The need to have a spiritual guide is not new. For as long as man has roamed the earth, there have been people putting themselves in the role of teacher, religious leader, master, or guru. Perhaps it comes from this constant quest to figure out what our humanity is all about.
So what is new? Instant access to your own private guru. Gurus are now popping up everywhere in the form of yoga teachers. It appears that yoga teachers, by some inherent right of being called a ‘yoga teacher,’ are automatically viewed with an esteemed reverence.
In fact, our culture has elevated yoga teachers to a state of authority on virtually everything. We are somehow expected to know so much and to be so perfect. We act as people’s therapists, both physically and psychologically. We are experts on everything related to anatomy and physiology. We are nutritional counselors. We are expected to be able to walk on our hands; if we don’t, well, then we’re just not good enough gurus.
Why is it that yoga teachers are elevated to such unreachable standards when so many of us barely have a 200-hour yoga teacher training under our belt?
The word “teacher” or “guru” is so effortlessly given to the earnest but yet untested yoga aficionado offering classes in the neighborhood gym, that we blatantly forget to ask ourselves: What actually constitutes a yoga teacher? In turn, we possibly trust some under-qualified “gurus” to help us make enormous life decisions without a second thought.
I’m a lifelong yoga instructor, but I’m telling you: yoga teachers make the most unlikely gurus.
Here are five reasons why you should think twice before seeking their advice:
1. They are not teachers.
Your yoga teacher, in all likelihood, is not really a ‘teacher’. They are your yoga instructor but that’s it. They have typically completed a 200-hour training—500 hour if you are lucky. They know how to teach you postures. They probably know how to get your body into some sense of alignment. Your yoga instructor might have some simple understanding of how to teach basic breathing practices. (Prana Yama.) But that’s it. They do not know how to align your life. Not only is it not fair to them to ask them to try, but it’s also not in your best interest to inquire.
2. They never had a yoga ‘teacher’ or guru themselves.
One of the most important yet overlooked aspects of the yoga tradition is the student/teacher relationship. The teachers of this tradition had a ‘teacher’ not only to impart the lineage, but also to direct and guide the student through the proper steps of the practice. They were actually the guide – the guru – who dispelled the darkness.
For some, guru has taken on a dirty meaning. So many “gurus” have been known to take advantage of their position with their students. Their stories are widely known.
From personal experience, having a’ teacher’ is the only way I have ever grown as a student. While I have been blessed with a few teachers, (Alan Finger, Erich Schiffman, Genny Kapuler), only one has remained in my heart. When you meet your ‘teacher’, there is a cataclysmic shift in your entire being. Everything inside of you awakens, and life somehow becomes clearer. Only a ‘teacher’ steeped in tradition, who has also been guided in the practice, can offer that.
During Wanderlust, Rod Stryker speaks about what it truly means to take on a ‘teacher’ in this Youtube video.
3. No life experience
Don’t expect your yoga instructor to automatically have had lots of life experience which has taken root in their life. The wise ones know that for real wisdom to take place, real experience has to take place. Wisdom can only come from experience.
How many times have you been to a yoga class and the instructor has been 20 or 30 or even 40 years younger than you? Some of them are just so young. Take the infamous Yoga Girl, who has a massive online following. With over a million followers on Instagram, her avid fan base continues to grow. As quoted in Mind Body Green, June 19, 2012:
“At only 23-years-old, Rachel Brathen has created quite the beautiful life for herself. Leaving her native Sweden in search of escape and adventure, she found herself on a tiny island, sharing her love of yoga and life with anyone who would listen. Now, four years later, she has developed a loyal following of fans online who can’t get enough of her genuine nature and famous “handstand posts.”
Somehow, someone in a tight bikini doing handstands has been given the title Guru because they post such things as “Live your bliss!” and “Open your heart!”
I am sure that Yoga Girl is wonderful person who inspires many. And maybe she can even teach you how to stand on your hands. But that does not automatically make her a Guru. Don’t confuse being a good, popular person with being a ‘guru’.
4. Being a yoga teacher is not their ‘real’ job.
While living in New York, I had the opportunity of meeting many performers-turned-yoga teachers. How many times I heard this or something similar: “I am in between acting gigs right now and teaching yoga is a lot more fun than waiting tables.”
Or how many people make a change to teaching yoga as a way out of their old career. “I don’t know what I am going to do with my life, so I thought I would start teaching yoga.” I still hear this sometimes.
It is surprising to see how many people assume the role of the “Guru” after a 200-hour teaching training. But what is more surprising is to see how many people are so willingly ready to let that new teacher become their ultimate spiritual guide.
5. They don’t have a personal practice
I very seldom ever take yoga classes anymore for one simple reason. Unfortunately, many yoga teachers today are ignorant of the historic tradition of yoga and her practices. The trend out there in the yoga world is this: Do a lot of arm balances, sweat a lot, and (maybe) attend some Kirtan. That is all there is to yoga. And when teachers start to veer off that track of information, it is clear that many of them have no factual basis for what they are talking about.
There are many practices in the tradition of yoga, and some of them are offered to us in our teacher trainings. For example, we can look at Nadi Shoddana, alternate nostril breathing. More than likely your yoga instructor learned this practice one day in their yoga teacher training as a pranayama technique.
But the practice of Nadi Shoddana Prana Yama must be practiced for a minimum of 20 minutes each day for three months.
Real practice leads to direct experience. And direct experience is ultimately the best source of true knowledge.
Be careful who you choose to look up to. Be cautious who you choose as your guide and guru.
Many can debate what should be the criteria for choosing a teacher. I can not speak for others but my three guidelines are these:
1. Who was their ‘teacher’ and what is their lineage?
2. Are they thriving in their life?
3. How content are they?
When yoga teachers actually embrace another ‘teacher’ who can guide them on a journey of self-practice, it is the beginning of an initiation into a rich and deeply meaningful tradition dating back thousands of years. These ‘teachers’ are available to you. Sometimes they are in the open. But more often than not, they are in disguise, hidden, waiting for you to show up. Only the most earnest of seekers will find them.