Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, several accounts of sexual harassment and assault have been made public by Mark Whitwell’s female students. We do not in any way condone Mark’s behaviour. You can read more about the accounts here.
by Kara-Leah Grant
Mark is teacher of considerable standing who spent many years with Desikachar and studied directly with Krishnamacharya, the teacher of teachers and the godfather of Western Yoga. His approach gets right to the heart of yoga.
Unfortunately, despite being a born and bred Kiwi, Mark’s many years spent overseas means most New Zealanders don’t know who he is. Plus, now based in California, Mark’s teaching is neither flashy nor strongly-asana focused – something which can raise a yoga teacher’s profile.
Mark won’t help you perfect your handstand or get into Hanumanasana (splits), but what he does share is profound.
It was Saturday morning when I finally got to one of Mark’s classes. We were in The Sanctuary, a large conference room with a stage and wall-to-wall ‘80s carpet. There was a sound system and head mic, but Mark shook it off, sitting on the edge of the stage with his long, long legs stretched out in front of him. And then he beckoned all of us to come forward.
We gathered around and Mark began to talk, off the cuff, about whatever seemed important.
Three days into the festival, and it appeared that those who had discovered Mark earlier were bringing their friends and partners to his classes. They were coming back again and again to receive a transmission that had little to do with anatomy or asana or finding the Warrior Within.
Short digression here: All the other yoga on offer at Wanderlust were also awesome, and offered all kinds of insights from many angles and perspectives.
Learning the application of anatomy and the ins and outs of asana while connecting to the warrior within is all worthy and fascinating material that contributes to our understanding of yoga.
However, there is an essence, a spirit, a depth in Mark’s teachings that goes beyond all of that.
His teaching is the foundation of yoga. It’s simple, it’s subtle, and it’s easily missed. Which is why, amidst all the loud, sexy, flashiness of everything else on offer, Mark’s classes weren’t full. They should have been. They should have been over-flowing.
Yet this is the nature of our world, not just the yoga world. We are first drawn to that which focuses on the external. Only in time, as our perception deepens do we look to the more subtle internal goings-on.
Mark seemed sad to me at Wanderlust, and going by some of the discussion at the beginning of class, I wondered if it has to do with the progression and explosion of the yoga world over the last forty years that he has witnessed.
Mark knows that what he offers can completely change people’s lives from the inside out in the most profound way, yet people don’t necessarily seem interested.
His book, The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy, outlines how this is possible in just seven minutes a day. Published by the same publishers who brought out The Secret, Mark seems flummoxed that 20 million people would buy that, yet 20 million people haven’t bought his book which offers a simple, daily technique one can actually DO to access the heart of life.
I hope that Mark comes back to Wanderlust again next year. It’s important – no, vital! – to have teachers like him at yoga festivals, even if they don’t attract the big numbers, or provide the sexy, flashy, exciting yoga. He represents the heart of yoga.
Ok, rant over. Back to class.
It was apparent that those who had discovered Mark earlier had also had some profound experiences. They had been touched, changed, impacted by his teachings. Many of them commented that they had been doing all kinds of yoga for years or they had been teaching for years, but this was the first time they really understand yoga.
One of Mark’s teachings in particular stood out to me, given the on-going scandals rocking the yoga world regarding abuse of various kinds between yoga teachers and gurus and their students.
What is a yoga teacher?
Waiting. Pausing. He didn’t expect us to answer, but he wanted us in a particular space before he gave an answer.
Nothing more than a friend, nothing less than a friend.
He pointed to a woman in the front row.
You brought your friend today. You are now her yoga teacher. You are sharing what you know with her. Yet you are also nothing more than her friend. Nothing less than her friend. You don’t need a 200hr certificate to teach yoga. What you need is a willingness to be a friend and share what you know with those around you, as a friend.
He paused, and took in the room some more. The woman who he had pointed to was a Bikram teacher, which Mark was aware of. He asked her:
How do you treat your friends? Do you abuse them? If you do have friends who treat you like that, are they still your friend? What do you do?
Such a simple construct, yet in regarding teachers as nothing more than friends who know a little more, and nothing less than friends who know a little more, Mark swept away some of the power structures that give rise to abusive situations.
You don’t project ideals onto a friend. You see them as they are, with all their faults and shadows. Yet you also see all their light and goodness. You let them lead you in the areas of life where they know more than you, and you ignore them in the areas of life where they are obviously deluded.
I have amazing friends who I would never take financial advice from. Other friends I would never take romantic advice from. I have many friends I would never ask about yoga, and many friends I do.
Back in 2005 or 6 when I first started teaching yoga, I held a weekly class at a friend’s house. My friends who lived at the house would invite their friends and everyone showed up on Mondays at 7pm to invade the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and often the outside patio to do yoga with me.
I was just a friend of theirs, who happened to know some yoga – more than they did – and was happy to share what I knew. I had no certificate. I wasn’t a ‘teacher’. I simple shared what I knew.
In that sharing, I did my best to keep my friends safe, and I also made sure they knew to look after their own bodies as well. We were in this experience together, learning this thing called yoga together, exploring our bodies and minds together. I just happened to be a little further along the path than them.
Now, some eight years later, I’m still teaching yoga, and I’m still nothing more than a friend or nothing less than a friend.
Or am I? I’ve been sitting with this statement of Mark’s for a few months now. His statement feels both true and yet… it also feels like there are further nuances to be explored within the teacher-student relationship.
I turned to Donna Farhi’s book Teaching Yoga to do some more research. Donna is remarkably clear on the nature of the student/teacher relationship and the boundaries it requires. I’d highly recommend all yoga teachers read it.
“Yoga is not simply information that the teacher carries and disseminates separate from herself, to be left in the classroom or the studio at the end of the day. What is being taught is a state of being, a way of living, which by necessity is intrinsic to the character of the teacher. In the study of Yoga, the teacher can only lead the student as far as she has gone herself.”
Mark’s teachings and Donna’s teachings on the same topic – the student/teacher relationship – seemed at odds with each other.
Mark was saying we’re all just friends, helping each other along the path.
Donna was saying a true teacher becomes a mentor helping a student wake-up, which is a great responsibility requiring constant vigilance and definitely no friendship.
Which was I to believe?
The answer is simple.
Both Mark and Donna are correct. Mark’s maxim of friendship relates to probably 90% of people teaching yoga. Donna’s deep reflections have value to all of those teachers too, but in reality, perhaps only 10% of teachers are actually true yoga teachers. That is, only 10% of teachers are directly working with students to wake them up.
And in our modern yoga world, demolishing hierarchical power structures that place one person above another seems important.
We don’t place our friends on pedestals.
We know they’re human and have foibles.
This then impacts how we relate to them – we’re far less likely to project on to them for one, or to do what they ask us when it goes against our intuition.
I feel like there’s more to contemplate in here. There’s more to consider about this concept that yoga teachers are nothing more than friends and nothing less than friends. It seems important to have this conversation and contemplation in the wake of the various scandals that have happened in the yoga world.
What do you think about the yoga teacher/student relationship?
If you’re a yoga teacher, are you nothing more than a friend, nothing less than a friend?
If you’re a yoga student, how do you perceive your yoga teachers?
I would love to hear of your thoughts on this.
In the meantime, I would suggest also checking out this article on the same topic. J. Brown has studied with Mark and brings a greater depth to this topic, plus the comment section is juicy.
- Yoga Teacher as Friend by J. Brown