This series so far has covered the concept of both celebrities who practice Yoga, and well-known Yoga “celebrities”, those whose teachings have become so far reaching that the teachers become very well known
There are countless names of these Yogis, Gurus, and Swamis that fill virtual and paper libraries, leaders who have spent their life in service to their students, and often to their God, ever teaching the simple Yoga path.
But because these men and women are human, they can fall to human desires, especially the need for fame, power, money, and sometimes, sexual conquest. This post will discuss a few more teachers, some that have taken a less preferred approach.
Ego Takes Over
Most anyone who has practiced Yoga has heard of Bikram Yoga, that challenging system of 26 continuous poses performed in a room heated to 105° over a period of 90 minutes. While the claim that higher heat flushes toxins from the body has been debated, there are thousands of devotees who teach and train in this style. Bikram Yoga is very popular and has undoubtedly helped many, as Yoga does, no matter which style. But the founder of the system, Bikram Choudhury, has – in the eyes of many – fallen from grace.
Reports surfaced in 2013 and 2014 concerning lawsuits against Choudhury for sexual misconduct, rape, blackmail, and corruption. Probably the most well-known account was published in this year’s January edition of Vanity Fair. The plaintiffs have accused Choudhury of intimidating, shaming, and rape. Many other stories have also appeared in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, ABC News, and The Telegram. These accounts repeat parts of the Vanity Fair story, and also mentioned stories of Choudhury’s misogynistic, racist and homophobic comments and actions. He also reportedly put down other Yoga styles and systems. There are currently ongoing investigations, but according to the Bikram Yoga site, the business is full steam ahead.
Eat, Pray, Love – and Fight?
Who has not read Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book or seen the movie adaption starring Julia Roberts? While Gilbert’s book didn’t touch on the physical aspects of Yoga (asanas), it certainly covered the universal quest for clarity and enlightenment through meditation. Gilbert specifically did not mention by name her personal Guru, or the name of the Ashram she visited in India. Her intent was to protect the privacy of her teacher and the Ashram. But many have been curious.
A 2010 Salon article echoes the curiosity and more , guessing that the leader mentioned in Liz Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love only as “guru” was in fact Malti Shetty, otherwise known as Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the spiritual leader of the Siddha Yoga Dham of America (SYDA). Outing the name of the guru was not a shocking announcement. What was shocking in this article (and numerous other sources on the Web) are the allegations that SYDA, under Gurumayi’s leadership (and her predecessor’s) is a center blanketed in extreme secrecy, financial transgressions, shunning, suspected sexual abuse, and rigid emotional control.
Riddhi Shah, the author of the article also reported that that Gurumayi’s own guru, the original SYDA leader, Swami Muktananda, engaged in sexual misconduct with numerous women, and underage girls, while publically claiming to be celibate.
Shah’s article is partially based on findings published by The New Yorker in 1994, and a 1997 piece in The New Zealand Herald. These and other writings tell of a huge rift between Gurumayi and her brother Nityananda Saraswati over who was to run the SYDA center in New York State.
The accounts vary somewhat, one mentions that originally Muktananda arranged for only Nityananda to “inherit” the organization, but Gurumayi complained so fiercely he changed the arrangement to a dual leadership. Others reports state that the partnership between brother and sister was installed from the beginning.
Regardless, what allegedly happened after this change in leadership was that Nityananda was made to step down, renounce his guru position, and he was then kept forcibly in seclusion, and by some reports, caned. He did admit, and has admitted several times, was that he did break his vows of celibacy on a handful of occasions, but only with consenting women.
It must be said, that the accounts in Liz Gilbert’s book never give the impression that her guru and the ashram she spent many months at in India, were never anything but benign.
These situations are not necessarily rampant in Yoga or other studies of the mind and body, but they do happen whenever someone abuses a position of power. From the highest churches to the lowliest gym, from military organizations to the classroom, in corporate offices, social groups, and playgrounds; ego pulses throughout our interactions. And that is not always a bad thing. A strong sense of self creates needed leaders.
Some succumb to their ego, others have learned to stay humble.
We will close this post with a look at Dr. V.S. Rao, a simple man who was loved by many. Born in 1925 in India to a great Sanskrit scholar, Vedula Satyananda Rao was the youngest in his family. He spent his early life in his Kakaraparru village, along with the rest in his family helping his father run his Sanskrit training school. Rao himself received his education in the village until it was time to enter Andhra University. He also received a long distance degree from the University of Chicago. One area of study for Dr. Rao was alternative healing. He set up a clinic in the village and treated patients with homeopathy. At the same time, he earned a living working at a local bank.
His education was furthered when traveling in the Himalayas; he met Ramlalji Maharaj, who became his guru. After becoming initiated into Yoga with Ramlaji, he studied human anatomy and Yoga therapy at the Swami Venkateswar University. These studies led to Rao receiving a Doctor of Yoga Education degree.
Dr. Rao opened a Yoga training center, and married Vardhanamma Narasinghadevara. Together they had five children. Things went well with Dr. Rao’s Yoga classes and conferences. But then his wife died unexpectedly. So, in 1982 Dr. Rao took his family to the United States. They found a place near Rao’s eldest daughter in Massachusetts.
When Dr. Rao was helping a local librarian, using Yoga therapy for her chronic health issue, others began to pay attention to his work. He was encouraged to teach Yoga classes to the public and it went very well. In 1983, Rao, who was called “Baba” by his students, opened the High Tech Yoga Institute. This became a non-profit center with the goal of teaching and spreading the word about the wonders of Yoga. And the Institute became affiliated with Siddha-Gupha Yogashrama in India, and soon was able to confer degrees for Yoga professionals.
From all accounts, Rao had a wide following, and happy students. His clear explanations of meditative and yogic ideology were appreciated. During these years, Dr. Rao wrote The Life Divine, and he also co-authored an autobiography of his guru with his brother called Yogeswar Ramlalji Maharaj.
But by 2004, his health began to fail somewhat, so he retired. He became a resident of a rehabilitation home, and was well loved by the other residents and staff. He even held his annual Guru Purnima celebration there.
Dr. Rao passed away in 2007, now he is the one being remembered at Guru Purnima. The next installment will have a description of this Hindu Ceremony.
Five Vital Yoga Practices in dedication to Yoga as the Guru: