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

Via elephant journal
on Nov 16, 2011
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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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16 Responses to “What We Lose When Yoga Classes Are Not Taught By Swamis. ~ Meryl Davids Landau”

  1. Ben_Ralston says:

    Thank you Meryl. It's a great question: "what do we lose?"
    I think that anyone who has been taught by Swamis, and has an appreciation for the importance of lineage, will know what is lost. And those that have been taught by mere mortals (I went into training to be a Swami and only lasted 6 months, so I know how hard it is!) will not know. But ignorance is not bliss 🙂
    And the 'what is lost' is of course compounded generation after generation by the teachers who have been taught by teachers who were not taught by Swamis… but what can you do?! I do believe though that anyone who comes to yoga, one way or another, and feels the depth and beauty of it, will eventually track down it's deeper roots. I hope so anyway…

    And thank you for that lovely picture of Swami Sivananda! Made my day, really.

  2. YesuDas says:

    You preach, Meryl, and I'll turn the pages!

  3. suzy anand says:

    Dear Meryl,

    I hate to be your first naysayer, because you know how very fond I am of you. But the truth is that lineage and monastic vows really have nothing to do with depth of practice and connection to the meaning of life. (Goddess knows how many of those male swamis have taken advantage of their female disciples over the years!)

    Also, I am rather surprised to read you being so dismissive of those who squeeze yoga into their daily reality wherever they can find it. Most of us are busy raising families, making a living and living a life. The reality is that those who yearn for spiritual depth while living high pressured, busy lives are far more impressive than those who remove themselves from reality to indulge in the constant luxury of meditation and karma yoga! My busiest students and friends are grateful and relieved when I applaud them for what practice they DO manage to squeeze into their days because they are accustomed to hearing messages like yours that invalidate their efforts. (And Meryl, it seems so very far out of the vortex of you to focus on "what we lose" when instead I see only gain from more widespread access!)

    Nearly five years ago, in response to a student who was down on herself in response to judgments like the ones you have made in your article above, I wrote a piece called; Guru is spelled, "Gee, You Are You!" It began:

    "In my considered opinion, traditions that require a guru and a transmission of information by lineage have done so at the expense of a greater sharing of knowledge. Patriarchal, hierarchical (classist) societies have flourished on the notion that information must be transmitted through acknowledged teachers (male gurus) in an effort to maintain their power over the masses by shaping, controlling and containing powerful knowledge.

    I understand the obsession of some to limit streams of information transmission in order to keep the message and its details from being diluted or misinterpreted. Regardless, it is an unnecessarily limiting practice. Greater populations and both genders need to be entrusted with information in order for societies to progress."

    At the end of the day, nothing is more true than the old Rumi adage that "everything you want and need is inside you."

    Where any of us choose to go for inspiration is just that. I am happy for you that you have been so inspired by the swamis in your life. I am deeply sad for those who may read your piece and feel disappointment for their lack of access to the same.

    I hope they will remember my other favorite quote; "Your daily life is your temple and your religion!"

    Bliss and blessings to all!

  4. elephantjournal says:

    Ezra-David Darnell I'm a Christian, but enjoy the process of breathing and exercise it offers.

    Beverly Burt Yoga is open to all religions. It is not dogmatic….

  5. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  6. Anouscka says:

    While honoring our external teachers, I feel that we often forget to honor our internal teacher, namely our Self. And I'm not talking the ego self, but an inner wisdom or intelligence that already knows. We just forgot how to tap into that. And indeed while building your practice and trying to walk the talk in the madness called modern life and family, the challenges we face to stay true to our practice, makes us walk on edges sometimes. Oh how I long for mountain tops or waterfalls to just sit there in solitude…..but two toddlers, a job and sharing yoga give me the opportunity to practice what I teach. And believe me, it's not that easy….I learn from others and practice and then trust my own inner wisdom when it comes to everything in my life. Also Yoga…

  7. dharma_singh says:

    Hi Suzy, I hate to be your first naysayer, but I have to say i disagree with you completely. Squeezing a class it into your busy day is fine, but to say it is more admirable than those that have given their whole life to a monastic path seems a little absurd. Also, your critique of the role of a Guru seems a little misguided – The teachings of a guru (male or female) are very different from those of the yoga teacher at the gym.

    "I am deeply sad for those who may read your piece and feel disappointment for their lack of access to the same. "

    Swami's are not everywhere, but if you look around, you will find them. That is a blessing. The only ones missing out are the ones who will not make the time to fit them into their busy day.

  8. Dear Meryl and all.

    There are of course shades of grey. i for instance attended a three month (500 hour) teacher training at Agama Yoga in Thailand (i did not complete the course). After completion of the three months, students are then certified as Agama Teaching Assistants. Further assistant teaching in the school can then qualify them as Agama Yoga Teachers who can then teach months 1 to 3 of the Agama yoga teachings. An alternative, is to take i think about 15 months of the Agama teachings (spread over 2 years) then take a shorter teacher training. i believe this is probably the best alternative of the two, although both work well.

    A lot of the lectures and the initial hatha yoga classes in the first half of the first month were taught by Swami Vivekenanda Saraswati. The other classes and lectures were taught by experienced teachers he trained personally or supervised the training of, following a strict teaching schedule (even down to the mnemonics of teaching warm-up exercises and asanas) to maintain the integrity of the teachings. Of course they are never quite the same but are definitely to a high standard and are teaching "real" undiluted yoga. All teachers have to be re-empowered annually by the Swami following checks and online interviews / questionnaires as to their previous years activities.

    A while after leaving Thailand i went to Mexico to assist as a karma yogi in starting a new Agama school. i spent about a year there in the last couple of years taking further teachings. i believe Agama Yoga to be a most excellent way to learn the science of yoga and encourage people to take their one month course. Many of my friends have done so and experienced transformations in their lives (as did i).

    The main Agama school is in Thailand but there are about 10 more around the world now. Info. at http://agamayoga.com

    I made a couple of web-pages about the school in Mexico which can be found here: http://www.moving-overseas-guide.com/mexico-yoga.html

    Peace & Love
    pete, of the adams family
    A Plan for Peace

  9. guest says:

    I am having a hard time with yoga instructors. I am not into religion or "spirituality" so anytime an instructor gives me her/his spiritual wisdom I want to run screaming into the other direction. Fortunately I found instructors whose wisdom is focused on yoga and the body. no BS about gods, souls or chakras. very relaxing, very meditative, perfect yoga. I'll skip shwamis any day.

  10. Sunil Sharma says:

    I am not agree with you. Of course swamis has more experience of life but their teaching may be inappropriate to us as they don’t have to go to offices to earning, they don’t have to play with kids, they have no need to fulfil their partner’s basic requirements (like party, home, sex, family problems etc.) how their teaching can help us. Though they can guide us on how to create harmony between the mind, body and soul like Lord Krishna says in Gita, “Do your karma none others, I will accept them as your most precious offering. Live your life with full contentment with no past, no future.”

    But I agree with you that yoga teachers who teach in gym, clubs or studios can’t share true happiness with us because of they are professional and they learn yoga to adopt a yoga career instead to understand its basic bhav (emotions or mental attachments) still our religious books like Bible are there to show path to human kind.

  11. […] I want to see the Yoga community find its prophetic voice. I want to see voter guides that cite the yamas; I want to see Yoga move beyond the workout regime for the individual that it has become to the program for spiritual transformation it was meant to be. I listen to a lot of right-wing talk radio, and I can tell you that nothing cracks these people up like the “protest yoga” being practiced at some Occupy sites. And given what they know, it’s understandable; “protest jazzercize” would be pretty damned funny, too. The only way to change these perceptions is for the Yoga community to own, explicitly and proudly, its spiritual heritage and mission. […]

  12. jenifer says:

    Here is the thing.

    In the vedic culture, house holding is as valuable as swami-ing. House holding is it’s own spiritual discipline (or dharma). It is simply different from being a swami.

    Ordinary, every day people can, in fact, be spiritual people. My experience is that is largely the case. And, in fact, swamis tend to be much more like every-day people than we think.

    Swamis don’t just meditate and do hours of service at the ashram. The ashram is their work — just as any one of us goes to the office and does work. Likewise, the ashram is their home, so the service there is no different than the service we all do when we clean our bathrooms or kitchens for our families.

    And like swamis, a lot of everyday people not only fit in asana classes, but also daily meditation, scriptural study and contemplation, prayer, and community service.

    I look around and see so many every day, ordinary people doing the amazing things that a swami also does. And sometimes they teach yoga classes. Other times, it’s cross fit or physics or poetry.

    But, I’ve never taken a class with a swami, so I really wouldn’t know what I’m missing.

  13. Junebug says:

    "But I agree with you that yoga teachers who teach in gym, clubs or studios can’t share true happiness with us because of they are professional and they learn yoga to adopt a yoga career instead to understand its basic bhav (emotions or mental attachments) still our religious books like Bible are there to show path to human kind."

    I am a yoga teacher and speaking for myself and the majority of teachers that I know…we didn't begin teaching to have a yoga career. We teach because we love it, because it is transformative and healing. We teach so that we can share this beautiful practice with others, so that we can serve. This is a spiritual practice and that is what I teach.

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

  15. Suzette says:

    Wow…here it is right here as this article has stirred the yoga pot. Yes, youth is a factor to strength an flexibilty but no one has spoken about strength and flexibility of "mind." that these sages impart. I too have had the priviledge of this older and vast experience…no there was no throwing ourselves/egos into crow, pigeon or headstands. What you may get eventually is the yogic approach to how you make the living, how you play with the kids, how you make dinner, how you live the life. Somewhere out there somebody said,'Any yoga is good yoga." I have since revised this…all yoga teachers don't graduate at the top.

  16. Jo Nielsen says:

    The title Swami can be bought, like in the case of Swami Vivekananda Saraswati from Agama yoga.
    Agama Yoga on Koh Phangan has a long history of sexual harassment of female students.
    The latest sad incident is that one of the main teachers going by the name Somananda has raped one of his students while giving her a 'tantra' massage.
    This is NOT a save place to go!
    There are better yoga and tantra schools to be found elsewhere.