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Guru Based?

I have been trying to write some version of this essay for quite awhile now. Insecurity, hesitation, fear, all sorts of voices have plagued me, choked me, and stopped me from taking a stab at giving voice to these particular thoughts and feelings.

And yet, for a number of reasons I am going to go ahead and risk expression. I am going to present a perspective on a somewhat difficult topic for some in the yoga community in the hopes that it might resonate for some of you, in some way. I also hope that my attempt to articulate a particular perspective might bring greater understanding to those who hold a different view. The particular viewpoint that I will describe is one that is not often expressed openly within the confines of a strong hierarchical system, or an organization or community that is considered by many to be Guru-based, such as Iyengar Yoga.

"What does it mean to be practicing and teaching within a Guru-based system?" That question was posed to a group of us at a retreat recently. It was a thought-provoking question. We were asked to contemplate it, and prepare for further discussion, but never wound up circling back for a group dialogue on this provocative topic (at least it can seem like a provocative topic for those involved in such a community). Yet the dialogue occurred anyway. It occurred (and continues to occur) within small group discussions and, hopefully, within each of us. It is an important question to reflect on because the very question itself can reveal major differences in how each of us might describe and/or identify with what it is we are doing, sharing, and even how we go about sharing what it is we are sharing. When I first came to the practice of Iyengar Yoga back in the 1990s, BKS Iyengar was referred to as Mr. Iyengar by all of my teachers. We chanted the invocation to Patanjali at the start of class (and sometimes not even that) and there was very little use of Sanskrit terminology other than the pose names or occasional references to some basic philosophical concepts. Gradually this changed. Mr. Iyengar became Guruji. And what seemed like an ecumenical-like, or even somewhat secularized examination of yogic philosophical principles (and the questions regarding what it might mean to live a fully embodied and examined life) became more and more infused with what was a decidedly Hindu, religious, and/or theistic bent. The degree to which this occurred varied greatly from teacher to teacher. But it did seem to be a trend for many within the larger community of Iyengar yoga. I think as more and more people went to study with the Iyengar family at their Institute in Pune, India, and as the teachings in Pune moved more steadily in this direction, the resulting shift naturally occurred.

I enjoyed the chanting and the exploration of Sanskrit and yoga philosophy at that time. And I still do. Back then it was all new to me. I was simultaneously intimidated and intrigued. It felt exotic and it framed the exploration of the body/mind in a fresh and novel way. I also enjoy the study of languages, and enjoyed reading and chanting the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (in Sanskrit) and memorizing verses from the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit as well as in English. I still do. But this is not because I consider myself a Hindu (I don't) or a religious person (I'm not) but because I think there are deep benefits to chanting, singing, and contemplation as a type of devotional expression and/or mediation. I enjoy the Sanskrit sounds. And I like contemplating the ideas and questions that are evoked in what are considered some of the world's great spiritual texts. I like to grapple with the questions that inevitably arise within myself when encountering these and other challenging texts. It isn't, for me, about finding the answers. It is about entering into a process of deep inquiry with wonder, discernment and an open mind. It is about looking at myself and my fellow beings and our surroundings through the lens of the present moment, which (in spite of my efforts to the contrary) is colored and conditioned by my life and experiences.

Now this process of inquiry and study is not limited to Indian or Eastern philosophy. It has expanded to include readings from different philosophical traditions, studies in science, history, literature, and the arts in general. I feel it is especially powerful when we are able to integrate and synthesize different influences and perspectives into some kind of honest and integrated whole. Sometimes that isn't possible. But I like to look for deeper patterns that provide meaning and connection. And I like the exploration of an embodied cognition.

In the course of our brief life most of us will experience the mystery of love, the pain of loss, and myriads of other things, both beautiful and terrible. We will experience these things as individuals and as a collective. Knowing that we have each other in which to share these experiences—and that we are all in a somewhat similar predicament—is more than comforting. It is an amazing opportunity not only for connection, but also for communion.

Having a teacher, ideally a wise teacher, or teachers, and the practices they impart, can be extremely helpful as we navigate these turbulent and unpredictable waters of life. And yet our situations and waters (though similar) are also unique. And each one of us must find our own way to swim in the waters of our life with what we have and as the person we are. So I go back to the question, "what does it mean to be in a Guru based system?" It still makes me pause. And reflect. And confess. I confess that I do not so readily define Iyengar yoga as such—at least not for myself, and not anymore. I do not feel that the primary definition of Iyengar yoga would be that it is a Guru-based practice, or that the core of the practice is about the man or the Guru himself. The core is much older and deeper than that. It transcends each of us as individuals. This yoga is part of a much larger continuation of a great inquiry by human beings that has been going all over the planet for thousands of years.

The word Guru literally means weighty, heavy or grave—like the Latin word gravis. A Guru is kind of like the force of gravity. The Guru is like a sun and the students are like planets. Things (people) revolve around the guru, are pulled toward the guru. A guru is usually a spiritual teacher, a guiding light, an authority figure, and a master. A guru can be many things. The many metaphors often used to describe this type of relationship are quite poetic.

I have tried to relate to my teachers as gurus, and honestly, I did not find it to be a healthy process for me. I sometimes wonder if it was all that healthy for them. It did not feel healthy or wholesome to put so much power (or gravity) in one person. I also do not find the resulting social dynamics that are born of strongly hierarchical systems all that helpful for true learning, and our evolution as people. In fact, I feel they are often harmful. I much prefer to uphold the values that arise from a more egalitarian approach to the learning process. It is here that one can develop a sense of self-reliance, personal power and self-efficacy, as opposed to looking for, or being dependent upon, the power of the Guru or the social power of the group surrounding the Guru.

It is for this reason that I like to envision the practice of yoga as one that is teachings based, rather than guru-based. A yoga that is a fluid, dynamic, on-going exploration of that which is deep, mysterious and ever evolving within each of us. I deeply respect BKS Iyengar and the teachings he shared. Deep respect may not adequately express the complexity of these feelings. They are somewhat more than that. I love what he has given of himself and in the sharing of his life's work, and I am so grateful for what the teachings of yoga ignited within me. The example of his life's inquiry kindled the fires of something previously unrealized in my own life's inquiry. Yet my yoga journey has taken a different form and is expressing itself in ways different than that of BKS Iyengar. And yet I still consider myself a student of the teachings he shared so brilliantly. Interestingly, it was his curious and creative approach to yoga that helped me to remove the fearful darkness of conformity that kept my own curious heart hidden in the practice. It is also interesting because the need to conform, to think like the group, is one of the things I find problematic about hierarchical, and/or Guru-based systems or communities.

To be one who strives to provide the type of teaching that illuminates is to be one who helps each student come into his or her own light of awareness. In my mind this is what all great teaching is meant to do. It is not limited to a Guru. All great teaching is meant to spark and stoke the fires of curiosity and inquiry. Great teaching is about the process of providing unlimited access to all the tools that might help provide illumination within the hearts and minds of each and every student.

I have been fortunate to have many great teachers in my life. And I choose to refer to them as teachers rather than gurus because (as stated above) I do not feel that it would be healthy to totally surrender my mind, heart, body, and life so completely to any one person (another definition of the Guru/student relationship). To surrender to nature, or the cosmos, or to uncertainty, is one thing. Is the Guru an embodiment of these things? And is that what one is surrendering to? Perhaps—but they are still people, just like everybody else! To surrender my sense of wonder and life spirit to another person, especially a preordained authority figure, does not seem to me to be a path to enlightenment.

Again—we are, first and foremost, just people. Maybe we are more than that, I don't know. But I think we do best when we relate to each other as such, with the accordant deep respect and dignity, and treat each other and those we encounter in our lives as equals. We are all right here on the same ground, on planet Earth. I feel that no one is above, or any closer to God, or the truth, than anyone else.

And again, I must confess, I have been one to put my teachers up on pedestals and have been heartbroken and disappointed when they turned out to be just people after all! People, just like you and me, no more, no less—imperfect, impure, flawed and fallible human beings. Yet beautiful, lovable, and worthy of respect in all their complexity and humanity.

"When we place the teacher on a pedestal, we are conversely placing ourselves in a pit. It is as if the pedestal were created by digging space for it in the ground, leaving a depression, and then we go and stand in this hollow. In this way all our innate intelligence—our questioning mind, clear vision, cleverness, and our skepticism—are given away." (Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga). When we revere, as opposed to respect, another person we tend to put them up on a pedestal, and in some ways we rob them of their innate humanness. We rob ourselves of the same. We debase ourselves to elevate them and debase them by doing so. In some weird way it ends up being disrespectful to all parties involved, and disrespectful to our shared predicament as human beings.

As a teacher of yoga, I do not want to be put up on a pedestal by my students. I do not want anyone bowing at my feet—and if I am honest with myself I have never been truly comfortable with bowing at other people’s feet either. Part of this is cultural, I know. And I have done this, bowed at my teachers feet many, many times. I did this because it was the tradition in the culture in which I was studying. I did it out of respect. I did it out of a genuine appreciation for the teachings shared, but I also wonder if by doing so I was being truly respectful to that person to whom I was bowing. Especially when I was doing it because it was expected, or out of fear, or to conform. Or for other complicated reasons.

I am not judging the tradition. Rituals and traditions like this can be potent practices and can have great value for the participants. But I think it is important to ask ourselves the deeper questions of what we are doing, and why we are engaging these and all of our rituals and practices. I think it is important to consider what are our core values, the deep values that we are choosing to uphold and embody. Are they values that we have fully examined and freely chosen? How do we feel about those who have chosen different values, or have chosen to express some of our shared values in different ways?

Unfortunately, those who question or openly wonder about values, beliefs and behaviors, especially within the context of a hierarchical system, are often deemed arrogant, egotistical, heretical, or lacking in humility. And they are often seen as a threat, or as corrupted or impure.

Why are we threatened by those who ask questions, if we are, or by those who think and feel for themselves?

For those practicing within a strongly hierarchical and/or guru-based system, it is easy to for the mind to become conditioned to think and even to perceive the world in certain ways. As human animals our perceptions are conditioned by our lives and experiences in one way or another. Seeing the degree to which we become conditioned, and recognizing this fact, is a big part of the yoga process. But it can be difficult to see clearly or accurately, if we (or those that surround us) are fearful and/or enmeshed in the type of group think that can so easily emerge from such systems. We can easily forget that our way of seeing is only that. It might not be true for everyone, or even true at all.

In the end we are human beings, thinking animals making our way as best we can through this brief and very temporal life. We are born, and we die. We decay, disintegrate, and evaporate. We will all be forgotten. Our breath will once again become air along with the great contributions, ideas, art, and poetry, teachers, and gurus. We will all be forgotten. And our beautiful planet itself will be incinerated in the blazing heat and light of our own collapsing sun as it too dies out and into the gravitas and darkness of a black hole.

So if anything is Guru, it is this. This process. It is the mystery of love, and existence. It is wonder. You might choose to call this God. For me it is unutterable.

All artwork by Lia Halloran:

To read more of Carrie Owerko's work, visit her website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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