Is your yoga teacher a wanna-be cult leader? Ask this question.

It’s reasonable to assume there are no simple answers when it comes to self-inquiry. Each of us has our own unique experience. Teaching and sharing our experiences in a yoga class isn’t easy.

Some teachers rise to the challenge and become dynamic, thoughtful teachers. These teachers are dedicated to self-study, which means they are also dedicated to you studying yourself. It’s a central tenet in the Yoga Sutras. Self-study means the yoga teacher guides, but you decide and practice. You don’t cede authority to anybody. You foster confidence and self-understanding.

Some go the other way and teach what I’ll call CultYoga.

The origin of the CultYoga teacher

How did they even get here? Let’s start at their first yoga classes. Those most susceptible to cult influence are those looking for or expecting simple answers. They find the styles or teachers most willing to provide these simple answers. Like ‘As Seen on TV’ commercials, the solutions are very confidently stated. The new student takes the bait.

“Certainty in areas where others are uncertain and have strong desires automatically sets up the guru’s dominance.” —The Guru Papers

These hard and fast rules are drilled into their head in a teacher training. Now this yoga teacher, self-assured and out in the world, is teaching in front of other students who are also hoping for simple answers. This cycle has been repeating itself in all sorts of cults.

What should I ask them?

What do you ask your yoga instructor to determine whether they’re dedicated to you or if they’re a wanna-be cult leader? Try this: in Down Dog, ask “Is it more important to feel stable and pain-free in my shoulders, or to have my arms parallel?” Their answer lets you know.

The ways a wanna-be cult leader slices at self-trust

As a yoga teacher, I want people to trust their own shoulders and their sense of stability. That’s my reason for siding with stable shoulders. My students figure out what works for them and we have a discussion when they have a question.

More often than not, the CultYoga teacher will say to keep your arms parallel. Ask them why. Below are their probable responses. They all lead back to the same point: they want to be seen as the authority, and want you to stop trusting yourself.

1) Lineage

“My teacher said so.”

Lineage is a red herring yoga teachers throw out as “proof” what they’re doing is right. They will say it’s always been done this way, for a long time, etc., and therefore it’s the only valid way. This is fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists are those who don’t change with the times and adapt. They refuse new information, such as you saying “this doesn’t feel good to me,” or “this doesn’t feel stable”.

“Ideologies and belief systems can be intrinsically authoritarian if there is no way to take issue with their basic suppositions.” —The Guru Papers

If a given lineage works for the CultYoga teacher, they never consider that it might not work for everybody. In fact, it’s tempting for them to scoff at those who can’t do it or aren’t as good. “They’re not trying hard enough” they may think, or “I’ve been pre-ordained.”

Or, in the case of Bikram, the icon of deplorable: “People pay $1 million dollars for a drop of my sperm.”

Many people in lineages wind up learning much more about the lineage than themselves. They learn techniques and never learn to ask whether or not it actually works for them. They are so emotionally (and sometimes socially and financially) invested in the lineage that they’re too scared to ask any of these questions.

Lineage is a myth anyway. Actual practices get altered constantly. Because we each have a unique perspective, we deem different parts of the practice important to us, and teach from there. Lineage changes through time and through people.

“People do have enlightening experiences and insights, but are they always a repetition of old insights that others had thousands of years ago? Is awareness a path others have trod that leads to a predictable end?” —The Guru Papers

Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois the ashtanga sequence. Some consider this proof that the ashtanga sequence is the one true teaching. If that’s true, why did Krishnamacharya give Iyengar a completely different yoga practice? It might have to do with the fact that Pattabhi Jois was a healthy 8-year old running all over the place and needed a lot to focus his mind. Iyengar was dying of tuberculosis.

And where did Krishnamacharya get all those standing postures? Not from any ancient scriptures, but rather from the British army.

If there is any lineage to be found, it’s in Krishnamacharya’s ability to see these two little kids as distinct and adapt the practice to situations and people around him.

Let’s take that from Krishnamacharya and discard other things he did, including beating his students with iron rods and forcing Iyengar to injure himself in demonstrations. That is an abhorrent cult (and human being) practice, and so we get rid of it.

2) Appearance

“It looks correct”

CultYoga teachers are obsessed with looking correct. Why? It’s so simple any dunce can do it. The physical practice is concerned with how things look rather than how things feel. This is pernicious: By focusing on appearance, the CultYoga teacher is denying you yoga’s promise of self-study. They say what you are doing is wrong because it doesn’t look right.

Gymnastics are concerned with appearance. Ballet dancers are concerned with appearance. This is athleticism, and the main concern is for the athlete to look a certain way for points, for money, or to win. In this way looks are everything. There’s no entry into self-study, and your feelings about it don’t matter. Athleticism isn’t yoga.

3) Alignment

Most CultYoga teachers know that their concern with appearances sounds vapid, so they use another word: alignment.

This buffoon who can’t keep his front toes straight forward? Who can’t keep his knee over his ankle? That’s Krishnamacharya.

Yoga alignment assumes everybody’s structure is the exactly the same. It doesn’t take a biologist to know this isn’t true. A car’s wheels can be in alignment because it’s been manufactured. We are not manufactured. We grow, each in our own way.

I’m teaching a 300 hour training in Pittsburgh next year that focuses on energetics, in contrast with anatomic alignment. It details the actions and experiences of a pose in the moment. There are things almost everybody can do or experience in a similar way. What that actually looks like on the outside is going to be unique to each person. Everybody expresses the pose in a way that works for them.

Yoga alignment does the opposite. Even if parallel arms feel okay for somebody, it’s a mistake to assume it would then work for everybody. It works for some and not for others, setting a pass/fail system in the practice.

To be clear, everybody has their own alignment that works for them, and everybody can reconcile left/right imbalances. This is fundamentally different than a teaching that gets everybody’s toes pointing in the same direction. One involves discussion, one involves a command.

Yoga alignment injures some people and bores others. All the while, everybody is trying to get flat, straight and square. These words all have a negative connotation when we talk about people’s personalities. Yet, for some reason, some teachers these as positive postural attributes. I will never understand that.

4) Some “mystical” or “magic” or “spiritual” reason

A teacher who wants to start a cult is self-assured. They’ve memorized the rules, the poses, the sequences, etc. They hold the key. And in their eyes, when the idiots who enter class with bad postures and breathing habits start their practice, they need to adhere to procedure. Their salvation depends on it.

In yoga cults, pain or instability is touted as the means to the end, and students are encouraged to put up with pain for their own good. The cues, the poses or the sequence trumps the directive to listen inward and have students decide for themselves what’s working.

“Assuming the role of spiritual authority for others sets in motion a system of interaction that is mechanical, predictable, and contains the essence of corruption.” —The Guru Papers

If somebody’s physical body is meant for a particular practice, they’ll find it and flourish in it. This is fantastic. However, the train jumps the track the moment that person becomes a teacher and declares “look at me, this works for me. I’m positive it works for you.” The assumption is they know your body better than you do.

Every time you feel a pain in your body and you don’t acknowledge or accept it as pain, you reinforce a pattern of unnecessary pain. But there another thing going on that’s worse: you’re encouraging your mind to accept it as the norm. When your yoga teacher says to do something painful or makes an adjustment that causes pain, and you obey or let it happen, you’re abandoning self-trust in favor of a notion that things have to be this way.

This isn’t spiritual. It’s a denial of the very thing you should be in charge of: your body.


The arms parallel is just one example of divulging what your teacher thinks about the practice. Legs parallel, toes forward, knee at 90 degrees—almost any yoga alignment cue works.

If your teacher is dedicated to your practice, what you’re experiencing matters. I’ve told my students that my primary function in class is to worry about them. Every time a new student takes my class, I give the same speech before practicing, and I’m pretty sure my regular students can say it with me:

“I only have one rule in my class: please listen to your body before you listen to me. If anything feels painful, let me know and we’ll find something that works. There are 108 modifications for everything.”

A teacher who truly knows best is one who acknowledges that we don’t know much. Oh sure, we’ve done a teacher training (or three). Maybe we’ve taught for years. But we still know none of this matters because it’s almost impossible to really know someone in class while they’re practicing. As such, feedback from students every moment, moment-to-moment, is essential.

head_shotThrough his workshops, classes and individual sessions, Richard Gartner reaches 100 yogis a week in Pittsburgh and beyond. He fosters a non-dogmatic and compassionate attitude about students’ abilities and circumstances.

His Frameworks Yoga 300 hour training program starts in March 2018.

“Namaste” by Thad Zajdowicz used with Creative Commons 2.0 license.