Happens to the best of us. You are up and down-dogging your way through class, when suddenly your teacher appears on your mental screen in some compromising “position” that has nothing to do with yoga. Or you see him/her as the ideal partner patiently awaiting your return home to a cozy cottage with a picket fence, or a grass hut deep in the Hawaiian jungle.
It’s happened to me at least twice. First time, I had newly committed to a rigorous, six-mornings-a-week Mysore-style Ashtanga practice. Since the whole practice was conducted in silence, I received little to no verbal instruction from my teacher, who was in any case notoriously short on words. I did not find him attractive. He was ten years younger than me. He had dropped out of life as I knew it to teach yoga (something that still struck me in those days as risky and perhaps ill-advised, though I myself had recently dropped all of my other pursuits to teach yoga—and it is just this sort of projection/reflection that haunt most teacher infatuations).
I glanced up from a pose to see him adjusting another student in a deep seated twist. My teacher was sitting close to the student, carefully wrapping his arms around her torso to help her bind her arms. It wasn’t the intimacy of the action, however, or the physical closeness that stirred my heart. It was the look of gentle, patient, loving attention—quiet delight, almost wonder–in his eyes. This was the man to father my children!
Blessedly, that particular crush lasted less than two weeks. As the intense daily contact revealed other aspects of my teacher’s nature—stubbornness, arrogance, uncompromising standards, and a maddening contrariness—the appeal paled. Only to transfer itself onto his co-teacher, a tall, boyishly gorgeous young man. This one stuck, and, I hate to admit, persisted through years of practice, his eventual engagement and marriage to someone I found naturally completely unworthy of him, and right off the mat into his next career. This guy gradually pulled back from teaching to pursue a Ph.D. in Eastern Religions at an Ivy League university, treading the same path in reverse that had brought me to yoga. Moreover, people often said we could be siblings—same strawberry-blond hair, fair skin, fine features, long limbs, WASPy background. Projection/reflection in spades!
Why do we yearn for our teachers? I suppose it has a lot to do with the quiet intensity of class. There we are, working our bodies and our breath while opening our minds and our hearts, tight clothes tracing our contours and sweat streaming down our newly toned limbs. We feel sexier, we go looking for sex. Erotica reigns. Moreover, the fixed boundaries of personal space and limited timeslot give our fantasies full reign. With so little reality to manage, the mind is free to fabricate the most outlandish fantasies, to romanticize and idealize.
We can glom onto any moving target in that room, and God knows, student-to-student crushes, affairs, entanglements, and genuine relationships are legion. True love flourishes so much better in the absence of life’s messiness—of prolonged coexistence, of co-habitation, of compromise.
Yet the teacher offers something more. We put them on a pedestal, we idolize and idealize. Here is the mom/dad we’ve always wanted and knew we deserved, in sexually and spiritually compatible form. Through my many years of higher education, I repeatedly fell for my mentors and professors. Each became the dad who shared my passion for art, for literature, for philosophy. Each transcended the all-too-human failings of my age-appropriate boyfriends wading through their own coming-of-age crises. Each was the perfect shelter from the storm.
But a yoga teacher offers even more than these high-minded intellectuals. We are drawn to yoga teachers who care for us, who take care of us—physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Who seem to have all the answers. Who have a direct line to God. Who know what our inchoate, understood souls long for. Imagine having such a person at your beck and call, as your paramour, as your life partner! How cool would that be? No wonder yoga groupies have supplanted rock groupies in the past decade. Take a look at the coterie surrounding any prominent male or female teacher; check their relationship histories on Facebook with updates on Twitter.
Of course, this kind of vertical relationship, with the teacher up there and you down here, is inherently unstable. Most of the major Indian gurus who migrated West have been pulled down by some sexual scandal—this, despite the fact that some 80 percent of them are avowed celibates, eschewing all sexual contact! Turn your will and our life over to another, and eventually somebody gets hurt. We ramp Freudian transference up a notch, envisioning the perfect partner, whose all-too-human frailty inevitably lets us down.
This messy, disappointing, disillusioning process is not only humiliating and painful, it’s spiritually costly. It stymies and in the worst cases ends our progress on the path of yoga. All too often when we pull back from the teacher, we exit yoga as well. Out with the teacher, out with yoga!
Yoga is connection. The word “yoga,” often translated as “union,’ more precisely means to yoke or bind two things together. Yoga binds us, links us back to the world, to spirit, to self. Sometimes this is just too much! Most of us would rather keep a comfortable distance from ourselves, like the James Joyce character who “lived most of his life a short distance from his body.” Too much intimacy with ourselves, too much insight into our place in the grand scheme of things, our foibles and failings and flaws, our pretenses and pettiness, our selfishness and our fear–too much about us. American culture serves this deep desire to flee ourselves by providing us with all manner of distractions. We tap into the media barrage to tune out the silence; we Facebook and Google and Twitter, surrounding our lonesome selves with virtual playmates. We pine or gloat over celebrity gossip as though these were our surrogate selves. I see students on their Crackberries midclass—no longer do they wait until class is done, or they are outside. And outside, half the people on the street (and disturbingly, behind the wheel) are tuning out the present moment to text someone far away. We thrive on addictions to food, drugs, alcohol, work, yoga! Any external object or activity will do. Anything powerful enough to keep our selves at bay.
Years ago I entered therapy for the second time, ready at last at the ripe age of 30 to sort out the Big Issues. On the way to my first appointment, I stopped by my university club gym to work out. The gym, small and windowless, carved out of an existing boiler room deep in the bowels of this stuffy midtown establishment, was the club’s half-assed attempt to offer members something that rivaled the city’s increasingly deluxe health clubs. Understandably, no one was ever there except me, eking out my meager freelancer’s income by making the most of this added benefit. That one day, however, I found myself pumping iron alongside a friendly looking young man. We started chatting, we went for drink, and overnight he became my new boyfriend.
Six tortured months later, when we finally split up, my therapist gently pointed out that this was the first day I had come into the office alone. Ever since our first visit, I had dragged the specter of this man into therapy with me. Many if not all of our talks had revolved around our current doings, the he-said, she-said that drives even the most patient BFFs to distraction. I had worn him and our involvement as a kind of armor, a shield blocking either the therapist or myself from going deeper into Lois. Freaky timing? Unconscious? Yes, but a tried-and-true success in its own doomed failure. I had bought myself six more months of separation from myself.
So back to teachers. When we pour our passion, our love, our ideals into another, we turn our attention from the inner work of yoga. We reject yoga’s persistent invitation to go deeper into self. And in so doing, we miss the essence of yoga, for all yoga paths share the belief that whatever we think we need is already within us. Our inner world is as vast and varied as the universe itself, states the Upanishads. Turn inward, and discover/uncover/recognize the riches within! Why go begging for something no one else can give you, when it’s all in your own backyard?
Westerners may be especially averse to this inner quest because beneath our external cockiness, most of us suffer from low self-esteem. I remember hearing that once a Western journalist asked the Dalai Lama what to do about this common bugaboo. The question went back and forth through the translator several times before it became apparent that Tibetan culture has no such concept! “How terrible,” was the Dalai Lama’s heartfelt response to our self-hatred. If we are prone to see the worst in ourselves, of course we will naturally avoid turning inward. When I finally left the Ashtanga studio because of irreconcilable differences with my teacher, I fell into a panic at the thought of practicing solo in my apartment, with no one to divert my attention. I have survived, and learned a lot along the way, but I have to admit that there are days when only loud music can quiet the inner tribunal. I have even practiced while watching a movie, and one of my students shot a compromising photo of me practicing while connected to the hands-free device on my cell phone.
As anyone knows who as entered a relationship full of ideals and expectations, it doesn’t take long for the house of cards to come crashing down. Stendhal famously described infatuation as like forming elegant ice crystals around a bare winter branch—we make the person into what we want them to be, not what they are. As love runs its course, the ice melts and we find ourselves skin to skin with another person. Your teacher, your guru, your president, your boss are little humans like the rest of us. They cannot save you, they cannot make you into something you are not, they cannot make the world make sense. The good news? You do not need to be saved. You are perfect as you are. And while the world does make sense, its coherence and complexity is beyond our grasp. Take your place on the mat, play your part in the whole. That is more than enough for one lifetime.