Why You Need a Guru
I’m in the middle of an inspiration filled week of practice with my Guru, R. Sharath Jois, who is holding classes in NYC. Today’s blog discusses WHY you need a guru and how it allows you to go much deeper on your spiritual journey than you ever would on your own.
Why do you need a guru?
The word guru literally translates from sanskrit as “the one who leads you from darkness to light.” It is so simple, yet it reminds us there will be moments in our lives which will be too dark for us to find our own way out. A guru shows us the way to a better place, both on the mat and off.
Being a senior teacher or guru is very much like being a parent. It is the leader’s job to guide his or her students each step of the way on their spiritual path. It is NOT his/her job to be liked, nor to give students what they want. It is their job to give you what you NEED. This is why a true guru won’t be concerned with winning a popularity contest. A guru has the regular task of taking a student out of his/her comfort zone. The guru must give the student new poses or assignments at which he/she KNOWS the student will fail (at least during the first attempt). The guru’s job is to watch the myriad of reactions from the student as he/she slowly chips away a path to growth and success. The guru’s job is a challenging one, only suitable for those who have walked the path for the themselves, and who possess enough mental strength to stay the course for a lifetime.
Much like a good parent wouldn’t allow their child to eat candy for breakfast, a guru doesn’t allow you to fall prey to your excuses or only attempt the parts of practice which you like. Remember, their job isn’t to be your friend. It is to stimulate your personal growth on every level.
Most of this growth will happen far beyond your comfort zone. This morning I attended the third consecutive day of led intermediate series class with Sharath, which is arguably the most challenging guided yoga class in the world. Despite having participated in this class for years, I still feel a touch of stage fright/butterflies in my stomach each time. Each of the last three mornings I woke up with my mind scrolling through “valid” reasons I could use to skip class, less I “don’t do a good job during practice” (which I know is completely irrelevant). The REAL reason I showered, dressed, and made my way to the Chinatown YMCA for class was because I knew my guru was expecting me. After 8 trips to study with him in Mysore, I have seen him believe in me even when I had no belief in myself. My role as a student urged me to simply show up and see what was possible. Based on years of conditioning, I also knew I would feel stronger on the other side. And I did.
We ALL succumb to moments of weakness. These moments usually occur when left to our own devices, as the continuing pressures of everyday life provoke the resistance of our mind. Being in the presence of your guru reminds you what you are truly made of. It strengthens your self discipline and the ability to ignore the chatter of your mind, including its litany of excuses. Because the path of yoga is a lifelong one, we must reconnect to this inner strength as often as possible to provide us with faith along the way.
As stated above, a guru isn’t there to be your friend. He or she can be welcoming and friendly, as your minister or rabbi would be, but the guru/shishya (sanskrit for student/devotee) relationship holds a certain level of formality.
A true guru is one who is part of a lineage of yoga (parampara). This means he/she has learned from his/her own guru for many years, who in turn studied with his own guru, etc. This lineage is how the yogic path, which was originally an oral tradition, was handed down. Sharath’s guru was his grandfather, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (affectionately known as Guruji). Guruji’s guru was T. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga as we know it today. Krishnamacharya’s guru was Ramamohan Brahmachari, etc. Ideally, yoga still passes from generation to generation this way. This direct line of unbroken knowledge allows the student to study from those whom have walked in his shoes and have felt exactly what he is experiencing. This connection allows a deep level of trust to develop between the student and teacher, which is a crucial point. You can NEVER discover the deeper layers of yourself if you do not trust the person who is guiding you to show you the way safely.
During a recent retreat I led in Peru’s Sacred Valley, our guide delivered us to the mouth of a small cave at the temple of Sachsayhuaman, near Cusco. The cave was so small, we would have to crouch down to walk through the passage to the other side, so as not to bump our heads on the stone above. Did I mention the cave was so tiny, we had to walk single file down the winding path? In pitch darkness, of course. Taking a few steps into the cave triggered claustrophobia in several of us, myself included. So we bowed out of the challenge.
Even as we watched the others emerge from the other side of the cave unscathed, we had zero inspiration to try it ourselves. Only when my husband, Ben, volunteered to walk the cavernous, dark path again, holding our hands, and talking us through the eerie blackness until we saw light on the other side, did we agree to go for it. As we emerged victoriously after our adventure, the exhilaration we felt was palpable. We had conquered a huge fear and discovered strength we never knew we had. I can’t emphasize enough, this would NEVER had happened had we not had a trustworthy leader whom had walked in our shoes (and survived) to show us the way.
Notice I did not take that dark walk through the cave alone? Being surrounded by like minded individuals whom are on the same spiritual journey creates powerful energy. The yogic path can feel solitary at times, since we are on our mats alone, doing our own spiritual work within ourselves. Feeling the energetic support of others, whether in a cave or in the yoga room, provides us with inspiration and devotion to stay the course. This is crucial, because yoga is NOT a path to instant gratification. We need as much support as possible to practice for a lifetime, without break. The connection from those walking alongside us while being led by a guru is both potent and powerful. Never underestimate the power of a sangha (community).
Yoga in the West
The sad fact is the typical yoga studio environment in the west isn’t conducive to the guru/student relationship. Most studios offer multiple disciplines of yoga, so there is little or no reverence for any guru in particular. Furthermore, students pop into classes of various styles of yoga with various teachers each day, with the element of commitment rarely discussed. While intentions are usually good, the aspect of trusting and connecting with one guru or teacher is overlooked. this means it is up to YOU to approach your own yogic journey with accountability. Take ownership of your practice, knowing you want to commit for the long haul with a teacher you trust.
Don’t have a guru or one teacher you look up to with reverence and respect? Here is how to find one.
1. Pay less attention to the style of yoga and more attention to how you feel after. Is your mind quieter? How are your reactions the rest of the day?
2. Not sure what type of class to attend? Seek out a method which still has institutes in India like KPJAYI.
3. When you find a teacher who challenges you and delivers you a practice which forces you out of your comfort zone, you’re on the right track. Yoga is a gateway to clarity of mind, not fun filled playtime.
4. Your teacher should have a teacher. Ask them who it is. A true lineage is traceable.
5. Be wary of those who create their own kind of yoga for two reasons. First, yoga isn’t a fad. It is still around because it works! Thus, it doesn’t need changing to make it cool or effective. Second, if you invent your own kind of yoga it means you don’t have a guru. If nobody is holding you accountable it can be a slippery slope. Bikram yoga and Anusara yoga are just two examples of self made gurus who fell from grace after being investigated for legal issues. While we all make mistakes, a teacher whom is used to their guru observing them will likely make smarter decisions.
6. You might not have an instant connection with your guru. It is perfectly fine if it grows over time.
Because we know the yogic path is a lifelong one, it’s important to note that when you do connect with a method and a guru, the relationship will likely last many years. Sharath Jois spent over 20 years studying with Guruji until he passed in 2009. Guruji studied with Krishnamacharya for over 25 years before the latter moved to a different city. While there is no “right” amount of time to spend with your guru, approach the relationship with love, awareness, and the intention to learn with your guru until you have extracted all you can from the relationship. If you ever need to part ways with your guru, do so with love and respect for all you have learned. Have gratitude for the relationship and all its teachings.
As Sharath Jois once told me, “A real guru shows you the obstacles within you”. He or she doesn’t let you off the hook or do the work for you. A real guru INSPIRES you to want to do the work and shows you the way. In a world filled with so much chatter and stimulation, a true guru/student relationship is priceless. We all need a devoted guide to illuminate the path before us.