Teaching after Yogi Bhajan

The clay Buddha

In Thailand, there was an old and large clay Buddha statue that needed to be placed inside a new temple. Because it was so large, it was to be hoisted up with a pulley. But in the process of moving it into its new location, the statue started to crack. Work was immediately halted. This way, at least, the figurine would no longer be damaged. 

The day came to an end, the statue still hung suspended in the air. The construction workers decided to come back the next day to see if they could gracefully complete the project without bringing the divine sculpture to further harm.

In the evening, a monk came out to the site, and he noticed something strange. Something was glistening through one of the cracks, some kind of metal. He carefully removed a little of the clay. He came to a stunning realization: underneath the clay exterior was a Buddha made of solid gold.

 The next day all of the clay was removed, and the statue stood revealed for what it was: A Golden Buddha, measuring more than three and a half meters high. It was a discovery of immeasurable value.

The old spiritual paradigm

This story really happened, and it has been much commented on. It is said by those commentators that we, as human beings, are like this Buddha statue. We consist of a worthless outer shell, the image that we present to the world, an ego, as opposed to an inner core of immense spiritual value, our True Self or Buddha Nature.

For me, it’s a striking image of the old spiritual paradigm. One that we urgently need to overcome to align our teaching with the new time. To be precise, it illustrates why teaching Kundalini Yoga “as taught by Yogi Bhajan,” has become impossible. 

When the shit hit the fan around Yogi Bhajan a few months ago with the widespread corroboration of unsavory facts around his person and actions, it caused a massive upheaval throughout the Kundalini Yoga world. Many were angry (righteously so) or hurt (ah the old wounds), and many senior teachers were outwardly holding on to their ‘neutral mind’ for dear life, but actually fearing for their income, their reputation, and the fate of their soul. Others were acting like nothing had changed, entirely out of touch. 

People started saying that we should no longer practice Kundalini Yoga. Others were saying we should not get rid of the child with the bathwater. Some said we should no longer chant the mantras. Others said: “Why change it if it works?”

My experiences inside the French ashram

Perhaps I could say a few words about this, having gone through a similar process a few years ago, and now teaching Kundalini Yoga trainings that are no longer affiliated with Yogi Bhajan, or with anyone else, for that matter.

A few years ago, my then teacher, let’s call him “K,” whom we had just moved in with in France, was accused by several old students of various abuses. It sent a massive jolt of indignation through the community. And many came out calling for his blood. 

His transgressions were far less serious than what is now rapidly becoming known about Yogi Bhajan. Still, when K stepped out of the complaints process, the reaction of KRI was as swift as it was extreme. 

K was no longer allowed to teach at any KRI events, but neither were the senior teachers, like me, who were part of his school, even though we had broken no ethical code. “Guilty by association.” We were pressured to leave him and go back to KRI, the official certifying body of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan. 

From senior teacher to newspaper delivery boy

We were outcast, and it did cost us the teacher training in Holland that year. When we came out of the situation last year, we were on our knees financially. I started delivering newspapers (now there’s a sadhana for ya). At the same time, my wife took a cleaning job in a yoga center. 

We had been teaching teacher trainings for over 10 years, guiding more than 20 groups of students to become teachers. We had taught the level 2 program. We had changed lives. And now this. We are climbing out of it today. But we got hurt bad.

When I look at those people, of KRI, 3HO, the Khalsa Council, all those baby kundalini teachers, what I see is a bunch of people who really had the best intentions. But you know about the road to hell.

When the allegations fell on K, I was not left untouched. I guess I was shell shocked like many who are going through this today.

One summer week in France, I had a group from the Netherlands to guide through an immersion experience. But I had nothing to offer them. They would sit in a circle talk about their past and experiences, and I was there to listen, which I did, and teach, which I couldn’t. 

What, exactly, constitutes ‘abuse’?

How can you say anything to a student and not mess up their life?

This was the question I was asking myself. By the very asymmetrical position of a teacher and a student, whatever the teacher says will profoundly impact a students’ life. Almost any meddling with the destiny of a soul can be construed as abuse if you look at it from the wrong angle. 

But I realized up to that point, that I had been harsh and careless with the way that I had been treating people. That’s why I was unable to tell anybody anything anymore. Later this gradually shifted back to normalcy. 

But the very fundamental state of not wanting to interfere with the natural development of the student, not applying pressure of any kind, has made way for a new kind of understanding.

It has been a period of extreme doubt, one that was a necessary part of my growth as a teacher.

Surrender, but to whom?

Now back to the golden statue of the Buddha and what it has to do with Yogi Bhajan and the old paradigm of teaching.

The story of the golden figurine might seem like a good metaphor, an empty shell, and a valuable essence. But when a teacher fundamentally relates to a student in this way, something really breaks.

When a student comes to a teacher ‘bowing her head,’ it is so that the teacher may chip away at everything that is callous and unreal, everything that is ego, so that only the shining truth may remain. The student will reveal herself as the radiant being that she actually is. 

But it presupposes that there is a part not worth anything, something that must be destroyed. If the teacher and the student both believe this, as is the case in ‘Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan’ you get something toxic, that by today’s standards is nothing less than abuse. 

It’s an unsolvable situation. If the “I” of the student is considered unreal, then where is the abuse in swinging at it with a hammer in order to utterly demolish it? 

After all, didn’t the student come to the teacher and ‘ask’ for it? 

But if the student is not who she is, until the teacher has helped her become who she was always meant to be, who is the one that gives consent to undergo this chiseling process? 

And so, my friends, it goes round and round.

Taking risks with students

Many years of contemplating this, and operating in an environment where I had to face this question almost every day, has made me much more careful with people and with teaching in general. It is around this very issue that I also decided to leave K.

Being caught up in the catch-22 of the teaching situation that he was always creating made me weary beyond anything. 

Typically we would do something risky with the students, not because they needed it, but I think because he loved it. Usually, I would object that I felt uncomfortable with putting students in situations that were so dangerous. Invariably I would be accused of creating a ‘psychic hole’ by which I would actually create the perilous situations I was worrying about.  

Such a tired old game. One I have played so often. Eventually, I just didn’t want to play it anymore.

Nothing is really broken

The bottom line is this. There needs to be consent from a student. And even then, you need to tread very carefully as a teacher. Any aspect of the student that seems ‘unreal’ or ‘ego-based’ needs to be embraced, loved until it will go of its own volition.

Today I am weary of creating structures that presuppose that there is something ‘broken’ that needs to be ‘fixed.’ It introduces a kind of self-judgment too. This part is right, that part is wrong.

Black and white thinking has always been part of Yogi Bhajan’s legacy. But the time has passed, and we need to look at the reality, which is a mixed affair, full of shades of grey. 

The shift we need to make as teachers is this: The traditional paradigm is to box the student in, create the pressure so that they can transform. Today’s objective is different. There is already so much pressure. All a teacher needs to do is give space so that the student grow through their release.

We do this not by pointing out how stupid and egomaniac the student is, as was customary in the time of Yogi Bhajan, but by pointing out how enlightened they already are.

Teaching with the hammer

It is teaching with the hammer. But a hammer that is no longer used as a device for demolition, no. Rather as a medical precision instrument, that can, through careful use reveal the painful reactions in the student’s body. A first diagnostic step to mend the parts in need of healing.  

Sat nam and blessings

Jelmar Manuel AKA Gurprakash