Shining a Little Light on the Term Guru. ~ Shivani Howe

Via elephant journal
on Mar 5, 2012
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The word Guru in the North American yoga community is one of the most misinterpreted and misused words in our vocabulary.

That is a real shame because your relationship with your Guru can be one of life’s biggest blessings.

In light of the recent shake up in the Anusara community, I can empathize with those who now feel unstable. To suddenly and unexpectedly found their Guru so human.

And this is just the point: a Guru is not human.

A human is someone who lives though the perspective of their senses, mind, emotions and samskaras or memories. They have ambitions, wants, needs, strengths and weaknesses.

But a Guru is one who has attained so much light within that their self no longer exists. They want for nothing, own nothing, and yet have everything. They need so very little to be content, yet the abundance they sit in clearly has one objective—to serve, to give, to love. They live in this world, but are not of this world.

A Guru-disciple relationship is not one of two people, but of two souls. There may be communication on the human level of experience so that there can be no misinterpretations in the disciple’s mind.

There is also communication in the language of the heart, a transmission, and it is from here that permanent transformation comes. Both of these communications must be present in order for a soul to evolve.

When I sat in front of my Guru for the first time, I was a typical mid 20’s western woman. I could feel the excitement and tension build as we stood outside waiting to go in for dharshan, the gaze of an enlightened being, a bona fide Guru. Though I didn’t really get what all the fuss was about, this pale old Indian fellow, wearing nothing but a dhoti, a single piece of cloth.

My mind was full of questions and doubts. My little mind was untrusting, unsettled. We entered, sat down, and as I looked up it happened.

Suddenly I couldn’t find a single question in my mind. I searched, and yet my mind was blank. My mind is never blank! But in that moment I couldn’t even form a thought to form a question.

He jovially looked around the room, and after a few pleasantries closed his eyes for two or three minutes, which felt like an eternity. I felt a vibration circle around my body, like a homing device looking for something, and I knew in that moment that this man, this being who sat before me, was seeing me.

He was looking at exactly who I was, who I wanted to be, who I could be, who I was destined to be. He could see me more clearly than I could see myself.

All I could feel from that moment on was the most pure, unconditional love I had ever experienced. To this day even thinking about this experience brings me tears of complete gratitude and humility, realizing that this being that was right in front of me was the embodiment of divine light, God, manifested in body.

After all, this is what we do this yoga thing for—to get there. It’s an experience that changes your life, the blue pill from The Matrix—you can’t go back.

Gurus I have been in the presence of live purely from a place of duty, or dharma to the divine will, and sometimes that duty is to guide people on their path, to be a Guru. They are inspirations, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to live on earth with the goal and success of attaining oneness, complete communion with the divine.

Then how does a Guru and Teacher differ?

Not all teachers are Gurus, but all Gurus are teachers.

And yes, they do teach by being a mirror, but whether we perceive that the Guru mirrors to us our light or to our darkness, we must know they are doing this with complete awareness of their actions, intentions, and the lesson at hand.

There are no bad Gurus or Gurus that fail.

With the Guru, nothing is done haphazardly or unconsciously. They may still be in body, but they are no longer confined by the third dimensional matrix. Instead, the Guru functions from a state of conscious awareness that is beyond our reality.

Teachers are human. We make mistakes. We are still trying to figure out this thing called life, yoga, and love—all expressions of one thing.

To teach, we stand and bare our souls, our experience, our ups and downs from a yogic perspective, in hopes that this inspires others and helps them to remember who they really are, Atman, manifested though amnesia.

Still, sometimes wonderful expressions of light come through yoga teachers.

As a teacher, I know when the light is flowing because it flows through me, not from me. I’m listening and learning with the humble student’s ear as words come out of my own mouth. As a teacher, there is nothing more that I aspire to be than the hollow bamboo for my Guru and the divine light’s love.

An abuse of power happens to those who don’t understand power.

I have been though experiences where I have put teachers on pedestals only to see them crumble. This is part of the journey—for us to learn right discernment to where we surrender our power to.

The teachers who have fallen need to be thanked, for it is their karma, but also their greatest teaching to us, to show us where our discernment lies when it comes to power.

When asked, my Guru advised “Never surrender to anyone except Guru, and God, everything else is just handing over your power.”

Surrendering to a Guru is surrendering to your highest Self. It is an act of surrendering to God itself.

For those who claim to follow the Guru within I offer this. The vast majority of humans do not have the discernment or ability to hear the Guru within’s instructions and guidance, it is too subtle. Those  handful of beings who do have this ability, are themselves enlightened.

These great ones, are clearly capable of following the Guru within because they have fully connected and surrendered to the frequency of their Guru while their Guru was still in body.

For those who their Guru has left his/her body but who do not yet hold enough light (enlightened) so they can follow the Guru within, they will be put in the hands of a successor.

When we want to climb a mountain we must make sure that the foundation of the is mountain completely stable, previously navigated. For this we consult a guide. Someone who has been up this mountain before.

The mountain is your journey to enlightenment,  your guide,  your Guru.

You don’t climb Mt. Everest without a seasoned guide. To your guide, your Guru, you completely trust to take you up the safest route. You must surrender to them, their judgement and their wisdom or the consequences can be

So for anyone out there in yoga land, in the Anusara yoga community or not, who is feeling disheartened and unsure of where to go now,  to you I say this: everything happens for a reason, and everything happens to give you an opportunity to heal or shine.

This is an opportunity for you to heal your wounds. Your wounds around power, trust, and surrender that want to come into right relationship within yourself. This is why this is part of your journey,  your story.

It has nothing to do with John Friend. He is on his journey, his healing, learning his lessons.

When you meet your in-body Guru you will know because you have gone through this experience, not in spite of it.

In the loving words of my Guru, Sw. Satsangananda Saraswati:

“Fill your heart with more and more love for the Divine.”

And then trust.

In humility to the Gurus who tirelessly and humbly light our path.


Editor: Jennifer Cusano

Shivani Howe is the founder of Pura Luna Lifestyles, the Living Yoga Society and a native of New Zealand, Shivani came into her career after she found herself needing to take a new approach to life. In 2001, she was diagnosed with advanced endometriosis, and began looking for alternative ways to relieve her body of this supposedly incurable disease. It was then she discovered the ancient philosophy of Yoga. The age-old art brought harmony to her life and body, and unraveled the stresses of her illness from its source.

She moved from New Zealand to North America in 2002 where she obtained formal certification as a Yoga Teacher in Toronto (500 hour registered course with the Yoga Alliance) and is now herself registared as an registered E-RYT 500 herself.  Each year Shivani takes a pilgrimage back to India to further her training and perform seva (service) at the feett of her Guru’s Paramahansa Satyananda Saraswati and Sw. Satsangananda Saraswati in Rikhia Ashram, India, where she has been initiated into the Satyananda Lineage as a Karma Sannyasi.

She is passionate about life, Yoga – on and off the matt, writing, hiking, and playing with her 2 year old.  Her greatest teacher.




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10 Responses to “Shining a Little Light on the Term Guru. ~ Shivani Howe”

  1. Cynthia says:

    Beautiful, all of it. Thank you.

  2. AnOldTimer says:

    Quite a fearless post to write in the current anti-anything-guru / gurus-are-always-bad-for-you climate.

    Your experiences are beautifully explained. I appreciated seeing things from your perspective. Not at all my own, but that is what makes it all the more intriguing to read.

  3. yogijulian says:

    i feel your sincerity, but fear you are perpetuating a dangerous myth.

  4. yogaboca says:

    Lovely reflections on yoga . . . .

    I do think that when real gurus are in short supply, it is perfectly fine to surrender to GOD who is the highest guru.
    And I do subscribe to the theory that the ultimate guru is God who lives inside us all.

    Our job as yogis is to discover this shining light. A real guru can pass it on to us or we can find it for ourselves.

    Everyone's path is unique. I believe that enlightenment requires constant vigilance. It is not a given.
    Learn to practice unwavering devotion in every moment and as you mention – none of this other stuff will matter.

  5. shivanihowe says:

    hi julian, thanks for taking the time to read my article. and for linking yours to your comment. It was actually your article and a few others that inspired me to write it in the first place.

    As a yogi, im sure you will appreciate that there is no better teacher or guide than direct experience. And seeing as your point of view in "the guru myth" is so passionate you must have had a really powerful (and probably not so positive) direct experience of being in the presence of and being taught by a self realized being, or enlightened one – Guru. If so i would really genuinely appreciate hearing about your direct experience and how it has changed your life.

    If you have not ever been in the presence of or been taught by a self-realized being, then i wonder why you feel so strongly about something you have no direct experience of…? as in your comment you say… "i fear you are perpetuating a dangerous myth"… and if it is the case, you have never had a direct experience, may i gently offer that often what we fear the greatest, is what we understand the least.


  6. shivanihowe says:

    hi AnOldTimer, thanks for taking the time to read my offering… and i really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    i realize not everyone will agree with what i have offered, and truth be known it took allot of courage to write and speak up.

    Shivani means … Durga, or fearless goddess… so maybe i am finally starting to embody Her wisdom after all…



  7. ValCarruthers says:

    Loved this, Shivani. Posted to Featured Today on the Spirituality homepage.

  8. yogijulian says:

    oh my! really?

    well, i am passionate about the subject because i am passionate about the possibilities of a healthy, integrated contemporary spirituality. i am as passionate about critiquing magical thinking a la "the secret" and promoting teachers like kornfield, chodron and batchelor as i am about pointing out that in the case of the guru, the emperor is wearing no clothing.

    i am as passionate about the interface of meditation, neuroscience and psychotherapy as i am about arguing against the pseudoscience of putting the word "quantum" in front of whichever charlatanical magical claim one wants to sell in the new age marketplace.

    direct experience is of course a powerful teacher, but since the printing press we have also had the written word, and since the invention of recorded sound we have that as a source of knowledge, and goodness now with video and the interwebs, there is so much we can become educated about without having to go through it "directly" – from nazi germany to the lives of the great poets,to what must have been like to be a slave in america, or live under the caste system in india or to to have been around during the summer of love.

    you may personally have a good experience of a teacher that claims to be "enlightened" – i cannot nor would i want to take that away from you, and if this is a central aspect of your spirituality and has no negative side effects i am truly very happy for you.

    i do not need to have met adi da to know from the accounts of a friend and from many written sources and court documents that the man was a monster. similarly with sai baba, of whom much has been written and one of who's molestees i personally know. this is also the case with osho, who's ashram i was in for 3 months, but only after his death.

    i do not have to have met james arthur ray or have been on one of his $10 K spiritual warrior retreats to know that 3 people were killed and many others hospitalized because of his omnipotent guru trip.

    similarly with muktananda, gurumayi, maharaji, chogyam tringpa, andrew cohen and many others. are you familiar with their legacies, even though you were not "directly experiencing" it?

    so as an interested teacher and student in the field of spirituality for the last 20 years, and as a writer and thinker, i ask my self – what is the underlying commonality here that leads to such tragic consequences?!

    in my article i propose that it is the guru myth itself – the myth that there are these almost superhuman beings who have some kind of supernatural authority to which one has to submit one's ego in order to find salvation.

    i propose that this is not only a dangerous idea for everyone concerned, including the guru, but is based on a lie.

    the dangers however are far more perilous for the devotee and their family. for example when sai baba has millions of followers worldwide and has a 50 or 60 year career of molesting their children and amassing $9B while pretending to be divine by doing cheap magic tricks – all under cover of the idea that he is an avatar, a w world teacher a special enlightened guru sent to earth from on high, i think all people interested in spirituality SHOULD be passionate about seeking to understand how this could be possible.

    so the simple take away is this: the guru myth sets up a dynamic on which one gives away one's power to a fallible human being in the name of a spiritual path that is ironically asking that one regress into a child like magical belief about this person and turn off one's ability to think for oneself.

    the fact that this also comes with some powerful experiences and benefits doesn't make it any less of a problematic paradigm, in fact it is more pernicious because the bait on the hook is so tasty and even nourishing.

    in a previous article about john friend, i went into some possible psychological explanations for this dynamic and why it goes wrong:

    might there be teachers and students within that paradigm who manage to get the good (meditation, devotional bliss, a sense of personal growth, awe, deep connection etc) without the negative consequences?

    i am certain that there are many – my point though is that we enter into such a dynamic under the impression that in order to succeed we have to turn off our critical thinking, and one of my tenets is that in order for spirituality to be healthy and integrated it requires that we maintain our critical thinking.

    i do not personally have to have gone through an abusive guru experience to have strong feelings and opinions about this, anymore than i have to black or gay to have strong feelings or opinions about homophobia or racism, anymore than i have to have been molested by a priest to be passionate about pointing out the problems with catholicism.

    i only have to be human and have a heart and an inquiring mind and a desire to see spirituality become more sane by trying to understand the aspects that are a little crazy and tragic.

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