The Guru Connection

by Aug 31, 2015

With the proliferation of different styles of yoga these days I wonder if an essential aspect is being down played. This is the concept of “paramparāor a succession of mike and gurujiteachers in a traditional lineage. Intrinsic to this concept is the one of “Guru” (teacher) and “śiya” (disciple) or “sādhaka” (spiritual aspirant). All the traditional texts say that it is essential to learn and practice yoga under the guidance of a Guru. It seems to me that yoga as it is practiced in the West, is moving away from this as it is considered more and more as a type of physical exercise rather than a way of establishing the mind in the Self. Thus we have a situation where there is little or no connection between the Yoga teacher and the person taking the class. Indeed, some classes are being taught purely from a defined script!

Why is there this reluctance to follow tradition or even to really seek out a Guru to guide one through the Yoga practice? Part of it is cultural arrogance. We are taught that we know best and that modern science has all the answers. Part of it may stem from the bad publicity there has been around some leading “Gurus” in the yoga world failing to live up to their own lofty ideals. A lot of it is our ego being unwilling to surrender to Guru.

Is surrender to the Guru a necessary aspect of the Guru-Shishya relationship? The best way for me to answer this is to perhaps explain my relationship with my Guru, Sri K Pattabhi Jois. I first met Guruji in 1994 in Mysore in Southern India. At that time I was interested in Yoga as a physical practice as well as being a little curious about the deeper meaning of it. I was in no way looking for a Guru and yet part way through that trip Guruji made it plain to me that if I was willing to accept him as my Guru, he would be that for me. He did this, not by stating it in words but merely by a look into my eyes and by his actions in the shala. Central to our relationship has always been my decision to take him as my Guru. This never stops. Every day when I chant the mantra before I start my practice, I reaffirm this decision. I decide again that I will practice the method that Guruji taught me.

Does this mean that I took Guruji as my guide in other aspects of my life? Not necessarily. In terms of my Yoga practice, I have never questioned him. But in terms of my working life, my diet and my relationship to my parents, family and friends there is a cultural divide that means I make my own decisions. I use what I have learnt through the practice Guruji taught me, to inform those decisions. Guruji taught me to always be attentive, to always question, never to believe what I did not experience for myself, but to do this in the environment of a daily practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

So where did Guruji’s passing leave me? The Ashtanga Yoga community is fortunate that there has been a passing down of the lineage. Sharath spent many, many years practicing, assisting and studying under the guidance of Guruji and I have no qualms in accepting him as my Guru. I have also been very lucky to have Peter Sanson as my “junior Guru” because he has spent some time in Mysore every year for the last 30 years or so. No-one in the West has a deeper understanding of traditional Ashtanga and of my own practice than Peter. This means that I have neither the need nor the desire to seek guidance any where else.

For me, the time spent learning directly from the Guru is essential to the true passing of knowledge or paramparā. We in the West are too quick to want to change things, to make things better. Yes, yoga will evolve. In fact, people were always accusing Guruji of changing things, and they are doing the same with Sharath. Change will happen but it must happen from the basis of having already surrendered to the Guru and to the method and having practiced for a very long time. Krishnamacharya was a ground breaker in terms of the Yoga practice, but if you read his biography you know that he first spent many, many years in traditional study. I was lucky enough to spend a small amount of time with Guruji and now with Sharath and Peter. My position is at the end of this line and that means that I continue to practice and to teach staying as true to that lineage as I can. It seems a shame to me that so many people practice “Yoga” without ever experiencing a relationship with a Guru or indeed, thinking it necessary. Instead, many people prefer to mix and match teachers and styles of yoga in whatever way suits themselves. This is not yoga in the traditional sense because that is the practicing of one method under one Guru.

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  1. Rachel

    Wise words as always Mike, I miss practice with you in the shala…right now trying to apply to practice in Mysore I hope I get through this time 🙂

  2. Mike

    Thank you Rachel. Good luck getting to Mysore. Look forward to hearing about it.


  3. Jon

    “It seems a shame to me that so many people practice “Yoga” without ever experiencing a relationship with a Guru or indeed, thinking it necessary. Instead, many people prefer to mix and match teachers and styles of yoga in whatever way suits themselves. This is not yoga in the traditional sense because that is the practicing of one method under one Guru.”

    It may not be traditional, but I would not always conflate “traditional” with “correct”.
    I have done Iyengar yoga for the same amount of time I’ve done Ashtanga yoga. This is not an attempt to mix and match to suit myself; I started them a day apart and have not found any reason to quit either. I enjoy both and benefit from both. Something that is both enjoyable and beneficial should not be surrendered lightly.

    I am not trying to create some fusion blend of yoga for myself or anyone else. They are both a journey.

    When I do Iyengar yoga I do Iyengar yoga.
    When I do Ashtanga yoga I do Ashtanga yoga. There is some cross over usefulness in Ashtanga having done Iyengar, but when I practice Ashtanga I’m very clear with myself that I’m practicing Ashtanga. This does not take some force of will; it just happens.
    Although really, as time goes on, they both seem like “just yoga” to me.

    I know it’s very easy for Ashtanga people to reject Iyengar outright – it definitely has a steeper curve of appeal (I really disliked it at first), but to a large extent you have to surrender to it in the same way you do in Ashtanga.

    Both yogas are great parts of my life and have helped me tremendously. I would be crazy to give up either. It really does’t have to be over-thought more than that.

  4. Mike

    Thank you for the comment, Jon. I do not mean to conflate traditional with correct. Yoga simply is a tradition and I believe that every teacher and practitioner needs to respect this. I can make no comment about Iyengar yoga as I have never done an Iyengar yoga class. This is not because I dismiss Iyenager or think that Ashtanga is superior. It is simply because I am following my Guru’s instruction to me to have only one Guru, to follow one method.

    Since before the time of Patanjali there have been many schools of yoga. This is why it is so important to have a Guru, because it is them who inform the aspirant how to practice. This is not a decision the aspiring yogi should make for themselves.

    I would ask you, who is your Guru? Who is it that tells you that what you are practicing truly is beneficial? Who is it that guides you through the many pitfalls and cul de sacs that every yoga practitioner falls into?