Who or what is a teacher? Who or what is a guru?
We continue our exploration of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and now we come to the word, guru. Sutra 1.26 says: He [or she] is the one who has been the preceptor of all previous teachers for he [or she] is not limited by time (translation by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait). The Sutras are referring to Isvara again as the ultimate teacher (to learn more about Isvara go to this post). Isvara can be translated as God, divinity, the universe or something larger than ourselves.
The Sutras use the word guru to describe teacher, but the literal translation of guru is “remover of darkness.” What if we looked at all of our teachers as those people or beings in our lives that remove darkness?
I have been graced with amazing teachers in my life from my second grade teacher to my Grandmother to chickens to nature. Insomnia and burnout led me to a yoga mat, and in many ways I see that experience of darkness pushing me towards finding lightness. From there I met some of my beloved yoga and meditation teachers, and yet, this Sutra is saying that the ultimate teacher, remover of darkness, is something more than these impermanent beings.
If I can keep returning to the idea that a teacher is really someone or something that removes darkness that changes my interpretation of a teacher. I have been to yoga classes that I have felt shamed in (this added darkness). I have been to yoga classes where my darkness was exposed to me (i.e. you can do more than you think you can. You are stronger than you think. Although this was not comfortable it did help remove darkness). I have been to therapists who mostly asked me what I felt (this neither removed darkness nor shined light). I have been to therapists who helped me celebrate my strengths in order to use those to meet my challenges (this decreased my darkness). I have been on backpacking trips where my connection to nature is so profound that I felt only light.
If our teacher or guru is ultimately Isvara is there a reason to have a teacher in the flesh at all? I was recently sitting with Sharon Salzberg who shared that a teacher can help us see the things that we are blind to (i.e. remove the darkness). Will we get there on our own with enough work? Probably, but it may take much longer she said.
The role of teacher can be complicated because the people we learn from are limited and have their own darkness. They are also Divine. Both of these things are true. There is a balance of surrendering to a teacher and discerning what makes sense for you. The Buddha asked the people he taught to not believe and follow him blindly. He asked them to use their wisdom to decide if the teachings were true for them.
Our wisdom and intuition can be an access point to our own divinity (because if our teachers are both dark and divine so are we). I recently had a conversation with a group of students about the inherent hierarchy within a student/teacher relationship (and therapist/client relationship), and how this hierarchy can be used to help remove darkness, cause abuse or can heal. In my 12 years of practice I know of several yoga teachers who have used their role as teacher to hurt and abuse people. There have been many more that have used their power to remove darkness, help others find their own inherent divinity and grace.
How do we know who our teacher is? Here are some things to consider:
1. Does this person remove or add darkness?
2. Do you feel safe with this person?
3. Does this person point out your blind spots in a kind way that is also nudging you to grow?
4. Do you feel empowered with this person?
5. Is this person bringing you closer to your own intuition?
ultimately, I see my role as teacher/therapist in challenging students/clients to become their own teachers. I do not believe I hold all the answers or the power, and I do believe that our partnership on this journey (whether in yoga class or yoga therapy) is about finding Isvara inside of ourselves and to listen to that divine voice. Sometimes that voice is hidden in darkness though, so we need someone to hold our hand as we move towards uncovering our light.