Yoga is Not a Cult: Boundaries and Perspective

In 2013 and early 2014, my yoga practice crashed. For two years, I had an active and passionate practice. I was in terrible health. Weak in body and exhausted in mind. I walked into my first anusara-inspired fundamentals class and couldn’t walk the next day.

But I got up and kept going.

I nursed an ankle that suffered two fractures and a poor recovery, that was often swollen and left me unable to run or walk. I nursed a soul that was yearning for more. I nursed a brain that was exhausted by nothing but constant fire drills and work stress (which is normally something on which I thrive).

I had a home studio, but called myself a yoga gypsy. I practiced everywhere. With everyone. I spent two. painstaking. years. building enough strength and flexibility to do wheel.

I spent almost three just to be able to occasionally kick up into a handstand against the wall.

I rehabbed my ankle, and had the privilege of traveling to work with some awesome yoga teachers. Elena Brower. Desiree Rumbaugh. Noah Maze. Darren Rhodes. My own teachers and coaches Roxanne Krumanacher and Danielle Tridenti. Many more. There are very very few yoga teachers in St. Louis I have not practiced with and I generally enjoyed all of their approaches. I took what they offered and integrated it into my practice.

I learned crazy awesome things from Sell and Brower and still have my notes from those workshops. I fixed my down dog and shoulders with Justicia DeClue.

I made this awesome group of sister witch yogi friends. Many of my friends from outside of yoga joined me.

My yoga practice became a defining feature of who I was. Gradually my health improved. I got stronger. I began to lose weight. I changed my diet.

And then I discovered ashtanga, which remains a major part of my practice to this day.

But along with ashtanga came a teacher who lacked the boundaries and perspective necessary. I don’t blame him because it’s kind of an awful community in some ways. Let me be clear, there is so much in ashtanga I love. The rigor, the ever changing nature of the same series. The self transformation. I routinely listen to the owner of Hilltop Yoga in Lansing Michigan (whom I have never met, but a friend of mine was her former student) teach. Lecture on the sutras.

I had several really inspirational workshops and practices with very well known Ashtanga instructors. I read the teachings of Sri K Patthabi Jois and Sharath Jois and most of what they say resonates.

But, as Kino MacGregor recently said, “teachers have a sacred duty to their students.”

As a lawyer who represents people who are hurt, this duty is sacred to me. And in most professions — medicine, law, mental health — that duty comes with ethical responsibilities.

After a year, my practice stalled, and I felt terrible about myself. As though I was in constant competition with the very people I needed the most in my life. As though the fact that I had a career was an impediment to yoga that I needed to rid myself of.

Every day I was on the mat, I felt like a failure. I felt alienated from the rest of the yoga community that I loved. As though taking a yin class or playing in a workshop or different tradition was a betrayal.

What happened to me with this teacher, the way he infected my marriage, my friendships, my job was not half as bad as what happened to several of my friends who are teachers and skilled ashtangis in their own right. The level of competition they faced from their teacher and colleague was reminiscent of the Bella Karolyi horror stories. The degree to which he interfered with their lives would be actionable in any profession with an ethical board.

It hit a place of such toxicity that I ran.

What Elena Brower once said, in describing the pain of leaving the Anusara community and her relationship with John Friend resonated more than anything:

John seemed threatened, sad, unsure and at times, unsteady. Several of us tried to talk to him about it, only to be met with denial and even sometimes anger, which in many cases drove us, in our own personal ways, into old patterns of wanting to please our “parents”: backtracking, questioning ourselves, adding to the mounting pile of lies, assuaging him so we could stay in his good graces, feel safe, and keep our lives in order. That part might be the saddest part, and the part about which I’m personally most sorry, this repeating of family patterns in this professional context.

This was what hit me the most. The replaying of old patterns I had worked so hard to end.

And so I ran.

I didn’t run from yoga itself, the beauty of the primary series is that I could do it on my own, four years of 6 yoga classes a week gave me enough of a sense of how to create the practice I need.

But i ran from all my teachers.

I ran from my community.

I lost my grace.

At a time when I needed the yoga community the most, I ran to a barn and hid there for two years. I leased a horse within six months of returning to riding lessona. I continued leasing horses until I bought Beau. And yoga became something I did at home to stretch for riding. It became exercise. It became a way to be stronger and more flexible in the saddle, something my great friend Kelly Hogan made a video about, in part, for people like me.

But what I discovered through a series of some of the most talented hunter trainers in the midwest is that a sane relationship with my trainer was not as an acolyte. It was not as a fan. It was not as anything more than a teacher. Our relationships had boundaries. I ended one when it became too personal. I added a component of life coaching to another as a way to further my equestrian education without blurring lines.

And it was only in the last six months when, after virtually non-stop travel, I returned to yoga. I just started going to classes in studios out of town. Practicing more intentionally in hotel rooms.

When my health got bad again this summer, I just showed up for a class with my first teacher. And since August, I have been slowly rebuilding my spiritual yoga practice. my yoga community. My commitment to myself. To self care. To transformation. To working at my edge.

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But I carry those lessons with me. I won’t take classes with my close friends. I’ll practice with them, mysore style, me still struggling with the binds of marichyasana and last third of the primary series. But I choose boundaries. I choose healthy, stable relationships.

When I get in the saddle and jump and feel like I will NEVER jump 2’6, I compete against myself. When I get on my mat and feel like I will NEVER had the shoulder strength for a push up handstand, I compete against myself.

And I yet, I realize that these are parts of me. That my strength as a human is not defined by my ability to float forward in a pike position. My strength as a human is defined by my ability to stand up and fight for people who need my help. Yoga and riding support and build THAT strength. They support me as a person.

I choose teachers who see that in me. Who have perspective about goals in life.

I wish our various yoga communities did a better job of teaching its teachers about the ethics of the teacher/student relationship. But I have learned my lesson. And so I no longer look for teachers who expect me to follow them. I take each for what they have to offer and express gratitude for their teaching.

Yoga is not a cult. Yoga teachers are not therapists or doctors or even, with very few exceptions, spiritual leaders, and they have not been trained to be. They people, often luminous people, who brighten our world and teach us ways to access the inaccessible. Just like the trainers who teach me to jump my horse.

It’s a relationship that requires boundaries and perspective. But with that, the yoga community has returned so much richness back to my life and helped me heal from a relationship.

Yoga is a whole life practice. The practice may ruin your life, but the teachers and the community should not break you.

Guruji

Gratitude for the teachers and trainers who are continually putting me back together.

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One thought on “Yoga is Not a Cult: Boundaries and Perspective

  1. Beautiful and thought provoking. You may practice law but would also do very well as a motivational speaker/life coach, in my humble opinion.

    Inspired me, at any rate!

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