Monday, March 26, 2012
Yoga, Sex, & Spiritual Teachers
It is disappointing to read of esteemed yoga teachers having sex with their students, to hear of titillating nude yoga videos and calendars, and even to see the photos of sexy yoga teachers, both male and female, selling everything from themselves to cars. Fame, fortune and beauty, promoted by yoga magazines and advertisers and enjoyed by their readers, infiltrate even the rarified pure heights of yoga.
For clarity purposes, let me begin by explaining that I use the term “yoga” not just to refer to the physical postures known as “hatha yoga,” but to yoga’s true and original reference (which has a double meaning): first, to those disciplines of body and mind intended to refine and elevate one’s consciousness above identification with body and personality, and second, to the state of oneness with pure Consciousness which is the goal of such practices.
To those who share spiritual-truth teachings, including the ancient and sacred art and science of yoga, Jesus Christ gave this warning: (paraphrasing) “all those who go before me are thieves and robbers.” Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the now classic, Autobiography of a Yogi) explained that Jesus’ words refer to those teachers who draw the attention of their students to themselves – rather than to the pursuit of Self-realization.
In one book review I scanned, the author claimed that the origins of hatha yoga came from certain sexual tantric practices. I am not versed enough in the history of hatha yoga to offer any factual rebuttal except to respond with dismay and disdain. That author’s analysis is as shallow and transparent as his motivation seems to be, but his assertion, however ignorant, poses a question that I feel ought to be addressed squarely: is there some hidden or intrinsic connection between the practice of yoga and sexual stimulation?
According to both modern research and local tradition, yoga practice (whether physical or mental) comes to us from at least five thousand years ago. It is widely believed that yoga precepts and disciplines originated in an age of higher consciousness. That some debase these practices (indeed any and all spiritual practices, not just yoga) for ego gratification is not a new story — this has happened in religion and spirituality since time immemorial. History provides ample proof that a religious vocation as teacher or priest is no guarantee of freedom from sexual desire or temptation. In most traditional and orthodox religious practices, the taboo barring sexual contact between teachers (including priests etc.) and students (members, parishioners, etc.) is fixed and absolute. Given human shortcomings, it is no wonder that some renunciates resort to suppression, and no wonder, as we know all too well, that sometimes even tragic consequences can result.
Yoga, by contrast, is, in certain respects, just the opposite. Rather than reject the body and the material world, yoga guides us toward greater awareness of the powerful and intelligent energies of the body. The purpose of this stimulation, however, is not sensual indulgence. The risk of temptation to do so, however, is the nub of the issue here today.
Yoga has, since ancient times, affirmed a truth that modern science has only recently validated: that matter is a form of energy. Yogis go further to say that energy, in its turn, is a manifestation of consciousness. The deeper purpose of yoga is to redirect our identification with the physical body (and its senses) into, first, an awareness of and identification with the energy of life force that animates the body, and, then, more deeply still, into an awareness and self-identity with the consciousness that intelligently guides that energy.
This process, admittedly esoteric for most westerners, is the explanation for the process through which the soul rediscovers its innate divinity, its true nature as a child of God. The ultimate goal of this realization of our higher and true Self is to achieve Oneness with the Godhead.
People are drawn to yoga for its many benefits: physical, mental, and spiritual. In the physical practices of hatha yoga the body is, superficially, the object of one’s interest and attention. In modern yoga classes, men and women mix together and the clothing worn during such classes for the practice of hatha yoga generally tends to reveal male and female physiques. While this might be distracting, for most students it is of no more than a passing interest.
As the yoga student progresses, he or she becomes more inwardly self-aware, and discovers the innate intelligence, joyful vitality, and latent powers which animate the physical body and its senses. In time (or for some even initially), the focus may shift from physical health to the goal of achieving lasting and consistent contact with the suprasensory states of higher (and blissful) consciousness.
In yogic terminology, one learns how to withdraw his consciousness from the physical senses inward to the “tree (or river) of life” (one’s “center”) where the fruits of the (Holy) Spirit are tasted: joy, calmness, peace, love, and healing vitality, to name a few. In time and with deeper practice the yogi offers his energies, consciousness, and life upward to God in the spirit of devotion and self-offering.
Not surprisingly, therefore, wise yoga teachers warn us that yogic practices will enhance the power of the senses and one must be careful to not lose sight of the longer-term goal. Yoga devotees are schooled in the need for devotion and humility and are taught that self-effort alone is not enough to achieve salvation. Grace, too, is needed. The liberating power of divine grace comes in response to the intensity of our effort and the purity of our intention. (Some fundamentalist Christians, in fact, accuse yoga as denying the power of grace, relying, instead, upon ego-motivated self-will. But this is not a correct understanding of yoga.)
There is yet another spiritual trap that awaits the aspiring yogi: one that is even more deeply embedded into our psyche: the ego! The ego is necessarily energized as our intelligent life force ascends through yoga practice towards the brain on its journey to the highest spiritual energy center at the point between the eyebrows. It would be a detour to launch into further explanation of these energy centers (known as “chakras”). Suffice to say that the gift of free will and individual self-awareness is ours to keep lifetime after lifetime until we willingly offer ourselves into the transforming and liberating power of the divinity. In the end we give up nothing and in return we gain infinity itself. But the long-entrenched vitality of our mortal delusion resists mightily, fearing its own dissolution.
Advanced stages of yoga practice bring with them both expanded consciousness and powers even over objective reality. Patanjali , the Indian sage who wrote the “bible” of yoga (the Yoga Sutras), enumerates these powers that come as the soul advances toward freedom, and, by implication, the temptations. As Jesus Christ was tempted by Satan with dominion over all creation, so, too, Patanjali warns us, will we when we, too, stand on the brink of Infinity. Do we not face a similar choice every day, when we are tempted to act selfishly instead of nobly?
As “pride goeth before the fall,” ego is the first and last hurdle of the soul to overcome. Greater than sensory temptation is this foe who is also our greatest friend on our prodigal soul’s journey back to God.
Not surprisingly, and not unlike spiritual and religious traditions everywhere, celibacy (or at least moderation) and ethical behavior are among the prerequisites for receiving the knowledge of the yoga science. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Patanjali details the “rules” in his description of the Eight-Fold Path in its first two steps: the “yamas” and “niyamas.”
Unfortunately, the practice of yoga in the West is too often presented on the basis of health (which is easily turned in the direction of bodily glorification) and thus finds itself stripped of its foundation in devotion, self-control, and openness to the transforming power of divine grace.
Further, we in the West emphasize self-effort and personal liberties. We expect, perhaps even demand, that all knowledge should be ours with the only barrier to it being, at most, a monetary one. Viewing yoga as health culture, we aren’t inclined to consider the importance of right spiritual attitudes.
We in the west still think of our bodies as mechanisms. The successes of allopathic medicine in fact derive in part from the detailed analysis of illness using a mechanistic model. Thus much of hatha yoga practice centers on physical safety, spinal alignment and strength. Our culture is only beginning to see the connection between health and consciousness, between body and mind. (Thus Ananda Yoga employs the use of affirmations to help direct a student’s awareness towards higher consciousness.)
Traditionally the relationship between teacher and student was formal and conducted with reverence, respect, and openness. By contrast, our society treats teachers as equals and inclines towards familiarity between teacher and student. (As a child, I could never have addressed my grade school teacher by her first name; to encounter her in the grocery store as a normal human being would have been almost traumatic. How much our culture has changed!) While the American attitude in this regard has its refreshing side, it also removes a veil of protection from the teacher and student relationship.
Western culture, moreover, is bereft of any philosophical or cultural handle for the concept of enlightenment. We imagine that a teacher who is articulate, magnetic, attractive, charming and popular must be spiritually advanced. My teacher, Swami Kriyananda, once visited a temple in India and was approached by a “sadhu” (so called holy man) dressed in orange robes, long beard, and looking like something out of picture book. This man said said to Swamiji, “Picture? Five rupees!”
With our genius for organization we tend to equate leadership in an organization with wisdom. How often has the wearing of a robe or clerical collar proved itself no protection from egotism, anger, or lust.
We in the west do not realize how few spiritual teachers are God-realized. Claiming to be enlightened does not make it so. I don’t mean to denigrate those who are both sincere and wise. But only one who is Self-realized can truthfully recognize another. Millions of followers do not a true guru make! When Jesus asked, “Who do men say I am?” only Peter drew upon soul-inspired intuition to recognize Jesus as a true christ and master, more than a charismatic teacher with spiritual powers. By the end of Jesus’ ministry, “many walked with him no more.”
Because our Christian heritage is ignorant or in denial of the concept of reincarnation, we have yet to adjust our vision of the purpose and journey of human life to the vast span of time it takes for the soul to achieve freedom in God. A soul can be saintly but not yet free. A powerful intellect, magnetism, or wisdom can be used in the service of God and humanity, but are no guarantee of inner freedom. Until the soul achieves permanent emancipation in God-consciousness, it can still fall spiritually.
The road is long and the temptations and pitfalls remain until the end. Therefore, condemn no one and be, as Jesus counseled us, “Wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” If I have no personal knowledge of the facts of another person’s sexual misdeeds, I try to remain apart from the chorus of outraged voices. Walk the spiritual path yourself first and long enough and be sure, as Jesus said (paraphrasing) that you are without sin before you throw the first stone.
Allegations of sexual misconduct are notoriously difficult to prove, being, by nature, intimate and apt to incite intense emotions. Such cases sell newspapers and make for sensationalist courtroom drama. Some continue to claim that Jesus Christ had an affair or marriage with Mary Magdalene. It’s not my business and I wouldn’t condemn him if he did. Without the intuition of a Peter, how would I know?
The power of sex force is second only to self-preservation. It is essential to life in countless ways. It brings to us vitality and creativity. It is sacred, for it is life itself. It shouldn’t be condemned, nor, of course misused. The ego, and indeed our present society at large, revels in celebrating sex for its pleasure alone and, not surprisingly — to balance the psychological scales — is quick to condemn those who fall for its false allure!
The same life force that gives us sexual energy can also be redirected into serving a greater good. In yoga and in ancient tradition we are taught how to transmute sex force through exercise, right diet, noble deeds, creative pursuits, meditation, and devotion. It is not to be suppressed but offered upward into a higher octave of egoless, unconditional love and service. This force has given us life itself and is therefore the basis of energy for our spiritual salvation if we use it rightly. The fact that yoga can be helpful in this effort doesn’t diminish the hold sex and romance possesses upon human consciousness. (Yogananda added his testimony to that of the ages when he commented that the three great ills of humanity are misuse of “sex, wine, and money.” Their magnetism and power holds in delusion and suffering a significant percentage of humanity.)
Unfortunately the profound and sacred reality of the creative life force is too often mistaken for permission to pretend that sexual indulgence is somehow a path to enlightenment. This convenient dogma will persist through the centuries for the simple fact that the ego is so clever in its delusion. Books, workshops and videos abound promising enlightenment through enjoyment of sex. This false teaching will always be with us and its devotees will, no doubt, protest indignantly at my effrontery.
But for those who are sincerely seeking enlightenment yet while also in a committed love relationship, it is, nonetheless, spiritually right to bring sacredness and mindfulness into the expression of love through sexuality. Yogis even teach couples how to prepare themselves to conceive a spiritually minded child.
But until the soul achieves final liberation, this life force can and will tempt us. St. Francis once warned a woman disciple (who was getting too attached to him personally), “I can still father children!” Lord Buddha was tempted by sexually alluring female forms at the very moment of his liberation at which point, free from temptation, he cried: “Mara, Mara, I have conquered thee!” Jesus, when tempted with dominion over all nature commanded: “Satan, get thee behind me!”
This is not to lay fault at the feet of the woman student who has had an affair or inappropriate contact with her teacher. We are souls first; bodies only temporarily. The woman may have indeed been betrayed by the teacher who used his position and magnetism for selfish ends. But she too betrays her higher Self in yielding to the lure of any number of human desires and dead-end delusions. The Lord’s prayer which says “Lead us not into temptation” suggests that while we may be “led” it is we who consent.
What may have begun with admiration and inspiration was perhaps sidetracked into a moral and egoic cul-de-sac by forces as old as Adam and Eve. I add my belief to that of many others who view the rising influence of women in the world as the hope for a better world. In the Ananda communities where I live and serve, it has been customary for couples to share the spiritual leadership. This has worked well, spiritually, both for them and for the communities they serve.
And let us not forget that men and women, serving together, can accomplish great things. In business, science, the arts, academia, humanitarianism, in public service, and in spirituality, men and women can and do inspire in one another creativity, high energy, and the practical manifestation of high ideals. Is not friendship and mutual service the ideal to which even marriage should aspire?
And what of the teacher? In this society of ours where intimate relationships are easy and common, are men not vulnerable, too? Have you never observed even small boys responding brightly to the presence of a pretty teenage girl? In my counseling of men, many admit being bothered by the compulsion to gaze longingly at attractive women. (Are women any different, this way? I doubt it!) What more magnetic power is there between a man and a woman than she who admires his success, and he who is attracted by her winsome intelligence?
For a teacher “caught in the act,” maybe it’s time to take a break, or, even, a hike! Either way, one who is sincere should strengthen his resolve, make amends as he can, and find the support he needs for protection and for self-discipline. (There are of course legal and organizational considerations. These are, however, outside the scope of my own interest.)
From the soul’s perspective our failings are fertile ground for introspection and growth. From the standpoint of karma and reincarnation what yogi wouldn’t opine that the teacher and student must have had some “karma to work out?” Our spiritual lessons are never easy but always potentially liberating if we will remain even-minded, calm, compassionate, forgiving, and always seeking the divine will and lesson. Blaming others and claiming to be a victim are not the hallmarks of a refined consciousness, certainly not those of a true yogi.
Ultimately, it is God alone, speaking through our refined and sensitive conscience, who must be satisfied, not the dictates of the fickle mob crying, “Crucify him!” For one who is seeking soul freedom, whether teacher or student, the ultimate “foe” is ego. The temptation of sex, the allure of popularity, money, possessions, and fame are ultimately secondary manifestations of ego affirmation. From the point of view of the soul, is it any greater “sin” to have not yet overcome sexual desire than to seek popularity or approval, or money and influence through one’s successful teaching of yoga?
One could argue that sex, at least, represents the impulse to love and be loved; it is compelled by the desire for companionship and intimacy. Do not some saints seek God as their Beloved? Indian scriptures say that God created this universe that “He might share his Bliss with many.” The Bible says “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son” that we might see Spirit everywhere and in everyone. Sex is closer to our existential consciousness and essential feeling nature than money or fame, which are, by comparison, sterile because abstract.
We live in a fish bowl where celebrities are concerned. We expect to know every intimate detail of their lives. We see leadership as power over others rather than an opportunity to serve them. We don’t see the personal sacrifice that is required and too often view leadership as an opportunity for self-indulgence. No wonder we are quick to judge, for wouldn’t this justify our own lack of dedication to serving a greater good?
Yoga practice brings rewards and risks, no doubt about it. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna warns his disciple Arjuna that “suppression avails nothing. Even sages must act according to their nature.” Yoga is a form of universal and scientific spiritual awakening. It is powerful and effective. Patanjali describes the great powers that come on the spiritual path but warns against seeking (and misusing) those powers.
So, yes, yoga teachers, on the path to freedom, will be tempted and will slip. But yoga affirms our true Self as the only reality. It therefore emphasizes directional progress rather than condemnation. Yoga precepts acknowledge the power of delusion as the very fabric of the universe. Thus the soul, as described in the Bhagavad Gita must, as a warrior-devotee, do battle with the powerful energies which rise, like demons, as we advance towards transcendence.
My teacher, Swami Kriyananda (direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, and founder of the worldwide network of Ananda communities) experienced the trials and tribulations of such accusations. To his credit, he did not deny his actions. Instead, he courageously disclosed the facts heedless of the consequences. Ananda members and communities, knowing his true nature, did not turn away from him but offered to him the support and loyalty due to one who, with divine attunement and deep sincerity, has shared and lived wisdom through self-sacrifice and divine grace. By so doing, we affirmed and lived the truth of our own higher Self, as well. As Paramhansa Yogananda put it, “it is a sin to call yourself a sinner. A saint is a sinner who never gave up!” To be a true “swami” is to live sincerely and courageously, walking one’s path toward perfection in the Self (“Swa”).
For the soul, there is no eternal hellfire and there are no victims, only opportunities to learn and grow. This isn’t to say that one should necessarily remain silent in the face of wrong doing. Helping others is part of helping our Self. Our motto should always be the second stanza (and the most important) of the Yoga Sutras: “yoga comes from the steadfast poise of even-mindedness and centeredness in the Self within.”
Avoid the intensity of emotions such as condemnation, pride, self-loathing or shame, for a slip is not a fall.
Bless all those who have ever harmed you that they too find their way to freedom. Be free in yourself. Let us walk the path of yoga with our eyes clear, our hearts open, and our posture strong and tall.