Words of Wisdom on Yoga Lineage.
I recently attended one of those giant yoga festivals held under blazing white outdoor tents and populated by thousands of members of my own blissed-out, far-flung, reverent-irreverent, half-naked yoga tribe. While there, I attended a class taught by a renowned teacher, the founder of a major new school of yoga, started in the US but with growing international recognition and appeal.
In the course of the class, which was specifically designed for people already teaching yoga, both within this school and in others, the teacher took time out to offer a powerful critique of what he sees as the watering-down of the ancient yoga lineage as yoga gains an increasing following in the west. As part of this critique, he not only extolled the virtues of his method, but slammed other American yoga schools for a long list of ills, which pretty much boiled down to some Tantric version of the seven deadly sins: dilettantism, ignorance of tradition, spiritual materialism, plain old materialism, superficiality, vanity, mass market appeal, and so on.
It struck me, frankly, as a little uncomfortable to hear the founder of a yogic system—and hence of a yogic lineage—talking smack about his competitors in this way, even in the service of protecting the lineage. I didn’t want to think about what was happening in front of me as space-clearing for market share; in many ways, in fact, I was sympathetic to what he was saying. Yet something about the scene as a whole needled me. Maybe it was just the altitude getting to me, but I don’t think so.
This was a teacher speaking to aspiring and fledgling teachers. What, I kept asking myself, is being transmitted here? What kind of relationship is coming into being between this new lineage and the larger yogic tradition, present and past? And what model of the teacher—let alone of lineage itself—is being performed and set out as an example by this simultaneous spokesman for and critic of the yoga tradition as it has landed in the West in general, and in California in particular
I’m an English Professor in my spare time, and at moments like this my mind sometimes does this odd thing of turning to literature to understand what’s happening right in front of me. I know, weird—but true. In many ways, I thought, what’s happening here is a reenactment of the setting of the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient poem that stages a conversation between a spiritual teacher and a group of students not unlike the one I was witnessing at the yoga festival (though with a lot less lycra). “What is education?” the students in the poem ask. The answer? “Teacher speaking to the disciple seated by his side, wisdom between, discourse connecting them” (I. 3).
It’s a cozy image. The teacher and student are sitting right next to each other, talking and listening, side by side (or, as I happened to be at that moment, knee to sweaty knee). Although the teacher is speaking, the wisdom is between them, suggesting that whatever is being passed on is shared by them, but does not belong entirely to either one. There is certainly transmission happening, but at the same time, a relationship is unfolding, a relationship that is at least as central as the transmission of information to understanding what education—or lineage—is in the yogic tradition.
As I sat and watched the conversation between the teacher and his audience of students and apprentice teachers, it certainly looked in certain ways a lot like this ancient rendering of the workings of the yogic lineage. And yet my questions about lineage—questions prompted both by the content and the setting of his class—were still reverberating. When it comes to honoring the lineage of teachers and teachings that make up the yoga tradition, how are we—that is, yoga practitioners and teachers in the twenty-first century—how are we doing? Is it true, as this teacher seemed to be saying, that the vast majority of contemporary Western yogis have lost touch with the core tenets of the yoga tradition? And hey, what are those core tenets, anyway?
I decided to do a little research, so I called some prominent Bay Area yoga teachers to chat about the topic of lineage—or, as my own teacher, San Francisco Vinyasa instructor Janet Stone puts it, what happens “when two portals link in.” The idea of “two portals’ may sound like something straight out of The Matrix, but it’s actually a very apt description of ancient yogic thinking about lineage.
Bay Area Tantric scholar Christopher “Hareesh” Wallis notes that in the tradition of Guru-yoga, the entire point is for the student to have an option to link up with—“open to”—the Divine through the person of the spiritual teacher. “Simply being with the person of a teacher orients you to a way of being in relationship to reality” that can fundamentally shift your own ways of being, thinking, feeling, and living. This transformation happens “not so much through words as through feeling what the teacher’s state is.” The point, he stresses, is that in seeing and feeling the Divine in your teacher, a human being like you, you have direct access to the divinity in yourself.
Wallis notes that this way of thinking about lineage guards against at least two pitfalls that have come to characterize the conversation about lineage in the West. On the one hand, students “deify” their teachers, thinking that trusting them means believing the teacher can do no wrong; on the other, Westerners see abuses of the student-teacher relationship and revert to a wholesale rejection of lineage, preferring instead to claim themselves as the only teacher worthy of trust.
Neither of these avenues, Wallis notes, is either necessary or desirable. Paraphrasing one of his own teachers, he quips, “seeing the Divine in and through your teacher is not the same as mistaking your teacher for a Divinity.” The question is simply whether the (apparently) less Divine dimensions of your teacher interfere with your capacity to access the teachings through her or him. It is your job, as a student, as part of your education, as it were, to discern as best you can whether the teacher’s perceived limitations (and every human teacher will have some) actually inhibit the process of learning and of opening –or whether they are simply beside the point.
When pushed to reflect on the other side of the Western coin—best summed up in the Californicism, “the self is the guru”—Wallis surprises me with the generosity of his response. “The true function of the outer teacher is to lead you to the inner teacher,” he confirms, and thus the self is, in at least one sense, the one assured lifelong teacher we will have. If the outer teacher is an expression of the Divine, we must be a potential expression of the Divine as well; Guru-yoga in the ancient tradition is quite clear on this point.
Yet Wallis follows up with a warning: if and when you turn to yourself as the teacher, “you’ll inevitably mistake some portion of the contracted and conditioned self as your real nature,” which is why relying exclusively on yourself as a portal to the Divine is at best unreliable and at worst pure delusion. The gift of the outer teacher is the capacity to help us see our own Divinity—and also those places in us that could, shall we say, use a little work.
This notion of the crucial part played by the outer teacher is echoed by Scott Blossom, who teaches Shadow yoga and practices Ayurvedic Medicine on both sides of the Bay. “If you’re your own Guru,” Blossom cautions, “it’s very important to ascertain what’s in the blind spot for you.” No matter how dedicated your practice and no matter how deep your self-study, without a teacher who knows you “very, very well,” Blossom says, you will inevitably stumble over your most intractable habits or limitations of being, the ones you probably know best how to hide from others as well as from yourself. “Without a lot of time with you,” Blossom notes, “it’s hard for a teacher to look into your blind spots and really see you.” Intimacy, longevity, and trust are the key ingredients to bringing light to those blind spots—with the teacher here acting the role less of information master than of spiritual friend.
Signing on for this kind of intimate relationship to a teacher can be enormously rewarding and undeniably uncomfortable. Many of us do not want to be seen by our teachers in this way, and when the urge for mastery subsides and the discomfort of long-term subtle transformational work with a teacher sets in, we run—to the next teacher, the next lineage, the next practice.
Stone, too, speaks of the teacher as one who sees us when we can’t see ourselves clearly. “We use all of our best tricks to protect our ego,” she insists. “The teacher is a reflection, with compassion,” of both our strengths and our limitations. In response to being seen in this way, “we all want to wander off to `the new sensation`,” Stone tells me, breaking into song. There’s a temptation and even an invitation in a yoga community (and marketplace) as full of constant innovation and growth as the Bay Area to fall into habits of sampling—habits Stone insists we should, with discernment, try to resist. Actually, she puts it this way: “I’m not on the smattering Pu Pu platter plan.”
Instead, Stone insists on the enormous benefits and difficult pleasures that can occur both personally and for the lineage as a whole when we don’t run. “When you stay, there’s revealing and being revealed. You stay beyond the sparkle”— the sparkle of your own initial gold-star studentship and the sparkle of your shiny new teacher or practice. This doesn’t mean we stay with the same teacher forever, or that we stay with a teacher in whom we lose fundamental trust, but it does mean that we constantly ask ourselves questions such as these: are these teachings still relevant? Is this teacher still resonant? Can I stay and not just be reactive?
Michael Lucey has had an opportunity to interrogate the question of what it means to stay with a teacher—really stay—as he has navigated decades of practice and study, as well as teaching, in the Iyengar lineage. He makes annual trips to India to study with the man he calls, simply, “Mr. Iyengar,” while continuing to work as a Professor of French Literature at Berkeley.
I ask Lucey why he has stayed with one lineage for so long, and, given his prolonged studentship (not to mention his day job), how he hopes to contribute to the lineage himself. “The more time I spend in this practice,” he responds, laughing, “the less I feel the need to contribute personally.” Notwithstanding the endurance and dedication of his studies, he insists that “the way you honor your teachers is by the quality of your practice.” For Lucey, that is, the roles of student and teacher are not all that clearly demarcated, which is not to say that he doesn’t carry a huge respect for Mr. Iyengar—indeed, he does. But, perhaps predictably, the thing he singles out not only about Iyengar himself, but about the entire community of Iyengar practitioners and teachers of which he is a part is the commitment to ongoing studentship. “Iyengar’s teachers are supposed to always be in training as teachers,” he recounts—which is to say, in a sense, they are to remain students even as they enter the lineage as teachers themselves.
This notion of perpetual studentship was by far the most powerful thread connecting the Bay Area teachers I spoke with on the topic of lineage. As Blossom put it, “all of my teachers remained students to someone, and I intend to remain one, too.” By remaining in studentship, he counsels, we can pretty much assure that we will continually be both inspired and humbled, the deeper we go down the path of practice.
Whether speaking to her students in a public class or to aspiring teachers in her own teacher trainings, Stone puts it like this: “we remain students—to our teachers, to this practice, to our ancestors, and to this life.” Taken together, these threads of studentship make up what she describes as the “sutra” of each person’s lineage—“not my lineage but the lineage.” I ask her to explain how this sutra of the lineage is being woven, or written, between her and her students right now, and she responds by reminding me, again, that the thread of her teaching cannot so simply be isolated from the threads of the rest of their lives and histories: “students take my teaching into their form and their body with all of their dynamic living and learning and that flows into the living lineage.”
Stone’s comment about living lineage sends me back yet again to the Taittiriya Upanishad, as I trace back just one of the many threads, known and unknown, that have formed her—and me—and the rest of those I spoke with here as teachers, students, practitioners, and spiritual friends.
I vaguely remember that the poem contains within it a kind of graduation speech aimed at those moving on from the Brahma-carya, or, in the ancient Vedic system, the time of life in which one is a student. So I go and look it up. The teacher’s advice to the graduates is straightforward: “Do not cut off the line of progeny”—that is, do not let there be a break in the lineage (I.11). If those I spoke with for this piece are anything to go by, that danger, at least, seems fairly remote.
But in many ways it’s the next piece of advice for graduates that interests me the most. The teacher exhorts the soon-to-be-ex-students, “Protect your spiritual progress always. Give your best in learning and teaching.”
After speaking with these four very different modern-day devotees and inspired teachers of the yogic path, and after pondering my experience at the festival, I understand as I haven’t before that a relationship of cause and effect is being mapped here. If you want to protect your own spiritual progress, the teacher seems to be saying, even as you take up your own path as a teacher, commit to keep on learning. If you want to protect the lineage as a whole, moreover, rather than worrying about what those folks over there are “doing” to the yoga tradition, maybe just try remaining a student. If we all do that, the lineage will take care of itself.