Excerpt from Surviving Modern Yoga

Posted by – May 07, 2024
Categories: Excerpt New Release Spirituality & Religion

Excerpt from Surviving Modern Yoga: Cult Dynamics, Charismatic Leaders, and What Survivors Can Teach Us

Familial Projections 

Stein’s application of attachment theory to cult dynamics is particularly illuminating of the Jois event for many reasons. Two of these are related to the intimacy of an analysis that evolves from the close study of families. 

First, many students of Pattabhi Jois not only venerated him as a yoga teacher but also quite explicitly as a father figure. 

Secondly, the setup of most yoga classes derives significant power through its capacity to suggest a regression into childhood and its dynamics. If a unison group class doesn’t remind you of grade school, maybe lying down on a mat a little larger than a crib while an adult soothes you toward sleep will ring an earlier bell.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand asana education as a guided continuance of the individuation and growth we feel in our bodies through time. It is not separate from the intimate and relational stories—laced with the familiar tangle of tenderness and frustration—of how we come to know these bodies as dependent, independent, and finally interdependent. The environment of asana practice can recall the preverbal spaces of early childhood, where foundational movements, breathing patterns, and sensual relationships are being learned through a blend of mimicry, touch, guidance, error, pain, and correction. I used to believe the colloquial individualist wisdom—that asana was about “meeting yourself on the mat.” More than a decade on, this sounds oversimplified. The truth is that we meet many of our selves on the mat. These selves date from many different ages, and each of them was and is still formed by the physical relationships that governed those times. 

It would be a mistake for yoga studies to continue to be silent on issues of family dynamics. After all, modern postural yoga has globalized through family dynasties, with Krishnamacharya serving as great-uncle, adoptive grandfather, and actual father for Iyengar, Jois, and T. K. V. Desikachar respectively, each of whom became clan patriarchs in their own right. Our childhood bodies are continually remembered and triggered by every physical activity we take up in later years, whether it’s Zumba, CrossFit, or pickup basketball. Add to this the fact that everyone who enters a yoga studio even peripherally associated with these father figures is additionally entering a space where both cultural and intimate inheritances inform many aspects of instruction. The modern yoga studio is a site where physical intimacies purportedly leading to symmetry, balance, openness, and strength are charged and motivated by the light and gravity of the family constellation. 

As the schools descended from Krishnamacharya extend beyond their family shrines to cross cultures, languages, technologies, and eras, their genetic current must be converted into something more widely heritable. So far, mechanisms of succession have attempted to blend, in varying degrees, the power of bloodline, older ideals of parampara, and more contemporary models of matriculation. The most senior students of Jois and Iyengar distinguish themselves through personal anecdotes that prove familial contact with their teachers. The content of their instruction is strengthened by claims about where it comes from. Beneath the litmus test question of “Who’s your teacher?”—commonly asked to verify whether a yogic instruction or the instructor has merit—a more important question is implied: “What is your family like?”

This system is now strained. The Iyengar dynasty has attempted to decentralize the familial influence through a university-style syllabus of attainments that theoretically can be learned from anyone who has graduated from the late master’s system. In actuality, however, few have attained high levels of certification without yearly practice-pilgrimages to Pune while Iyengar was alive (he died in 2014). Whether this requirement will continue in deference to his son Prashant and his granddaughter Abhijeet—who now carry on the family’s teaching—is yet to be sorted out. At KPJAYI, as we’ve seen, the genetic process is more explicit.

If one is not the actual child or grandchild of the master in modern yoga, it seems that one must either be figuratively adopted in order to rise to the highest ranks, or work very hard to attain familial status in relation to the master and those who surround him. A cascade of reinforcing examples pour from the pages of Guruji.