Hello. In my recent post Why Queer Yoga? I raised the question, “Can we have yoga without the authoritarian class environment?” There was a response on Facebook that expressed curiosity about what I might mean by using the word “authoritarian”. Here I plan to offer a few thoughts on that.
An authoritarian class environment is a situation where a teacher/guide/guru is seen as someone who has the power or right to make decisions for students/class participants at some expense to their personal freedom. A teacher (and people close to the teacher in some cases) is regarded as someone who has a greater status than students. The class contains a hierarchy. Sometimes it is personal power that is wielded, and there are times when the power is a replication or amplification of oppressive aspects of our daily life in the current cultural climate, including sexism, racism, and ableism.
Sometimes people can feel like their yoga teacher is their “guru”. When this happens a person might give away too much power, and trust too much, too soon. It can feel wonderful to think one is special and that a magical teacher figure has chosen you, but beware. People in a human body (I know that might seem redundant, but sometimes an awe-struck yoga participant can think that their teacher is god-like) tend to have human distortions in their personalities, and even teachers with good intentions can create harm in an over-trusting student.
This happens a lot to different degrees in relationships. Anytime someone claims to know what’s right for you, remember that they have not lived as you. The only person who is an expert in being you is you. Any time someone claims to know what’s right for you this is something that should be examined for potential manipulation, or simply disregarded.
An experienced yoga teacher may be able to help you with your body, and they might be able to offer technique that can free the mind and even ease suffering. But we need to be able to discern how a teacher can help, and where they might be overstepping appropriate boundaries. Basically when it comes to choices about life expression, this is a sacred choice and holy territory for individuals to claim for their selves.
When someone leading a yoga class claims to have the power of someone else (their guru) to offer class participants, this is usually a way to get control and harness enthusiasm of students. Some might argue that this is an effective way to circumvent students’ natural defense against doing something different with their bodies, and feel that you can get more work done more quickly when students decide to “trust the word of the guru” even if it comes from someone’s mouth who is not the “guru”.
The yoga teacher or guide who is in the class with you is the person who is there. Again this sentence might seem redundant, but it exists as a point of confusion at times. Teachers are sometimes trusted as the word of a famous yoga teacher (possibly a “guru”) if they have spent some time studying with them.
Another situation that is authoritarian, more in the category of systemic oppression than a personal dynamic, is anytime yoga facilitators (teachers) refer to “men” and “women” to describe difference in practice or postures. It can be seen as a perpetuation of the deeply entrenched systemic categorization that supports sexism, the condition where “men” are seen as different enough to merit a higher status than “women”. It also causes violence to identities that don’t align with the assumptions about who gets privilege and who should submit to power that go with forcing people into two separate groups.
Also, shaming students for not being able to do certain physical feats in yoga is an expression of ableism. It appears to say that students who are stronger or more flexible are better (a higher status) than those whose bodies are weaker or stiffer.
And racism might show up in how yoga guides speak to class participants, or who they pay attention to in class, and what assumptions they make about “everybody.”
As people who choose to engage in yoga classes, either as facilitators/guides or as class participants, we can do well to educate ourselves about the dynamics that play out in class. It is a common teaching that we encounter situations within our selves on our yoga mats that tend to show up in our lives, too. This post is about seeing power dynamics, whether it is personal or systemic, as showing up in the yoga room that also play out in life beyond class.