Teaching yoga and spiritual activism

One of my first spiritual and most important teachers in adult life was my great uncle Dr. NC Surya, an Integral Yogi in the Sri Aurobindo tradition.  He wrote that yogic speech is accurate, compassionate, appropriate, and useful.  If it can’t be all of these things, then silence is preferable.  As my readers I hope are a community of spiritual and scientific-minded progressives, I wanted to share some of my experience and perspective on “yoga teachers” and “spiritual activists”, in hope they are of some service to some of you, who are likely to interact with (or yourselves be among) those who so consider themselves.

In my own yoga journey, I’ve been very wary of “teaching yoga” and being “taught yoga” in the Western frame even though I’m descended from a long line of yogis, have completed a yoga teacher training program taught by someone who is a longtime yogi and who ran the course on a pure donation basis.  I know in my heart I’ve been a sincere aspirant and witness to my own journey of yoga over the last 18 years of adult life.  That conscious journey began when I said my first heartfelt prayer to Sri Krishna at age 16, just before leaving home for college, asking for the blessing of His Wisdom – one He has given many times over in various ways, almost always as a result of mis-steps and mistakes. 

However, the total journey I discovered began long before even that, as I grew up in a home in which spiritual values were integrated into the very fabric of being.   On a recent trip to the village in India from which I am descended, I discovered that (like many Hindu families) all my relations (up to my generation) for the past 700 some years at least, are named from the Hindu pantheon,  whether after Ganesh, Saraswati, Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, the Goddess, or others,  and (unlike many) we are descended from a line of Hindu Brahmins whose chief role was village administration, which blended the deeply practical – concern for issues of agricultural science, justice, education, health care, and fiscal management — with ancient spiritual values and practices – temple management, tantric rituals, and conducting rites of passage.   So the practicalities of teaching and leading people in yoga and spirituality are deeply ingrained.  Also, as I mentioned, among many other dimensions of spiritual life, I completed a yoga teacher training course, and discovered that this may allow one to safely lead a hatha class.  However, due to my upbringing, I was also powerfully cautioned by an inner voice that, in the ancient tradition, there are two primary qualifications to truly teach others Yoga, and neither involves a TT program. 

The first, most fundamental one is direct, personal experience of Truth (God, the Infinite, the All-pervading Soul, Supermind, Transcendent Love, the nameless, or however one conceives it), often first achieved spontaneously, but then sustained over the better part of a lifetime through some method of practice. The traditional methods discussed in the principal yogic text — the Bhagavad Gita — vary from meditation, to intellectual contemplation, to devotional practice and service.  Not even mentioned there, and mainly used as a support to the body to recover from the strain of extreme lengths of sitting or service activities, Hatha practices developed, both vinyasa (flowing) or asana (situated). 

In modern times, my experience is that yoga can meaningfully be said to include the “conscious contact” which 12-step practitioners speak of and also the profound awakening which is experienced by hatha-yogis who extend their body-based practices into comprehensive healing modalities.  Unfortunately, in the West the physical practices of hatha have become synonymous with ‘yoga’ for the uninitiated, without the understanding that these were initially intended as supplementary aids to people established in a traditional path, not as a complete path unto itself.  Even in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the most seminal work for many Hatha yogis, Hatha is but one of eight limbs of practice and in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, another key Hatha text, it is one of four areas.   

So many people now come to yoga first through Hatha and quickly experience the deep gifts of the yogic intention as expressed in postures, and then go on to ‘roll-their-own’ awakening including other modes to varying degrees.  Yet however one proceeds toward attaining this realization of Truth, a teacher is strongly suggested and advised, but not required – as there is a universal Truth and Teacher which is available to all, and many great yogis are self-realized.   Regardless of which path one proceeds along, this profession of self-realization is what it truly means to be a yogi, and it is a journey — not a destination or an achievement, or a certifiable event.  

Thus, qualification #1: Become a yogi.

 The second qualification to teach yoga is to be personally asked to teach by a sincere aspirant.  The suggestion for most people is to find and cultivate a deeply personal guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship sustained over years, and make that the center of the process of individual spiritual awakening.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  It is the rare being who arrives into this life able to chart their own course to Truth without becoming stuck in any of the many, many pitfalls which can beset any aspirant to excellence in any discipline – money, security, sex, and fame foremost among them.   To teach others well, most of us must experience the love and attention of a true teacher ourselves.  If we can be our own Teacher, that is wonderful, but many are often beset by the pitfall of modern individualism — drawn to that self-directed path out of hubris and arrogance, not because it is what most will be of service to themselves and others…   

Thus, qualification #2: Teach when asked.

The notion of “Yoga Teacher” and “Yoga Teacher Training” is a very recent, Western, assembly-line, industrial-age approach that has many pitfalls – not to say that some true yogis haven’t evolved from this approach — but much confusion and conflict has as well.  The biggest pitfall is the status-seeking inherent in the notion of external criteria and certification, a major block to humility and to the direct experience of Union which is at the heart of what the word Yoga means.  A closely related pitfall is the arrogance to believe that because one is “certified to teach” yoga or even made a celebrity yoga teacher by our modern machinery of media, that it necessarily means anything about the internal experience of Truth that is at the heart of being a yogi.  Renunciation, letting go, of such ego binds are fundamental to the humility required to know God and teach others to know God; this notion is fundamental to all of the Eastern spiritual paths, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Yogic.  This topic of “surrendering the spiritual ego” is one I’ve never seen addressed in any TT curriculum, but is perhaps the most fundamental issue of the whole endeavor of being a “yoga teacher” or public-facing “spiritual activism”.

I’m going on about this at some length because I feel much of those involved in controversy around various aspects of modern yoga practice and its recent outgrowth of “spiritual activism” are to some degree suffering from their disconnect with the source of the yogic tradition, yet are trying to speak as authorities on yoga in their respective ways, but missing something essential from the source.  A key step in the awakening process is to dash the subtle, pervasive illusion that somehow because we all speak the same textual language, be it English or Sanskrit, we all speak the same language.  We do not at all.  In the traditional view, we are profoundly fortunate to find even one true teacher who truly understands the contours of our karma and can guide us confidently in its release, the real language of the spirit.

Various people come from different schools.  The modern intellectual – a jnana-yogi, though they may not name it as such will have a very different approach than those to have first come to yoga through hatha, and who are in a process of expanding their vision and path into that of karma-yoga as “spiritual activists”.  These are deeply different in their mechanisms of action, in their modalities, in their underlying philosophies, in the lifetimes of karma that led us to them – and people on different paths are just not always going to interface with each other very well.  The various systems of yoga articulated in the Bhagavad Gita (namely jnana yoga, raja yoga and karma yoga) did not arise simply for the sake of variety or to create a distinction without a difference – the systems were necessarily held separate in order for the respective paths to work.

Jnana-yoga is about going through the verbal, analytical, discursive faculties toward God.  In this frame, interpersonal conflict over great ideas and the inherent challenges of anger and fear this conflict brings, is necessary and useful, even central, to the journey.  However, Karma-yoga is about the physical, emotional and social planes primarily.  In this frame, heartfelt love of God and active, practical service to His Creation is the path – and raising interpersonal conflict over mere ideas can be viewed as a needlessly hurtful and wasteful. Hopefully, as a jnana-yogi progresses, there is a realization of the power of words and ideas, and of the impact of conflict, and he becomes far more judicious in their application; and as the karma-yogi progresses, there is a realization that the bumps on the path of service are themselves the path and need to be embraced as originating from the Source one seeks to serve.

As Sri Krishna expounds in the Bhagavad Gita, both paths are valid and lead to the same place hopefully – lives of deeply awakened service to the cause of relieving suffering — but even then, the lives of a jnana-yogi and karma-yogi may well look very different.  However, from that place of awakened consciousness, we are able to recognize each other as liberated beings and understand each other as natural allies united in intention, if not the arc of our actions…

My Great Uncle Dr. NC Surya left his body in 1996. My guru today is Mata Amritanandamayi (also known as Amma, the Hugging Saint).  She was once asked, “What is it like when you meet another mahatma?” She replied, “It’s as though two mirrors are looking into one another.”  What a beautiful image – enlightened infinities reflecting into one other … 

I pray this vision is realized for all of us — that we can forgive, embrace one another as we are, and evolve together toward our Highest Purpose, and reflect each others’ light into each other and into the world infinitely.   In that process, may we trust that all the aims of our “yoga teaching” and “spiritual activism” will naturally unfold and manifest as they were meant to all along… 

I hope my post here was accurate, appropriate, compassionate, and useful, and invite responses and questions offered in the same spirit. 

Om Namah Shivaya — I bow to the Light in you all!


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