Every year brings a new major scandal in the yogic field. The majority of scandals involve inappropriate sexual boundaries, but also frequently include power, money, and manipulation. Sometimes there is death. Most, though not all, occur among male teachers, both Eastern and Western.
I have been surprised to find myself as the go-to psychologist for many such devastations, as well as counseling numerous spiritual teachers who are willing to do the depth psychological work required to prevent such calamities from arising in their communities. In spite of bearing witness to copious amounts of disillusionment and human complexity and on the spiritual path over many years, I remain fully optimistic about the spiritual journey, the great wisdom traditions, the resiliency of the human spirit, and the power of forgiveness.
The vast majority of spiritual scandals are due to human psychology rather than shortcomings in spiritual traditions. The scandals we find in the yoga world are rarely due to any fault in yoga philosophy or practice, but rather result from psychological blind spots and weaknesses in the teacher. Spiritual teachers themselves are often deeply versed in, and transmit, great spiritual knowledge and even transmission. They are usually sincere and often brilliant. Yet many have not done deep psychological work on themselves, even if they recommend it to their students. They have never uncovered the psychological roots of their own struggles, patterns, traumas, and wounds. Their failure to do so often brings about suffering in their students and followers. What is emotionally un-integrated in the spiritual teacher becomes psychologically imbalanced in the teachings and community.
The Western psyche is constructed differently than the Eastern psyche. To migrate successfully from one civilization to another, the great traditions must take into account the deep psychological structures of the countries and cultures into which they are being imported. The yoga of the East cannot take root in the Western world without recognizing the particular gifts and challenges inherent in the Western psyche. Psychological pioneer Carl Jung coined the term gnostic intermediary to refer to people who personally incorporate the wisdom of a tradition, and can then speak directly from their own experience and translate both the experience and understanding into the language and concepts of the culture to which they wish to communicate.
This insight brings with it the distinct possibility to help prevent spiritual scandals by understanding the importance of psychology to yoga for the Western practitioner. Developments in somatic psychology, yoga research, mindfulness, yoga therapy, neuroscience, and trauma research, can increase the effectiveness of yoga to treat the whole human being. By drawing upon the developments in psychology, teachers can work with their own psychological weaknesses so they will not be visited upon their students.
Psychology is new in terms of the emergence of great philosophical and transformational systems. Even in the 14 years since James Hillman’s bestselling We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World is Getting Worse, the approximately 140-year-old tradition has had major advances. Western psychology, though much younger than the 2,000- to 5,000-year-old yoga tradition, skillfully reaches into the traumas and psychological challenges that are unique to the Western psyche. It addresses the areas that often result in spiritual scandal, and thus is invaluable to the continued expansion and health of yoga in the Western world.
What wakes me up to inspiration in the morning, and sometimes deep into the night, is the endless ways which the brilliant traditions of yoga and psychology can enhance each other, stretch each other, and make each other more effective. Towards this vision I have invited 20 pioneers and scholars of these two traditions to come together for a weekend in San Francisco in April for The Yoga & Psyche Conference, hosted by The California Institute of Integral Studies. It is the first academic conference in the Western world to integrate yoga and Western psychology. The conference speakers and attendees will come from as far as India and Brazil, and include inspiring medical doctors, psychologists, spiritual teachers, yoga teachers and practitioners, neuroscientists, and trailblazers in the integration of these two fields.
Spirituality should make people healthier and happier, not traumatized and further alienated from themselves and others. To prevent scandal on the spiritual path, maintain a spirit of optimism and integrity, and contribute to the spread of yogic wisdom, we are each are called to examine ourselves deeply, take inventory of our strengths and weaknesses, share our gifts, and address our psychological challenges. As yoga further embraces psychology, and teachers of yoga and other spiritual traditions understand the importance of addressing their own psychological challenges, we can diminish unnecessary suffering and bring forth new possibilities.