Guru Purinima, a day when students give thanks to their Guru, has come and gone. The week has been quite emotional for me. I saw many sweet posts where people were giving thanks to their Guru. I am not judging. He who has not sinned cast the first stone. However, I could not help but observe that, many of the people who were calling out their Gurus, did not teach like their Gurus. Some of them are so far from what their Guru had taught, I even wondered if their Guru would even want to be associated with that they were doing.
Why does this bother me? Our actions are shaping the future of Yoga whether we like it or not. Yes the knowledge is out there but lets be real, how many modern Yoga students actually practice Svadyaya?
Swadhyaya, self-study. This is very confusing for many people. Selfstudy—”self”– many people think self-study means, “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. I don’t need a guru. I can just read books.” Now there are lots of videos about yoga. Someone will teach you handstand. You see someone doing handstand. That means he’s a big yogi. “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. Oh, I’m doing swadhyaya.” Long back I met a crazy person. She came to me and, “I was a trained dancer,” she said—and she was asking questions. To the answers, “Oh, I know, I know, I know.” If you know, then why are you coming to me and asking questions? Then I was very curious. I asked her, “Where did you learn yoga? Who’s your teacher?” “Oh, I don’t have a teacher. I’m doing swadhyaya,” she said. “Swadhyaya, what does swadhyaya mean?” I asked. “Oh, I’m watching videos. I’m reading books. And I’m learning yoga.” I said, “Okay. That’s where your knowledge is only this much [gestures small amount].” Swadhyaya means, whatever you learn from your guru, you try to know and practice that. After this workshop, whatever you have learned, to practice, and study that. To improve that in your daily life. And to read all the books. Not the modern books. Ancient books. Veda, Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita. Samhitas. There are so many books. Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga Pradipika- Sharath Jois
How many modern Yoga students actually take the time to go find this knowledge? So if I say, I am teaching the Ashtanga method, the average student is not going to question that. They are going to assume that what I am teaching is Ashtanga even though that may be far from the truth. If I say I learned Ashtanga from Guruji, they are just going to assume that what I am saying, came from Guruji. In my experience, the only time someone questions this is when they have practiced with the same Guru or they do independent study of that Guru’s teachings. Most people just want to do their practice and get on with their day. They are not doing svadyaya.
So when I see posts, articles and pictures up on social media where people are shouting out their Guru, even though they are constantly changing their Guru’s teaching, it brings up the question of what responsibility do we have to our Guru? I am nobodies Guru but I do teach. In the past, I have had students, who are not practicing the way I taught them, go to other teachers and say they learned from me. This pissed me off. Yes it did. I do not want my name associated with things that have nothing to do with me. Do you? Have you ever been in a situation where people were saying you were doing things that you were not and had to defend yourself? Have you ever had to dispel rumors about yourself? Have you ever come up with an idea and had it taken from you and misused? Have you ever been in a situation where someone was doing bad things in your name? But yet, we feel this is okay to do to our so called Guru that we supposedly love and respect. In my mind, this violates Ahmisa, the yogic concept of non harming or non violence because it slowly erodes the credibility of the Guru and their teachings.
What is a Guru? What is a teacher? I do not use the term Guru lightly. I used to. I don’t anymore. I have many teachers. I am not sure if I have a Guru. I had one in the past. Traditionally, a Guru student relationship denotes surrender to the Guru. It involves Bhakti which is a strong devotion and unquestioning love for the Guru. A Guru/student relationship is very similar to the love a small child has for their parent. This is the reason why, for many people, childhood is so carefree. They know that their first Gurus, their parents, are taking care of everything and they are surrounded with love. This is the purpose of the Guru relationship. It is supposed to create an environment of unwavering love and devotion so strong that the student surrenders their vrittis, mental modifications that cause suffering, and they awaken. If the student is constantly questioning the teacher and doing their own thing, this does not happen. This is similar to the relationship many teenagers have with their parents. They exit the carefree bliss of childhood and exchange it for the angst and turmoil of the constantly rebellious questioning teen. The teenage years are exciting and transformative but they are also tumultuous and confusing. That is one way to learn, and for many people, is a stage of the Guru/disciple relationship. However, the ultimate expression of the relationship is surrender because doubt, as Patanjali defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is an obstacle to Yoga.
The only thing is, emotion can take different forms. It can take very sweet and wonderful forms, it can take absolutely nasty and horrendous forms. The thing is to train it to take a sweet and beautiful form. Devotion is a way of transforming your emotion from negativity to pleasantness. Just see, people who have fallen in love do not care about what is happening in the world. The way they are, you think they are unrealistic. It is just that they have made their emotions pleasant, so their life is beautiful. That is the state of a devotee. Devotion is a multiplied and enhanced version of a love affair. A devotee is in an unfailing kind of love affair because if you fall in love with a man or a woman, they do not go the way you expect them to, and it eventually gets into some trouble. That is why people choose God. It is simply a love affair, and you are not expecting any response. Your life becomes utterly beautiful because your emotion has become so sweet. Through that sweetness, one grows. That is devotion.
Devotion is another dimension of intelligence. Intellect wants to conquer the truth. Devotion just embraces the truth. Devotion cannot decipher but devotion can experience. Intellect can decipher but can never experience. This is the choice one has to make. -Sadhguru
Questioner: If that is the case, can someone be your disciple but not your devotee?
Sadhguru: This is a progression. A lot of people initially either come as curiosity seekers, or sometimes as investigators. Then they think there is something to learn here, and they become like a student. If what they learn begins to transform their lives in some way, they naturally become disciples. When learning, transformation, and everything else becomes irrelevant, when the focus of your life becomes one-pointed, then you become a devotee.
Sadhguru: The path is the Guru and the Guru is the path – there is no difference between the two. The mistake is that we differentiate. Once you differentiate between the two, it becomes unnecessarily complex.
At one time, I had a Guru. I transformed by whole entire life to live the way my Guru taught me. I eventually went to live with my Guru and obeyed him in all things. It was a beautiful time in my life. It was carefree and I was able to spend my whole day with my heart and mind focused on svadyaya. It was very blissful. I outgrew his teachings and I left. His teachings still influence my life, but I do not follow them. You will never see pictures of me and him on social media. You will never hear me going around teaching in his name. I have quoted him, but when I do, I always make sure to specify in some way that he is not my current Guru or even teacher. This, to me, is Satya, the Yogic principal of truthfulness.
For me, a teacher is someone that you learn from but you you are not devoted to them. I am blessed to be surrounded by courageous, beautiful and wise people. My life is bursting with inspiration and full of light bringers. I could not imagine my life without these people, but they are not my Gurus. I love them but I am not a devotee. I pick and choose the bits of them that light me up but I don’t take it all. A disciple takes all.
Luke 14:27-35 Bible New International Version (NIV)
27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,
30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?
32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Teachings do evolve. Yoga does evolve. However, there is a difference between evolving and complete disregard. For example. Pattabhi Jois said to not do Ashtanga without Vinyasa and gave us the counting method to ensure the use of Vinyasa. Yet, there are teachers out there, who call Pattabhi Jois their Guru, who methodically add extra poses and give so many props and extra exercises that there is no way that a student could even come close to staying with the count. Before anyone writes me, I am not referring to modifying for injuries and I am not talking about taking extra breaths to work on a pose you haven’t quite figured out. I am talking about teaching Ashtanga like it is Iyengar, Power Yoga, a circus performance or physical therapy with disregard to the Tristana and the Vinyasa method.
The following are aspects that Pattabhi Jois emphasizes as the main components of Ashtanga Yoga.
Vinyasa: Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. For example, in Surya Namskar there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, etc. In this way all asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas.
The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Breathing and moving together while performing asanasmakes the blood hot, or as Pattabhi Jois says, boils the blood. Thick blood is dirty and causes disease in the body. The heat created from yoga cleans the blood and makes it thin, so that it may circulate freely. The combination of the asanas with movement and breath make the blood circulate freely around all the joints, taking away body pains. When there is a lack of circulation, pain occurs. The heated blood also moves through all the internal organs removing impurities and disease, which are brought out of the body by the sweat that occurs during practice.
Sweat is an important by product of vinyasa, because it is only through sweat that disease leaves the body and purification occurs. In the same way that gold is melted in a pot to remove its impurities, by the virtue of the dirt rising to the surface as the gold boils, and the dirt then being removed, yoga boils the blood and brings all our toxins to the surface, which are removed through sweat. If the method of vinyasa is followed, the body becomes healthy and strong, and pure like gold.
After the body is purified, it is possible to purify the nervous system, and then the sense organs. These first steps are very difficult and require many years of practice. The sense organs are always looking outside, and the body is always giving into laziness. However, through determination and diligent practice, these can be controlled. After this is accomplished, mind control comes automatically. Vinyasa creates the foundation for this to occur.
Tristhana: This means the three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind. They are always performed in conjunction with each other.
Asanas purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body. Breathing is rechaka and puraka, that means inhale and exhale. Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Breathing in this manner purifies the nervous system. Dristhi is the place where you look while in the asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.
For cleaning the body internally two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.
The same method stands for the breath. Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system as well. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous system.
An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the anal and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic.
The six poisons: A vital aspect of internal purification that Pattabhi Jois teaches relates to the six poisons that surround the spiritual heart. In the yoga shastra it is said that God dwells in our heart in the form of light, but this light is covered by six poisons: kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya, and mada. These are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. When yoga practice is sustained with great diligence and dedication over a long period of time, the heat generated from it burns away these poisons, and the light of our inner nature shines forth.
What does Guru mean? Is Pattabhi Jois really your Guru? Is Sharath really your Guru? If so, what do you owe to their legacy? Are you following their teachings or are you just inspired by them? What does teacher mean? What responsibility do you have to them? What is the difference between a Guru and a teacher? Is their a difference in the responsibility you have towards them? This article has presented my thoughts on these questions. I challenge you to present these questions not to the ego but to your heart and see what rings true.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.