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The Yoga Teacher/Student Relationship In America

This past Wednesday, January 16th, five senior teachers convened at Maha Padma Temple for a panel discussion on The Role of the Yoga Teacher in Contemporary America.

The group - Alison West, Swami Sadasivananda, James Murphy, Eddie Stern, and Hari Kaur Khalsa, spoke to a packed house. Padmini Perretti, the founder and owner of Maha Padma Yoga Temple who came up with the idea for the event, began the evening with the quote “Don’t look for the right answers, look for the right questions.”

Brette Popper, founder and publisher of YogaCityNYC, who moderated the event, began by asking “How did you find your own teachers?”

“Everyone finds their own teacher according to what they need,” replied Swami Sadasivananda. James Murphy, a dancer, came to Iyengar and fell in love with it through Mary Dunn and most especially after taking a class where “70 year old Jewish women could do Ardha Chandrasana when I was falling over.” Alison West’s first teachers were in Munich and Swami Sankarananda was her first Teacher Training teacher; the concepts of Advaita/Vedanta were deeply formative for her later work.

As Eddie Stern pointed out, however, when these teachers first started practicing back in the 80’s “yoga hadn’t been branded yet. It was just yoga. We didn’t think of it as different styles…. the only thing that really mattered and still matters, isYoga citta vritti nirodhah.” And for Hari Kaur, the moment she began practicing she realized “I wanted to fall. You know? I just wanted to dive.”

“What are the ways that the guru /chela relationship are different now,” asked Popper. “There are less realized masters now. It used to be that you spent 12 years with your teacher. Now it’s 4 weeks." Swami Sivananda added that "nowadays a teacher is supposed to be spiritual or charming or someone who can catch you or is simply knowledgeable. So you must go and learn and become your own teacher,” . He continued that we should all have a sacredness and humility to learning as teachers ourselves.

Eddie Stern commented that the Upanishads speak of a guru/disciple relationship as being one of service. Firstly, to the teacher. A student could be asked to tend the teacher’s cows for years, as service, before he or she was given any formal teachings. “How has it changed [in America]? Everything has changed.” Knowledge used to be parceled out to those willing to commit to the practice. And it was given with discretion. Now, however, yoga has become a business and yoga students have become yoga clients. He continued, “yoga is not about me but about we, the whole interplay of everything. Media and technology serve a function because they keep the idea of we active…Now, perhaps, more and more people are ready to hear what was so long ago kept secret. Technology is just an extension of our consciousness. We created technology. And interconnectedness is being actualized now.”

In regards to how much a teacher should divulge regarding personal matters to a student, everyone wholeheartedly agreed that this relationship should not cross boundaries, one should not socialize with students much less engage in sexual relationships. As Eddie Stern pointed out – “Moving, breathing and concentration – put these, the practice, in front of everything else. Let the “yoga” do them.” (He did admit however that he met his wife in a yoga class but they were both students.) Hari Kaur quipped that she had been told, “If you don’t do right as a yoga teacher you will come back as a cockroach.” “NYC!” Eddie responded with mirth, perhaps thinking of his own bathroom. “Yes, there are passed spiritual teachers all around us,” said Hari. She went on to say that a guru, a true guru - “Is one which takes us from darkness into light.”

When asked how one should approach advanced learning, Alison West in her usual direct, get-to-the-meat-of-the-matter approach, replied, “You have to decide how committed you are.” Her penetrating gaze settled on the teachers as she reminded them of the years of travel, study and practice they had put in as students. They all sought to “know” yoga. Why? Because they each were drawn undeniably to that “knowing” and now as teachers work just as hard to share that with the rest of us.

So how do you keep learning one of the panelists asked, as the last question from the audience. ”I like to surround myself with people smarter than me. Paying attention keeps me learning,” observed Eddie Stern. “Being curious,” was James Murphy’s answer. “I do my practice,” said Hari Kaur. “Teaching is my teacher . . . My learning is enriched by going off topic completely and looking at art. Going to Storm King, gathering branches of beautifully colored leaves. Excellence, in any form, makes me happy,” said Alison West. Finally added Swami Sivananda, “I can learn from everyone.

By the end of the evening, many in the audience realized that yoga in contemporary America has changed -- but the best teachers still deeply invest their practice in tradition.

These teachers live in 2013 which means no longer simply inhabiting a room with a cotton mat, but in a global space interwoven with many paths, props and even, wires. What matters is finding a teacher or guru who can weave it all together with respect and dignity for their students.

--Gina de la Chesnaye

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