Master of Yoga?

Guru worship and the modern yoga teacher

I’ll admit it: I often read yoga-based magazines just as much for the advertisements as the articles. I like to keep track of what is being sold in the community and, more importantly, how it’s being sold. More often than not, I do it for amusement. I find it fascinating, the way that a discipline has been transformed into numerous commodities, all identified as “necessary,” or at least “beneficial” to one’s practice. Come to think of it, even a yoga mat isn’t necessary to practice yoga. What is, however, is a bit of faith, a lot of patience, and even more integrity.

It’s that last quality that I often see sacrificed when reading about how any number of teachers promote themselves. When I read that some event or person will “change my life,” it brings up two thoughts. First, anything has the capability of changing one’s life, as the words “change” and “life” are in many regards synonymous. Secondly, the way I see ads presented, it’s almost a negation of the life you currently live, as if all the experiences you’ve had up to this point — that of said teacher or event — have been “leading” you to now. It’s misleading and worse, dangerous. It’s dishonest.

This is not to say events do not change lives, that people do not change lives; they do. My life has been “changed” due to yoga, but I cannot pinpoint one specific person or event that did so. Rather, it’s been a constant dedication to the discipline, and an entire cast of characters that has helped do so. Think of Indra’s net: a perpetual garland of jewels all shining and reflecting each other, so that within one jewel, every other jewel can be seen, and so on. It’s the perfect metaphor for the yoga community at large.

By far the most disturbing advertisements I’ve seen are those using the term “yoga master.” How exactly does one “master” a discipline that is transient and continual, that is constantly being woven by the everyday experiences of all of our lives? Is that even possible? Now, certainly there are practitioners who have achieved elevated states of consciousness, and truly helped shift students’ perspectives — enlightenment is possible. In my own practice, I’ve come across one person — Dharma Mittra — who would come closest to having the word “master” affixed before his name. Yet something inside tells me that if he were truly a master, he’d never have need for that word.

(Note: my time with him has been limited, perhaps a dozen classes; I make no claims of understanding how he actually perceives this topic.)

The concept of guru worship has always eluded me; again, a guru is a light-bearer, and if the light is cast with the shadow of egoism, it cannot shine that brightly. It’s one thing for a student to call their teacher a master, or a guru; it’s quite another for the teacher to believe it, even use the title in his or her marketing efforts. At times, it feels like yoga teachers can be compared to a sitar student who studies with Ravi Shankar for three months and then affixes the title “Ustad” to their name.

We are all teachers, we are all students; these titles, too, are transient and exchangeable. If a teacher stops believing himself or herself to be a student, to have “mastered” an unending and enduring discipline, there are plenty of texts to consult to be set straight, plenty of teachers to learn from. Sometimes one needs to step down from the soapbox and stare at the rest of us eye level, so like Indra we can all be reflected within each other.

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