, a return to our own heart, or the self, in Emerson’s words.

This whole affair really shows us that we have to separate the teaching from the teacher. Practice independently of whether the so-called authorities are flawed or not. Practice because of yourself, because of your freedom (miraculously then you will find that this freedom will also give you the freedom to act selflessly). Notice that in the book Guruji- A Portrait, the yoga took a complete backseat and it was made out to be all about the teacher. As the saying goes, “Only from total devotion to the guru does Jnana flow. Signed by the guru”.

I want to encourage you to take the opposite attitude. It’s the system of practices that brings you freedom and the teacher is (ideally) totally irrelevant. A good teacher is merely a catalyst that steps back more and more as the student becomes established in the practices and discourages the student to place any importance on the personage of the teacher. The teacher is only there to aid the student in reclaiming the practice as their own.

(Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1859)

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.
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Gregor Maehle began his practice of Raja Yoga in 1978 and added Hatha Yoga a few years later. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion. Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Gregor! An important article in my eyes. Although I love the (Ashtanga) Yoga practice, and I am now quite dedicated to it, I was often very irritated (even before the abuse by Jois was getting public) about the whole atmosphere of idolisation of more or less famous teachers in the scene. My clear mind (and open heart) could never really accept the total submission to some guru as a necessary condition for real liberation(Yoga, isnt it?!). It just felt and feels psychological unmature and full of manipulation. But very difficult to deal with, if you are a beginner in postural yoga and advanced students and teachers are presenting this “kissing” of the feet of a Guru (like literally in this New York video with Jois…)as the right way. So, I am very very happy that you as a serious voice in the Ashtanga community criticize in clear words this whole, people in the bitter end or beginning, manipulating guru-concept. And point to (spiritual) self responsibility. This gives me really hope for the Ashtanga community! And 8 plus limbs 🙂 All the best!
    Silvo Lahtela, writer

    • Thanks, Silvo. I do believe that projecting superpowers onto spiritual teachers is based on reliving ones bond to ones primary carer during early infancy. We realized at one point that our parents were fallible and flawed humans as we all are. I would be easy if we could just run into this all-good father or mother who makes us whole but growing up in a spiritual sense means to withdraw this projection. You can see how this process is taking place by actions of spiritual groups (such as the catholic church) being now critically examined. Everybody who deems himself as standing above another person, whatever their claim to fame, will come crashing down. We’ve held these superstitions for such a long time that we don’t recognize their inherent non-sense. Spirituality and stratification/ hierarchy are antithetical. Spiritual learning can only take place among equals. If the message is that we are all children of the one Divine then the conduit (the student/teacher relationship) must partake of the message and reflect this radical equality rather than stratification and hierarchy.
      Greetings
      Gregor

      • Yeah, I too think that this more or less unconscious childhood conncetion makes the adult misbehaviour so powerful, neurotic on autopilot . – By the way, as a psychological decriptive tool there is this useful term of the Jungian Depth Psychology: “inflation”, – which describes the process when a person is so identitfied with a sublime or overwhelming content, god for instance, that the person starts to feel itself like god. Mix some needy or naive followers in the picture and you have a very classical and unhealthy mix.
        Hey, if I have time I will try to join one of your european workshops …:-)
        🙏
        Silvo

  2. Dear Gregor,
    First many many thanks for your contribution to what I see as maintaining sanity.
    The “ashtanga situation” makes me think: Someone, or maybe a few, forgot to do Svadhyaya. It is very human to forget to do something that often requires a lot of continued hard and unpleasant work. In a Twelve Step fellowship, I met what I now think of as the most basic part of Svadhyaya, the Fourth Step: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” Through the twelve-step work I understood, there is only one (1) (singular) ego on the face of this planet that I can change, and also that I, working with that particular ego, will probably have more than enough to do for a few lifetimes, at least 😉
    nb! Twelve-step work cannot be done alone, and the single largest challenge could be to find the humility to ask for help – often only intense suffering could bring that about.
    Many many kind regards plus ;-)s, Jens-Henrik

    • Dear Jens-Henrik,
      Thanks for your contribution. You are right, this moral inventory is often not made and that’s how the concept that a single individual can be perfect and can embody these super-human qualities all by themselves. In the role of the “guru” they are then completely isolated and can never ask for help until the facade crumbles and all comes crashing down. I do hope that the spiritual subculture has learned enough to not continue these sort of projections on spiritual father (and in some cases mother) figures, too, and that moving forward we can only evolve together as a culture and community.
      Hope this finds you well
      Greetings to Denmark
      Gregor

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