03/04/2012 11:06 am ET Updated May 04, 2012

The Spiritual Upside to a Guru's Downfall

Many people know that the yoga community is abuzz over allegations of financial and sexual misconduct by one of its heroes. I certainly empathize with the students and teachers who love Anusara Yoga founder John Friend (not to mention any innocent participants caught up in this scandal) and no doubt feel a sense of betrayal.

But I have to admit that when a guru falls from the lofty pedestal we've put him on, a part of me applauds. That's because seeing a spiritual master's flaws helps me relate to him or her in a more powerful way. And it allows me to love my own imperfect self more fully, which I believe is perhaps the most crucial of all spiritual practices.

Over the years we've all glimpsed the various ways supposedly perfect people fall short. There are the numerous celibate swami sex scandals of the twentieth century (which, as I recently learned, got their start as far back as 1910). Mother Teresa's inner conflicts about God. Religious leaders talking ill of others. Plus, I've been to more than one spiritual workshop where I've watched revered teachers lose their temper or get caught up in ego.

A while back I interviewed several top yoga masters (ironically, John Friend among them), for a blog post on how they themselves return to their own state of inner balance after they've lost it. I knew it would help to see that no matter how spiritually accomplished people are, nearly everyone experiences those wayward moments sometimes. (What separates a master from others is how quickly they typically recover from them.)

The spiritual teacher Alan Cohen says that the ideal guru sells his bottled water while sitting on the side of the river, so you know where you can acquire it, too. (This contrasts with gurus that want you to think they magically materialized the liquid.) I agree, and I'll go further in saying that I'd also enjoy watching the guru shlep the water out of the river, have some of it dribble over the edge as he pours it into the bottle and maybe even struggle to get the cap on top. That's a guru whose subsequent words would speak right to me!

My experience with more than 20 years of spiritual practice is that I am most inspired by people who, while calmer and wiser (and more disciplined), don't seem all that different from me. A few months back I heard a spiritual master discuss the joys of meditating first thing in the morning. Since I'd gotten away from a morning practice, I vowed to start the next day. But when she mentioned later in her talk that she hadn't missed a morning in 30 years, I felt deflated. Perfect attendance was a standard I wasn't likely to achieve, so why bother? Thankfully, a few days later I realized I was being foolish, and I sat down. Was it smart of me to judge myself by her unbearably high standard? No. But it is human.

I'm aware that some traditions teach that gurus are unblemished, and that admiring the perfection in them is a way to glimpse God. But I personally go farther on my own spiritual path when I remember it's okay that I'm fallible, that wherever I am or whatever I've done is fine. And I appreciate all the fallen gurus who remind me.

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Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the spiritual women's novel "Downward Dog, Upward Fog," which was recommended by Yoga Journal, YogaDork and Elephant Journal blogs. Foreword Reviews calls the novel "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Read excerpts at Meryl also writes for O: the Oprah Magazine, Whole Living, Reader's Digest and other national magazines.

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