Like a considerable number of women in my demographic, I’m certified as a yoga instructor, and like a portion of them, I completed my teacher training in an actual ashram. My plan was to eventually teach classes in a church basement someplace. The first yoga classes I ever took were held in St. Mark’s for a nominal fee and having such easy access to them undoubtedly changed my life for the better. Out of gratitude and a kind of evangelical zeal, I wanted to get out the word about yoga to precisely those types who would give the Hare Krishna singers a wide berth in the airport.
The last time I saw Yogiji, my teacher trainer, he had just dropped me off from the van curbside for domestic departures. It was a hot summer deep in the South; I was on break between between academic terms in my seminary program. The two of us left each other on favorable terms, with grudging respect. During the weeks we had spent together, he taught me a lot of Sanskrit chants, Hare Krishna among them, but only occasionally did he explain what the words meant. When I pestered him about that, he waved me away with his hand, bothered.
“All names for God,” he finally snapped late one night, his rapid speech pattering an Indian accent. “That’s what we chant: God, God, God, different names for God. What does it really matter? Why do you care so much?”
Maybe I shouldn’t have – after all, I was the student who had come to his ashram to study. Truthfully, I learned a lot from him. But I was also a seminarian and a skeptic; I had an endlessly inquiring mind. The rest of the students in my class were seekers of the lost-and-found variety; they were lost souls hoping to find a meaning-making system right there, at the very foot of the master. They did not have nearly the number of questions that I did, but they seemed to sincerely believe that Yogiji had all the answers.
For many, Yogiji was not only the instructor; he was also their guru, Guruji. These particular teachers in training, the yogis and yoginis alike, were uniformly compliant with the wishes, suggestions, and instructions of their guru. Student-teacher dynamics in the Eastern traditions tend toward the authoritarian style; there are few negotiations to be made. One young woman was a competitive gymnast before she had injured herself and landed in the ashram, and I couldn’t help but think that she had simply traded in her stentorian coach for another demanding male authority figure. She was a yogic adept; she could twist herself into the sort of tortuous asanas that the rest of us were consigned to study in picture books. Yet she also seemed vulnerable and fragile to a degree that none of us could match.
At the end of the training, the gymnast decided that she would stay on at the ashram to continue to advance in her yoga practice and training. Despite the doubts I harbored, I wished her well and hoped that her recovery would continue on several different levels: physical and mental, emotional and spiritual. My own attitude was that a little ashram living went a long way. I enjoyed my stay and the training was certainly useful to me. But I could not muster the kind of credulity that the others did, day in and day out.
As our time there drew to its close, we were encouraged to consider being initiated as students of Guruji. I politely declined. This gave Yogiji offense, since he knew I was interested in spiritual practices and world religions. Broaching the topic with me, he was evidently annoyed by my reluctance. How was I going to continue my development as a yogini without a guru of my own? Although he did say that I would make a fine yoga teacher, he was not satisfied with my modest plans for teaching classes in the church basement. Instead of the japa mala that other students carried for reciting mantras, I continued to carry my grandmother’s wooden rosary beads. I had no intention of trading them in; I never did.
“No matter what, you will need a guru,” Yogiji insisted. When I told him that I already had a guru of my own in Jesus, he scoffed. “Jesus! He cannot be your guru – he’s dead!”
“You know,” I said, cocking my head, “there’s still some controversy around that question.”
I recalled this verbal volley with Yogiji recently, when I was doing a summer program at a residential educational center, high in the mountains of the Northeast, where the heat was broken by breezes from a nearby lake. The wide vistas were gorgeous and the expansive campus impressive. It had been built in the 1950s as a novitiate for Jesuits training for the priesthood, but by 1970 there were no longer enough novices to fill the wide halls. So in the early 1980s, the entire complex was sold to an ashram relocating from Pennsylvania. After repeated sexual misconduct by its leaders, the ashram disbanded as a religious organization and re-established itself as an educational non-profit. But the air of the ashram lingers there and in 2012, images of Ganesha abound.
The center bustles with visitors year round; I’ve visited it a couple of times during my ministry and admired the obvious affection that people have for the place. I dined with one woman, aged 89, whose history dated back to the ashram days. She was eager to share a salacious bit of gossip about the head of the ashram getting one young yogini pregnant, but she regarded the incident as a mere footnote to a larger tale of enlightenment. She told me that just as she’d been returning to the place for decades, she planned on making return visits for as long as she was physically able. She could have been discussing Fatima or Lourdes with such fervor.
Though it would surely be apostasy to its current residents, I think that the good vibrations felt there are as much the spiritual legacy of the Jesuits as they are of the yogis from years gone by. The Catholic Church has been plagued with sexual abuse scandals for decades now, but situations that involve charismatic gurus seducing and/or impregnating students are more common around American ashrams than anyone cares to admit. In the end, regrettably, that turned out to be the case with Yogiji, as well. Some people are quicker to forgive, while others, curiously, are much quicker to be forgiven. I’m intrigued by what qualifies as mitigating factors for people today.
Even relatively holy men are men, men with feet of clay and sundry other flaws more and less damning. So I’m not now nor have I been looking for a guru in their midst. As a flailing yogini with a personal devotion to Jesus, I believe our reach should be directed to something higher, wider, greater than the feet of the master nearby. Other devotees may have different ideas. Yoga can teach us to stretch ourselves to new heights, and certainly, it did that for me. But I look to the steeples of churches to aim my reach in the correct direction, for something that indeed exceeds my grasp.