My first yoga teacher had a serious savior complex. He was gifted at teaching the basic foundations of yoga poses, and is, in large part, why I practice yoga safely and intelligently. But he was so messy—getting overly involved with his students personal lives, making the class about his humor and his experience more than the students’. One time I heard him say to a young—attractive—woman: You should be prepared to start crying in pigeon pose because women carry a lot of sexual trauma in their hips. Don’t hold back if you need to cry. That kind of crap sets my blood boiling—it abuses the power of suggestion and potentially keeps clients from getting real help for real problems. At best, yoga can provide the physical counterpart to other healing processes, but it cannot cure cancer or quell mental illness, nor was it ever designed for such miracles. Of course, that girl in class did start to cry in pigeon pose. What other option did she have, really, if she wanted to stroke her teacher’s ego as he so clearly needed her to?
The yoga studio is fertile ground for such characters, because given the historical connection of yoga to religious practice, people often arrive to class with more than their physical well-being in mind. They want their bodies and their souls healed. Or, they want a bastardized version of yoga that gives them six-packs and defined deltoids, but compromises their bodies. They want the Dalai Lama or David Koresh, and not a simple person trained to offer a student the tools to develop her own strength, heal her own body. Nothing more, nothing less.
Spoiler Alert: I’m not really a preacher. Or a priest. Or a deacon. Or ordained in anything at all except, perhaps, my own experience if we think of our births as conferring holy orders on us.
If you’re reading this blog, you know I’m living in a precarious space between tongue-in-cheek and sincere, between my instinct to poke and prod and provoke and my genuine desire to write about my own spiritual experience. I’m often uncomfortable with myself here in the Cyberworld: on the one hand, I write from the persona I create, a persona that protects me; on the other hand, I expose myself dangerously to strangers. I’ve longed believed that this straddling between performance and confession lends blogging, as a form, its tender credibility, its vibrancy in the hands of a decent writer, and its disproportionate draw for women writers. Also, the ephemeral nature of the Internet—a place where one’s writing both remains and disappears into the void created by thousands of other users mimics, for me, the slippery way divinity works in my life.
I’m glad you’re willing to follow me into this shadowy territory. I’m also appalled, the same way I’m appalled when my students turn on their peers because they’ve adopted a position I posited in class, when they’ve taken something I said while playing devil’s advocate and digested it as God’s own truth, usually because they want my approval more than they believe what they’re arguing. If you’re reading my blog, you’re reading in part because of the personality my blog implies that I have. You hear a voice and imbue the person you imagine behind that voice with an authority and respect I haven’t exactly earned.
That puts me in disquietingly close proximity to that yoga teacher and those church leaders who assume a pulpit with very little education or formation, the ones that scare me silly.
As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church, I feel suspicious of informality and a lack of credentials. I’m a snob that way. I don’t care. I want my priests and pastors, my professors, and my politicians to be smarter than me, more educated than me. I do not want George W. Bush’s nicknames, for example, and I don’t want to call my reverend Billy or Ed or Mitch. I prefer something more titular….like….I don’t know….Mr. or Mrs. President, Sister Bernice, or even Reverend King. These titles protect us from the person while respecting her expertise. Rather than create false authority, when used correctly titles promote healthy personal space and appropriate boundaries. I do not have my students call me Casey, for example. But nor would I have them call me Dr. Fleming if I haven’t earned a doctorate.
I disapprove of any Cult of Personality. I distrust leadership based on charisma and reputation, leadership that promotes a kind of hero worship that impedes true learning and undermines mentorship, informalizes and mythologizes the relationship between student and teacher, and makes the humble sailing vessel into the majestic sea upon whose depths it can only rest.
The high school classroom is equally fertile ground for such misguided heroism. Teenagers are aquiver. They vibrate. They’re like exposed nerves, susceptible to even the slightest breeze’s burn. They’re also hormonal and given to high drama, ripe for hero worship and indoctrination. It’s no coincidence most religions have their youngest members confirmed or Bat Mitzvah-ed during the teenage years. But in my opinion, students at that age need to be directed toward the big questions and then empowered to find their own answers rather than being baptized into certainty.
On this blog, I’m twisting the form, using the idea of a sermon to structure my writing for a while. I have some things to say, and have ordained myself to say them. But do not anoint me with an authority I have not earned except through voice and style. You’ll be disappointed, because you’ll be the spectator of my spiritual journey instead of the protagonist in your own.
We do not save our followers—in the church, on the page, in the studio, or in the classroom. They do that. And when we start to think we can be our students’ saviors, we’re playing God. When we rely on our reputations or personalities rather than our knowledge and experience to keep our students afloat we’re really sinking their ships. We’re also taking more love than we’re giving, since love is always active, not passive. We’re acting out of need more than power. We’re keeping them from finding other, equally important teachers by tethering them to our influence. And we’re acting in direct opposition to St. Paul’s advice in Corinthians 13:1-3:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Last, but certainly not least, many people who end up leading cults of personality didn’t start out superficial or twisted, the popularity turned them that way. Hero worship is detrimental for followers, certainly, but it’s also a painful spiritual death for the leader.
Beware and Amen.