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November 16, 2011

What We Lose When Yoga Classes Are Not Taught By Swamis. ~ Meryl Davids Landau

Swamis versus the new yoga teachers of our time.

Photo: Saam Gabbay

Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon at the beautiful Miami ashram of Swami Jyotirmayananda – one of the last remaining direct disciples of India’s esteemed Swami Sivananda. The swami, dressed in his traditional orange clothing and garlanded with flowers, gave an hour-long lecture about the philosophical underpinnings of yoga.

I was in heaven – not the least because Jyotirmayananda’s message was similar to what I used to hear from the late Swami Satchidananda, whom I adored, when he gave satsang years ago when I lived in New York City. Hearing both swamis speak about the meaning of life always made me feel like I was absorbing the wisdom of the ages, passed down over the centuries in India and – only recently – shared with us in the U.S. It wasn’t just the garb and the accents; it was the depth of their training.

Being anointed a swami isn’t something you can get in a multi-month certification training.

Which brings me to my main point. When I first took up hatha yoga at the New York Integral Yoga Institute some 25 years ago, many of the classes were taught by the swamis who lived there—personal disciples of Swami Satchidananda. They may not have been as flexible (or as attractive!) as some of the young women who’ve taught much of the yoga I’ve taken in more recent years, but their classes offered glimpses into the true meaning of the movements, the melding of mind-body-spirit that the Hindus had in mind when they created the poses and pranayama.

Their names may have been long and funny, but these yoga teachers/swamis were the reason I was so taken by the practice that I regularly counted down the hours until a class was to begin: I was eager to cultivate that same inner stillness I saw radiating from those masters. Their focus on meditation and mindfulness and acceptance – much more heavily emphasized in their classes (and in their lives) than bendability—elevated both my yoga and my life.

Obviously swamis aren’t perfect people, but the fact that they had taken monastic vows indicated their heartfelt desire to bring their yoga – way, way off their mat and into their every waking moment.

I’ve been thinking since my recent, fabulous encounter with the Miami swami that students who learn hatha yoga only from lithe, lovely women and never take a class from a swami may be missing out on something essential to the practice. Yogis frequently talk about living the teaching, but it is much easier for students to grasp the enormity of that undertaking if the person in front of the class is afterwards heading to their meditation room followed by hours performing karma yoga in an ashram, rather than going to lunch and a manicure with the girls.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against the lay women and men who now make up the vast majority of yoga teachers in America (myself included, although I haven’t taught a class in a while). I’ve taken thousands of classes in yoga studios, gyms and – yes, even ashrams, with teachers like these – and many of them have been wonderful.

When it comes to flexibility and strength of the body, most of these teachers can run rings around the swamis I used to learn from. And it’s not like there is an alternative; yoga has blossomed in popularity, while joining the ranks of swamihood hasn’t, so there would be nowhere near enough swamis to go around.

But if you do live anywhere near an ashram, or if you hear of a traveling swami who is heading your way, I urge you not to miss the experience.

Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the spiritual women’s novel, “Downward Dog, Upward Fog,” which was recommended by Yoga Journal Buzz Blog and the Everything Yoga Blog. ForeWord Reviews calls the novel “an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women.” Read excerpts at www.DownwardDogUpwardFog.com. Meryl also writes for O: the Oprah Magazine, Whole Living, Huffington Post and other national publications.

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