For many years the practice of yoga was learned by dedicated students taught by their guru. Students learned yoga from one teacher or lineage and then either taught those same teachings or continued to study and live life.
Today, when we read texts about how to learn yoga, you will always find a statement about the importance of finding a teacher. Presented as fact, this statement leads aspiring yoga practitioners to believe they indeed need to find their “guru.” An ideal of the guru is romanticized and categorized in the minds of many as an “if-then” statement — if I find a guru, then I will become enlightened. The problem with this dichotomy is that the student becomes disempowered by the notion that she can never find success on her own. Students are unable to progress in the true practice of yoga when this idea of the guru guiding practice becomes all-encompassing.
The guru of modern yoga emphasized individuality
At one time, following different lineages meant the equivalent of believing in completely different religions. Today the many lineages of yoga are based on the same, or similar, foundations. How the teaching is delivered has become disputed and controversial, resulting in “gurus” and their students insisting that there is only one RIGHT way to do a posture or a practice. This way of teaching leads to confusion for the students.
Krishnamacharya, considered the father of modern yoga, had many teachers. He went to many different schools to learn 7 different philosophical systems of thinking. Eventually he found a guru who he studied with for 7 years. From that teacher he learned about Patanjali’s yoga sutras. At the end of his 7 years of learning, his guru basically told him to go away! Krishnamacharya’s last piece of homework from his guru was to get married, live in the world, and teach yoga.
As Krishnamacharya lived in the world and began teaching yoga, he drew from all of his life’s experiences to teach what he knew. He emphasized the importance of teaching to the individual, which meant that he changed how and what he taught depending on who he was teaching.
This is exactly why some of his greatest students developed such drastically different practices (Iyengar, Ashtanga, and a therapeutically-oriented practice as taught by Desikachar). For Krishnamacharya, there was not one right way for everyone.
You can’t ignore history and culture
The context, history, culture, and life experience of person will drastically affect what and how they teach. All of those variables mix together to create a certain kind of resonance that either jives with your understanding of the world or not. This is why we can have so many yoga teachers in the world AND we can all prosper. What we have to offer is uniquely our own even though we’re all teaching pretty much the same thing. That does not mean that there is only one RIGHT way to teach or learn. There is only one right way for you, which may or may not match the right way for me.
A true guru or teacher empowers students to find their own right way. Often times that means finding a new teacher or doing something completely different. Really good yoga teachers are in the business of constantly putting themselves out of business. For this reason, yoga and business aren’t great matches. A teacher that creates dependency is not doing his or her students any favors.
The true experimental nature of yoga
Another example of a yogi who learned from many teachers was Hari Dickman, profiled in Marion Mugs McConnell’s book Letters from the Yoga Masters. In the book, McConnell explains how Hari learned yoga mostly through correspondence between some of the world’s most well-known gurus. He wrote a similar question to several different gurus and got different responses. Dickman tested these responses on himself before deciding which was the best option for him. From there he developed his own set of best practices for teaching techniques to his students.
Much of yoga is an experiment. In the West, we think that what is being taught in a yoga classroom is the best way to do something. We skip the step where we have to test out all of these practices (hypotheses) on ourself first! Analysis, contemplation, and continual experimentation needs to happen to find the yoga practice that works best for us. A good yoga teacher gives us space and guides us through that process of testing stuff out. Without analysis and contemplation, the student unconsciously gives away his or her power to the teacher and assumes the teacher knows best. Believing the teacher knows best has the potential to lead towards not good things, as evidenced by many of the scandals that have happened in the yoga world over the past fifty years.
Yoga and golf
When I was in high school I was on the girls golf team. I had a swing coach at the range and my team coach. My team coach didn’t really “coach” me much on my swing because he knew that I had someone else working with me. In the game of golf it’s best to follow one way of doing things rather then get lots of opinions. Golf is about precision, detail, and focus. You have to focus on one way of doing things to do it well. When you lose your focus you’ll never succeed at any one part of the game.
The same is true in yoga except that, as in golf, when the swing no longer works for you it’s time to change your swing. In yoga, when your practice no longer works for your life circumstance it’s time to find a new teacher and a new way of doing things.
The only constant is change
Lineages are barely hanging on today. They have become so adapted from the original source that it’s hard to say what the original lineage was all about anyway. Yoga has to adapt to meet the times, thus the way the teaching is taught must change along with it.
There is no wrong way to learn or teach, but there is a right way for you.
Experience lots of styles of yoga, lots of ways of teaching, lots of teachers, and find someone who really speaks to you. When they no longer excite you, find someone else. It’s the greatest complement to a teacher when a student strikes out on her own. That means you really get it.
I’ve learned from many teachers and yet I wouldn’t say that I follow, or feel compelled to follow, any particular lineage. On the one hand, the aspirant in me laments that I haven’t found my guru yet — for funsies, check out my article I posted on this blog a while back on why you need a guru! On the other hand, I understand that my guru is and always will be me and my unique life circumstances. Life has a lot to teach me every day. I can greet each day with open eyes and arms wide open or keep ignoring what’s right in front of me in my quest to find someone else to tell me what to do, only to be disappointed.
Study many perspectives. Experiment. Contemplate. Synthesize. And then go out in the world and be unapologetically you. Keep changing, smiling, thinking, and being.
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