Traditionally in India, yoga was taught in the house of a teacher, the guru-kula, and yoga, like all things derived from India, was part of an oral tradition. For this one needed a close relationship with a teacher, a guru, literally speaking a “remover of ignorance” to bring the philosophy alive. Choosing a guru is tricky business, because there are many people who can speak charismatically, but far less who can live their philosophy. For many years I used to pray to meet my guru. I would read texts by famous gurus and adapt their suggested practices, visit ashrams, keep their photographs. When I at last decided to look for formalized yoga classes, I chose an ashram created by Swami Vishnu Devananda, which was the first yoga asana training I could find that honored lineage on their promotional materials, that didn’t mention even the names of the current instructors but just used promotional pictures of their gurus. I knew that this would be a classical program and would be an honored lineage which taught the essence of yoga purely, with less of the ego and Hollywood affect that is so prevalent in the American yoga communities.
Within that organization, I was lucky enough to learn from a teacher who knew more than the system laid out in the teacher training. He lived with the original creator of these ashrams, Swami Vishnu-Devananda, from the time he was a young boy and therefore held many useful stories of his master and strong, light-hearted personality. My yoga teacher is most notably efficient. He had been tested time and time again by his teacher, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. He manages all aspects of the ashrams where he lives, from teaching asanas and pranayama to organizing staff and maintaining the physical grounds. He sees everything about the dynamics between people within the ashram and acts and speaks every word with total awareness of impact. He has been involved in my life like a teacher and like family in the intimate moments of my life. I have not always agreed with him, but I have gained incredible strength in his presence. While he is clearly there just to show me my own strength and capability, like a mirror, I would never have chosen to challenge myself to the degree that he has if left to my own devices. And yet with him, I challenge myself readily and joyfully. Sometimes I do not need to talk with him; I just observe the way he runs the ashram and I am uplifted to do anything alongside him, from laying bricks, to cutting the grass. He gives all credit to his teacher, Swami Vishnu-Devananda. His teacher gave all credit to his teacher, Swami Sivananda, and so on. And in this way, the lineage remains pure, about the teaching more than the current teacher.
I also met again my singing teacher, Hasu Patel, in the Sivananda ashram. I had known her since college and fallen out of touch for a few years, but then coincidentally or not so coincidentally found her again in the same organization. She is like a mother to me, teaching me everything from music to how to organize my kitchen, eat enough protein as a vegetarian, accounting, language, traditional customs, devotion, and mostly how to persevere through any challenge. She has been alongside me during the most trying moments of my life like a protector and a guide. These two teachers are like my mother and father, both challenging, loving, and to whom I am greatly indebted, though they would never say so.
Many people think that a yoga teacher is an advanced stretching teacher. With enough knowledge of anatomy and physiology and some basic intellectual understanding of a few philosophical texts or ideas, one can teach. And truthfully this may suffice as perfectly healing for many people, but I have always sought more. Yoga is beyond the body and beyond the intellect. One can not know the Self by simply reading books or twisting the body. Seek a guru who is loving but will also not allow you to become lazy in your devotion, determination, and practices and one who is not self-proclaiming but gives credit to his or her own teachers.The depth of a guru-student relationship is magical and makes the philosophy real and the peace deeply rooted and everlasting. I find it indescribable and yet as an aspirant and teacher, these relationships have provided the very ground beneath my feet, a foundation upon which I can grow and a place where I can always return.
Om Bolo Sat Guru Swami Sivananda Maharaja-ki Jai!