Friday, January 10, 2020

Reflecting on My Teacher Swami Satchidananda

by Jivana Heyman

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother practicing yoga each morning. She would do a series of asanas every day, including Headstand, which really made an impression on me. It was even more remarkable because she must have already been in her 60s by that time. I remember her patiently teaching me Alternate Nostril Breathing to a one-two count: inhale one and exhale two. Mostly, I just loved spending time with her, and that made yoga seem so much more compelling. She would often practice with a book next to her that had a mesmerizing cover; it was the face of Swami Satchidananda in gold on his book Integral Yoga Hatha.

That image of his gold face must have stayed with me because decades later, in 1990, I found myself getting a massage to help me deal with my stress and the massage therapist, Kazuko Onodera, had a picture of Swami Satchidananda on her wall. I remember saying to her, “I think I know that guy.” And she said, “Yes, he’s my yoga teacher. You should come to my yoga classes and meet him when he comes to town.” So I did. I began taking classes with her religiously, and she started training me to be a yoga teacher.

Kazuko eventually brought me to meet Swami Satchidananda in person when he was speaking in San Francisco in 1991. When I first met him, I was impressed with his tremendous knowledge of yoga and yogic scriptures. I enjoyed his humor, especially his endless puns. But I was confused by the reactions of the people around him, by their devotion and the religious feeling of the gathering.

I was a young, gay, AIDS activist fighting against a system of oppression that was killing my friends and lovers. I couldn’t easily accept another authority figure because I felt that this kind of hierarchical thinking was at the basis of our problems. I even found some homophobic quotes from Swami Satchidananda, which totally turned me off.

But I soon found myself surrounded by an amazing community of yoga teachers who touched me with the passion they felt for yoga. I learned that Swami Satchidananda had changed his mind about the homophobic remarks, and I was even invited to help edit one of his books to take out those sections and make the language more inclusive. 

I slowly got involved at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute and there I found a family of yogis to support me in my practice. I felt so drawn to yoga, and it was the support of this community that propelled me forward through study, intensive practice, shared conversations, and general comradery.

In 1997, my partner, Matt, and I started talking about having a commitment ceremony. I was excited by the idea of having this ceremony at my spiritual home, the Integral Yoga Institute. This was way before anyone was talking about gay marriage, so it was still unusual. I was told to ask Swami Satchidananda in person when he next visited.

When the time came, I was very nervous. I had spoken to him only on a few occasions, and he was this very intense old man. I stood in line to speak to him, and when it was my turn, I asked him if Matt and I could get married at the Institute. He responded by simply asking me, “When?” I said, “August 31,” embarrassed that we had already scheduled a date before we got his approval. He said, “Of course.” Then about half an hour later, after talking to a long line of people, he approached me and said, “I’ll be thinking of you on August 31.” He even wrote us a note that was read at the ceremony, which said, “Have a blessed matrimonial life.”

This acceptance was exactly what I needed to assuage any of my concerns about getting more involved and making a personal commitment to him and his teachings. I now see how that commitment was a mixed blessing. On the one hand it supported my personal growth by helping me stay focused on my practice. But it also got me caught up in an organization that seemed more dedicated to protecting his name rather than always following the right ethical action.

As I got more involved, I would ask a lot of questions about Swami Satchidananda and often the answers were vague. I heard that there was a group of women protesting at one of his talks in New York City. They accused him of a pattern of sexual misconduct and of silencing their voices. When I inquired more about it, I was told that these women were basically projecting their own problems onto him. The sad part is that I believed that story at the time. It was only after I left the organization a few years ago, that I began to see what was going on.

The #MeToo movement helped me understand the way that sexual abuse works and how these women’s voices were silenced. I now trust that there was truth to what they were saying, and I’m devastated that I wasn’t able to help make their voices heard. As I have more time to reflect on my relationship with Swami Satchidananda, I see his brilliance and also his flaws. I realize now that there probably was misconduct, which should have been addressed more openly.

For a long time, I struggled with how to reconcile my gratitude for what I learned from Swami Satchidananda, and for the way he treated me personally with what I heard about the way he treated these women. I also struggled with the way this was all handled. I’m so happy to hear that Integral Yoga is now taking steps to address ethics in a more direct way so that this type of abuse can’t happen again.

I know there is tremendous power in the guru-student relationship. It offers a sense of security to the student, who otherwise may feel lost or confused as they move along their path. There is also power in the devotional aspect of the relationship. Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, is such a profound system of yoga practices because it allows the practitioner to engage their emotions in the practice. But the risks of this type of devotion to any single, fallible person may outweigh the benefits.

I don’t think we need to discard these practices altogether, however. Instead, we need to find a healthy form of Bhakti. Rather than focus our Bhakti love toward the human form of the guru, we can focus that energy toward the teachings themselves. In fact, I specifically remember Swami Satchidananda telling us not to look to him, but to look to the teachings, as the guru.

Ideally, we can transform the energy of Bhakti Yoga into service by focusing on loving the people and community around us. The relationship between Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, service, is profound. It’s really impossible to be of service if love isn’t your motivating factor.

As we move into a time of post-lineage yoga, I think we should celebrate our independence from traditional gurus, who were so often abusive. But we can keep in mind that there were benefits to the guru relationship that we can continue to cultivate in other ways: the focused attention, the individual support, and the mentorship. Within yoga communities, we can replace the power of the guru with the support of the collective, and explore the benefits of devotion, service, and dedication to each other rather than to a guru.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog.

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  1. Why now? Why bring into the limelight sex and sexual misconduct of an individual who has left this world? I notice that the editor is the same person who edits the Yoga and Aging blog. That blog too features sex and sexuality on a regular basis. So I quit reading that blog and joined this. And now this editor has her hands here too encouraging the authors to write about sex. Can we keep this topic off the blog? It does not serve any purpose.

    1. These are my words, not the editors. I decided to talk about this now because it was wrong of me not to speak up earlier. It's important to learn from the past and not repeat it.

    2. Jivana I appreciate your thoughtful words here. To the comments above, sex and sexuality are beautiful and normal parts of our human experience. The abuses in the Yoga community are not about sex. They are misuses of power. That's a big distinction. As a community we are at a crossroads — we need systemic change.

  2. Hi Jivana, This is a very thoughtful article that you wrote. Thanks, Marie Prashanti

    1. That means a lot to me, thank you!

  3. Great piece, Jivana! Thank you for your vulnerability and openness in writing it! I know many of us are struggling with similar situations and how to honor the guru-shushya lineage and teachings passed down from these gurus while acknowledging the harm and abuse so many of these ”leaders” have done.

    1. Thanks Jesal. It's a very difficult balance to find, but I think talking about the good and bad openly is the key.

  4. Hello there Jivana and Accessible Yoga, I did not understand what is post-lineage?

    1. We'll add a link to an article about post lineage yoga by Theo Wildcroft, who created the term. You can find it here:

  5. Thank you, Jivana, for such an honest and moving piece. Your truth telling sets a powerful example for others.

  6. Thanks, Jivana, for this post--it must have taken courage to share it. We need to write and talk about abuses of power in the yoga community so they don't get hidden and we can heal. And I appreciate that the Editor posted this article.