Guruji — Still my Guru?

by Aug 5, 2019

The Full Moon we just had on 16th July marked Guru Purnima and Guruji’s birthday. This year like many of the “Ashtanga Yoga” community there has been a bit of ambivalence in my feelings in the light of some of the things that have been said about Guruji and his methods. I want to talk about that but before I do I want to go back a bit.

I was lucky enough to have a fantastic father. He did so much with his children and created so many opportunities for us. He took the role of father seriously and did his best for us. He gave us the greatest of gifts, his love and his time. He was also a disciplinarian and believed in corporal punishment. He would hit us. I will never forget the time when I was 9 or 10 when he made me go and cut a switch from the apple tree that he used to hit me. I don’t remember what crime I had committed, but I certainly remember the punishment!

It has never occurred to me that I need to forgive my father. He was the product of his own upbringing and generation, I am the product of mine. We all bring our own imperfections. Do I choose to use all the same tools my father used to parent? Of course I don’t! I have never hit either of my children because it is not appropriate and not how I want to parent.

In my trips to Mysore in the ’90s and early 2000s everyone knew Guruji would put his hands in intimate places with some women. The issue was talked about and obviously the question was what to do about it. My advice to anyone who asked me about it was to do what my wife, Victoria did. When Guruji put his hand on her in a way she didn’t like, she moved his hand away and said “No, Guruji”. He never did it again. Victoria said to me it felt more like he was testing people out by pushing buttons, rather than making sexual advances. However, whatever his intentions, it was clearly not appropriate in any way.

I now understand that Victoria shouldn’t have had to tell Guruji not to touch her in that way in the first place and that it was very naive of me to think every woman could feel able to act in the way that Victoria did. For some women Guruji’s actions were incredibly damaging and threatening. I know that no woman should ever have to be in that situation and I am glad that these women can now express that and that it has been acknowledged by Guruji’s family. I also know that thousands of women practiced in Mysore and kept going back and that Guruji has had a powerful and positive effect on their lives in other ways.

It has also been suggested that Guruji deliberately hurt male students. This never happened to me. If I thought it was his intention to hurt me I would not have gone back, but some people did feel that he intended to hurt them. If I thought that Guruji”s actions with Victoria were sexually motivated we would not have gone back and yet some women obviously did feel this. It is important that this is acknowledged.

I believe that everything he did with me was with the intention of teaching me Yoga. He challenged me in all sorts of ways but always with humour and with love. He was the most open man I have ever met. He also never claimed to be perfect or an “enlightened being”, in fact just the opposite at times. I always recognised that and accepted that he would make mistakes, but I never doubted the integrity of his intent. Again, maybe I was naive in that and of course I am a man so I can only speak from my own perspective.

You can understand how conflicted I feel but in the end Guruji was and is my Guru whatever his flaws. However, if he had asked me to jump in front of a bus I would have said “no”. If he had asked me to cut contact with my family and give him all my money, I would have said “no”. Guruji showed me a method to practice Yoga but he also told me not to believe anything that I didn’t experience myself. He never indicated to me that I should absolutely devolve all of my intelligence or all of my decision making to him. He expected us to show respect but not subservience to him.

I still start every practice by chanting “Vande Gurunam charanara vinde” I bow to the lotus feet of my Guru and I do my best to practice the method that Guruj taught me. It never felt like my father was a child abuser, but I do believe hitting children is totally unacceptable in any circumstances. It never felt to me like Guruji was a sexual predator, but I do believe that touching any person inappropriately while adjusting them is totally unacceptable in any circumstances. This is how we evolve. By taking the positive but rejecting the tools that the generation before used that are not appropriate to the here and now.

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10 Comments

  1. Ian Richardson

    Hi Mike

    I totally agree that it must have been a very difficult blog to write. Thank you for being open, honest and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Merel Rip

    Thank you Mike. This is one of the most compassionate and loving responses I have read on this topic so far.

  3. Baxter

    Thank you Mike. This is a brave perspective and I admire you even more for sharing it this way. I absolutely think we need to be talking more (and listening more) to various experiences like yours. Arohatinonui e hoa.

  4. Elena

    So well said, Mike. Thank you for your leadership. I felt the same about it as Victoria did then, and I wholeheartedly agree with you now.

  5. Mike Berghan

    Hi Elena. I am so glad you got to read this and that it resonates for you. Thanks for the kind response.
    Lots of love,
    Mike and Victoria

  6. Mike Berghan

    Hi Baxter. Thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate it.
    Nga mihi nui,
    Mike

  7. Mike Berghan

    Hi Merel. Thank you for the kind words. Glad it came across to you as I intended it to.
    Cheers,
    Mike

  8. Mike Berghan

    Hi Ian. Yes, very difficult to write but something that I felt I need to share. Thanks,

    Cheers,
    Mike

  9. Marama Mayrick

    Thanks for writing about this Mike. I have to say that given what has come out about how he touched his students, I struggle to say those lines in the opening chant. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I feel triggered by seeing photos of him in practice spaces. I’m pleased I’ve managed to still hold on to the value of the teachings, but certainly want to distance my practice from him, and also Sharath (since he was so slow to respond on this issue). Arohanui, Marama

  10. Mike Berghan

    Hi Marama.
    Thank you so much for replying. It is good to get your perspective. Great that you can retain the yoga practice and I think if you consider the chant as paying respect to the whole Astanga lineage, rather than any individual teacher, that may make it easier for you.

    It is so difficult to get across my feelings, especially I think, to people who were never in Mysore. I have thought long and hard about my experiences there and in my heart I still can’t see Guruji as a sexual predator. This is just my feeling and in no way do I intend it to condone his actions and I make no claim to understand his motives. I regret that I did not understand then how damaging they could be.

    As to Sharath, yes, he could have addressed this sooner, but when I think about how hard this has been for me, I cannot imagine how hard is must be for him. Guruji was his mentor and grandfather for decades within a very different social and cultural situation from what we experience here in NZ, one where traditionally, the younger generation accepted without question the actions of the older generation. I am sure this is changing there now, but when this was all going on in Mysore 25 years ago it was pretty different. Sharath was also required to step into a role, as a young man with a young family, that carries unimaginable pressure. It must be incredibly tiring for him to carry the Astanga mantle the way he does. For the most part he has managed that with grace and dignity. It would certainly have absolutely crushed me.

    Marama, I know that I have the pictures of Guruji up and that I chant the prayer but I hope that you can still consider Te Aro Astanga Yoga a safe place to come and practice.

    Arohanui,
    Mike.