Perspectives from a latchkey yogi.
I’m pretty sure my guru could be Rodney Yee. The first ten years of my practice was based almost entirely on the videotaped routine AM Yoga with Rodney Yee and supplemented with what I would pick up from conversations, books and, later, the Internet. The term “guru” is used pretty loosely these days, but, considering I have never actually met Rodney Yee—that might be a stretch.
Karoline, my wife, has a different story. She’s had a personal practice as long as I have and is an avid reader, too, but she’s also taught for seven years and practices regularly (like, physically, in the same room) with other teachers. Even though she considers herself a student of many wonderful teachers—and has had the honor of practicing with master teachers such as Erich Schiffmann, Donna Farhi, Natasha Rizopoulos and Shiva Rea— she, like me, feels she has no true guru to call her own.
Technically, I’m afraid to say, we’re latchkey yogis—influenced by books and media, teachers and our peers but, without a guru to come home to we’re essentially doing it on our own. I sometimes worry about this.
The guru problem is an interesting one, especially for yoga where the tradition goes back thousands of years to the beginning of the practice. On the one hand, the guru-student relationship is fundamental to the human experience—we depend on those who have gone before us to teach us what they know. On the other hand, the explosion of information technology has made it possible for motivated individuals with relatively modest resources to effectively teach themselves.
So, the question becomes: do you really need a guru to have an authentic yoga practice?
When you consider the enormous influence of B. K. S. Iyengar whose book Light On Yoga is standard in many teacher trainings and whose practice originated solely from his guru, the renowned T. Krumali Krishnamacharya, you might say “yes.” But if you also consider the wide influence of Shiva Rea whose first experience of yoga came from a book and whose practice reflects a diversity of experience influenced by various yoga teachers and traditions including non-traditional elements like dance, you might say “no.”
But what about the rest of us? Those of us who do yoga on a part-time basis and who practice or teach, daily, weekly or, even, occasionally all without a guru or even a dedicated teacher or teachers—can we ever really achieve the sort of practice we perceive our icons to have? Can we reasonably strive for mastery at the very least, let alone enlightenment or liberation?
Here’s something else to consider:
While conducting research for our Yoga Poster Project we took a look at the many contexts within which yoga has evolved over the last few thousand years. From the early Bhakti and later Tantric movements, to the invention of the printing press and the dawn of the Internet, yoga has steadily progressed towards becoming more accessible to more people in more ways such that nearly anyone alive today can take yoga for a test drive. You can find yoga almost anywhere at anytime, from your local gym to a stockpile of products on Amazon.com—they’re even doing it at the White House.
When I first started practicing yoga, however, there were many questions I had that went unanswered for years simply because I didn’t know where to ask. Today, I simply type it into Google and there’s a good chance I’m going to get a really good answer from someone I may never have heard of and likely will never meet. Rewind a hundred years ago, and I might have very well had to travel to Tibet.
While volume and accessibility alone don’t guarantee the quality of someone’s practice it does address one crucial component that has traditionally been fulfilled by the guru-student relationship and that is simply, presence. Once you embark upon a yogic path, it’s hard to avoid engaging your practice—yoga is nearly everywhere and with the ever increasing assimilation of yoga into the cultural fabric, you’re increasingly likely to be engaged without even consciously meaning to. So, combine presence with ready access to a wealth of information and you just might have something wholly unanticipated by the original practitioners of yoga.
Or do you?
Here’s the thing: The moment the ancient sages started to write down what they knew of yoga, they opened up the possibility of bypassing the physical guru-student relationship. It’s reasonable to expect that even if they didn’t conceive of the Internet, they had to anticipate that one-day yoga might evolve to the point where anyone, anywhere might begin a yoga practice and fully realize it with or without a guru.
Whatever the answer may be, one thing is certain—yoga is growing. Fast. And I’ll bet there are a lot more latchkey yogis out there pulling together a practice shaped more by a community than a single influence. If this is true, then it sort of ups the ante for each of us as being, in some small part, teachers to each other.
That may not be a bad thing.
Frank Neville-Hamilton is a father, a husband, a yogi and a technologist—in that order. He and his wife and partner, Karoline Neville-Hamilton, are the designers behind the yoga poster and they live in Portland, OR with their son, a dog, three cats and a redwood tree (with a bird on it).
Editor Tanya L. Markul