The Guru’s Ghost

When I look out over the current Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) landscape, I can’t help but recall my childhood experience with religion.  I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and by default most of my friends were evangelical Christians. Inter-denominational squabbles were often conversations started in the pulpit that spilled over to the dinner table where the keys to the Kingdom were linked (or not) to things like speaking in tongues, dancing in the Spirit, sprinkling versus immersive baptism, or what version of the Bible was most authentic.  Entire faith traditions were created over these differences.  Sound familiar?

MPY “gurus” like Bikram, Jois, Bhajan, Iyengar, etc. making sensational claims about the spiritual and health benefits of yoga harkens to a popular character from my childhood—the televangelist.  My parents go-to was Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, but my friend’s parents were particularly fond of Jimmy Swaggart. I currently live in Charlotte, NC, just a few minutes up the road from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Heritage USA empire.  Here the spiritual and physical body could be healed through the power of prayer, by making a financial commitment to the ministry, by purchasing articles blessed by the evangelist, or through the healing touch of the pastor. Good people were swindled spiritually and financially.  Unfortunately, the same bears true for many yoga practitioners.

When people are hurting, dangling hope in front of them is powerful.  Belonging is crucial to human health and development. Folks on fixed incomes don’t mail their money to people they think are con artists. They do so believing they are investing in the promise of healing in this lifetime or the next.  They wish to be seen, heard, and feel a sense of community. MPY practitioners share these same desires.  

My mystical bones were broken long ago, so call me a skeptic when I am asked to “trust the yoga” or hear comments like “the universe has my back.”  I really don’t need to intentionally hyperventilate to saturate my blood with oxygen. Linking Sun Salutations to the Vedas makes them sound more esoteric, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more effective.  Claims that Warrior I can correct a displaced uterus or that twists will detox and tone my liver not only make my eyes roll; they make me want to run far away from yoga.  Statements like these promise healing where none exists and prevent outsiders from taking the practice seriously. How much of the so-called gurus’ snake oil do we wish to carry forward?  Personally, I’m done selling.

Like me, numerous MPY practitioners have had negative experiences with other religious traditions and turned to yoga because it offered the warmth of a mystical fire without the fear of being burned.  I think this is part of the allure of yoga.  It’s often seen as a neutral canvas where practitioners can project their hopes and aspirations. MPY and its Hindu-adjacent and Buddhist-adjacent claims appeal to the rising “spiritual, but not religious” demographic. One can touch and explore the myths, gods, goddesses, and philosophies of Indian culture without the trappings of “religion.”  

MPY functions as a new religion for many where the yoga mat is a sacred space; the practice connects the body, mind and spirit; and texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras are interpreted through different cultural lenses and given new spiritual authority.  Context ultimately defines how content is understood and assimilated. This is not unique to MPY; it happens in every religious tradition. Survival is predicated on adaptability.  

We have a lot invested in our practice and the myths surrounding it.  Even though a great many yoga narratives were repackaged for Western audiences by Indian evangelists and blended together with existing American mystical ideas, we continue to perpetuate them forward in the name of “tradition.”  I’d love to see conversations around what is “authentic” or “traditional” acknowledge that not only are we reimagining asana in modernity; we are also reimagining Indian philosophies and religious practices. 

I realize that religion is a loaded term that carries a lot of baggage, but I see the world through the lens of Religious Studies student.  My first foray into a serious study of Yoga started as an adult student at a local university. Religion extends beyond the bearded man in the clouds cliché.  It is a set of beliefs and practices that help us organize the natural world and our place in it. Our individual lives and group dynamics coalesce around its principles.  It shapes our bodies and how they are allowed to show up in the world. It differentiates the sacred from the profane. It also creates group boundaries, which are oftentimes exclusionary. 

In my experience in evangelical circles, “religious” was used to describe others outside of the faith.  Understood this way, Christians have a living savior and a personal relationship with Him, not a “religion.”  The term “spiritual” is equally problematic for similar reasons. A personalized spirituality is like a religious buffet where the practitioner picks and chooses little bits from this tradition and that tradition.  MPY is the perfect all-you-can-eat buffet where everyone can fix a full plate. But when we take only what we like, we miss out on important context and avoid problematic content. This is irresponsible and contributes to spiritual bypassing and cultural appropriation.  My hope is that MPY practitioners begin to acknowledge that what we are practicing is a new phenomenon—a bricolage of spiritual and bodily practices. With this recognition, maybe we will be more transparent, respectful, and less dogmatic when discussing the choices we and others have made to get us to this point in history.  

Yoga is at a pivotal crossroads.  The gurus’ pedestals have been broken, but their spectors remain.  We have inherited a great deal of misinformation packaged as “tradition.”  Many (if not most) MPY practitioners have profound emotional investments in these narratives and there is a lot at stake in unpacking them—spiritual wounds cut deep.  But do we maintain the status quo for our individual and collective comfort? Is that responsible? I think not. In order to forge a more equitable path forward our understanding of the past and present must expand.  Each time we roll out our mats, we have a choice to stay curious or stay comfortable. We can exorcise the gurus’ ghosts or stay haunted by them.