Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kill Yr Idols or An Open Letter to American Yogis

In the early 90's I was a suburban punk kid with dyed black hair and two safety pins through my nose. DIY was the name of my game. My proximity to Washington, DC gave me all the cultural inspiration a budding young rebel could ask for. It was the epicenter of the Straight Edge and Riot Grrl movements, with bands like Fugazi playing low rent shows at least twice a week. I saw Bikini Kill for the first time in a friend's basement. I saw vegan leather clad punks pogo-ing and protesting and handing out flyers and zines and having totally serious political conversations at shows and I wanted to be a part of it.
The thing about punk scenes is that there's everyone and no one to look up to. No one's in charge of everything, but everyone's in charge of something. Since the very notions of order and organization (at least on a hierarchical level) are constantly being questioned, it can be kind of hard to keep track of who to talk to about what. But, odd as it may seem to an outsider, punks are always getting organized about something. To the untrained eye, punk rock is just about screaming and hating authority figures, but look a little deeper and you'll see that it has a deeply embedded ethos of social justice. Most of the punks I've known are activists every minute of their lives. In Washington, Straight Edge punk groups like Positive Force fed the homeless, protested abortion bans, and educated anyone who would listen about equality.
Christy, on the left.
In a world where the credo was, "Kill your idols," it was nonetheless impossible not to have them. My closest role models were my friend Christy, an American History major in a feminist band called "Hatchet Wound," and Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of Bikini Kill. Christy and I were friends, so I had constant access to her awesomeness and emulated it in every way I could. I dated her ex-boyfriends (sorry, Christy), copied her hairstyles, and read whatever books she told me to. Kathleen Hanna was somewhat less available, but she was still around and I lived and died for her irreverent brand of fuck-you-wait-no-fuck-me feminism.
The thing is that you can't be a punk kid and just run around copying other people all the time. Although she never said so, I know that Christy tired of my constant clinging and xeroxing. I'm pretty sure Kathleen Hanna never noticed me except maybe to think that I was probably too young to be looking at her "that way" from the front row of her shows. In any case, I had to find my own DIY approach. I eventually started my own zine, complete with off-the cuff-political rants and art made out of spam labels. I got my own haircuts, became a vegetarian, and had polyamorous relationships with gay boys with names like Squid. I resisted authority figures and became my own.
Me, on the right.
So, what is a nice punk rock girl like me doing with a Guru? Isn't it, like, kind of antithetical to my purported belief system? Are yoga and punk incompatible? All good questions. In his treatise on the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita, Paths to God, Ram Dass says, "The Guru, as a separate entity, exists only within the illusion of separateness…The minute the method of the Guru has worked, it's awakened you, and it ceases to be anything at all. It has an automatic, built-in self-destruct mechanism. You use it until it opens you in a certain way, and then you see through it and let go of it. The Guru becomes irrelevant."
Basically what I'm saying is that the Guru fills the same function in Yoga as idols do in punk. They offer you guidance, teachings, lessons, and guideposts, but ultimately you have to walk the path on your own. No one can "do yoga" for you. And at the end of the path, the dualistic barrier between Guru and disciple dissolves, and the truer truth is that it was never there to begin with. Some traditions go as far to say that you need to kill the Guru to become the Guru yourself. Sound Familiar? Kill your idols, man.
Just like in punk, in yoga there is a seemingly endless supply of idols to choose from. Some come packaged in pretty clothes, and some reek of fresh-from-India authenticity. Some are in-between. Some want to be your Guru so bad you can smell the adore-me-I'm-legit pheromones coming off them from miles away. Some will shrug off their authority with a nonchalance that borders on irresponsible. I have had teachers of all kinds, and have been tempted to follow many leaders, but my punk roots have kept me resistant. I am thankful for this, because it allowed me to experience the benefit of many teachings and to let my Guru find me.
Sri Swami Satchidananda
I see the problem of choosing a Guru that Ram Dass describes as an intellectual problem as also a political and cultural one. We, as Americans, are accustomed to making choices. Market capitalism is built on our desire to find which things are right for us. When we enter the world of spirituality, we often take many of our consumer habits with us. We shop for our teachers. As Ram Dass delineates, we say to ourselves, "Well, this person fits all my rules of Guru-hood, therefore she will be my Guru." It's the same attitude we take when we are buying a car.
But a Guru is not a thing that gets to be chosen on the basis of what we like best. In fact, a Guru's role, in part, is to challenge us. "The real Guru," says Ram Dass, "will always undercut all of your expectations." In other words, you don't get the Guru that you want, you get the Guru that you need. Most Americans need to have their expectations undercut and questioned. We need to get over our ego-centric obsessions with getting what we want and learn to want what we have. Personally, I would prefer to have a living Guru that could sit with me and hold my hand. But that is not what I have. Probably because, initially, I never would have accepted such an authority figure. Now I probably would, but now I know that it is part of my dharma to be the teacher I want to have.
Western yogis might take some comfort in the idea of upagurus. These are the many many teachers that come in and out of our lives. Thinking of our teachers as upagurus allows us to sample the buffet of teachings without obsessing over which is THE right one. If we allow ourselves to feel support from this unending multiplicity of sources, we may, as Ram Dass says, "look around and see that we are being guided, protected."
I do, however, see a possible difficulty with this approach. If we are constantly sampling teachings and moving from one upaguru to the next, it will be difficult for us to become steeped in the teachings. Steeping requires an element of stillness. In truth, there are many kinds of upagurus. Some will teach us by showing us what we need to see, and some will teach us by showing us what we do not want to be. It's important to have a stable core from which to discern the difference. This stable core must be built on adherence to the practices and on studying the teachings. This is where the DIY ethos comes in. The sacred texts of yoga are widely available and it is okay to interpret them for yourself, as long as you are not interpreting them simply in the service of your own self-interest.
I think it's possible that an anarcho-punk inspired approach to creating yoga communities is in order. We have many teachers. We are all, in fact, both teachers and students. We all want yoga. Many of us are socially and politically active. We are all educated and knowledgeable, whether it's by books or by the streets. Yet we are often so hesitant to work together. We form factions based on our teachers or our studios and forget all that we have in common, despite what we have to offer one another.
Check out
Why does this happen? Well, I'm a Marxist, so I think it happens (at least partially) because of marketplace competition. We fear not being better than the next teacher, not having enough students. We need to pay our bills and many of us use yoga to do it. It's fine to charge money for yoga, but some of us get greedy. We want all the students. We want to be the best studio. We forget that yoga is not actually rooted in the marketplace. It is not actually a tool for selling fancy towels.
We also let our egos guide us. We want our students to love us above all teachers. We might solicit the role of Guru so that we feel important. We forget to serve. We forget to learn from our students. We do a lot of forgetting because the world that we live in does not remind us of the Truth. It reminds us that life is expensive and that we need to feel not just good, but superior, because of the things we own and do. We get trapped, even when we want desperately to stay steeped and to serve. And we don't remind each other because we want to make sure that we can get our own hands on all the good stuff.
But we still share the teachings. We read all the same books. We even like a lot of the same music. Yoga is basically a neo-punk movement waiting to happen. We need to stop looking for our gurus and start noticing them around us and inside us. We need to stop forming factions and instead form alliances. We need to stop thinking about how we can profit from yoga and get back to its radical roots. And, yeah, we need to kill our idols and our gurus and our obsession with finding them and just be them for ourselves and each other.

UPDATE: This essay was published by YogaBrains in December 2012!!! Check it out!


  1. Destroy the teacher. ~Walt Whitman. ;-)

  2. Wow! Yes, I remember all those early days! What a rebel you and Christy both were! Very well written piece!!!

  3. Wow This makes me want to stand up and cheer!! Thanks for posting!!

  4. Well said, well done, thank you for writing this! You've articulated something I've been thinking about for a while, and it makes me smile : )