I first stepped foot on a yoga mat over a decade ago.
It was my senior year of college and I needed to fulfill one final PE requirement.
Then, late one night about a month into the course, I became immersed in a dream where I was shot between the eyes and died.
When I awoke, it was as if I saw the world in technicolor for the first time—everything seemed more vibrant and alive. Two years later I was in living in New York City, taking lots of yoga classes and practicing everything that I’d learned up until then, but knew something was missing.
I needed a teacher—a master to show me the way. So I began to pray for one.
Later that year I moved to Portland, Oregon for no other reason than an inner voice pointing me there, and within two weeks of arriving I was invited to a yoga class that was to redefine my entire life. I’ll never forget the moment I met Stephen—I’d smoked some pot prior to slipping into the class, which took place in a cozy college rec. room.
I figured we were in for some sun salutations, a warrior pose or two, a little relaxation—you know, the standard fare. Imagine my surprise when the class assembled in a circle—so everyone could see my bleary eyes and look of embarrassment—and began a series of chants and vigorous breathing exercises that caused my head to spin.
Emerging from savasana an hour later, I knew that I’d found the master I’d been seeking, and he graciously took me in for a year, free of charge.
Ultimately I’d leave Portland, but not before Stephen inspired me to travel to India and directed me to his teacher, a powerful Swami with many disciples. However, Stephen was fond of saying that he didn’t believe in the notion of “having a guru” and I kept this in mind as I journeyed to the East.
The Swami, it seemed, was shopping for students just as intently as they were seeking him, and I balked at the opportunity to join his ranks, which would have required several “initiations”—blasts of energy called Shaktipat that I’d heard could rewire your nervous system and affect your karma.
In other words, according to yogic tradition, a relationship with a guru formed in this way transcends lifetimes.
So I traveled on, landing at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in 2008. Working as the coffee guy, I took a different workshop every month and met several outstanding teachers. One of them, Master Paulie Zink—the founder of yin yoga—would stay up with me until 5 a.m. telling stories and laughing until our faces hurt.
In those magical hours at the edge of sleep and on the brink of delirium, I’d feel as if Paulie and I were charging through the darkness of space at the speed of light, only he had a flashlight and could see everything a bit more clearly.
A few months later, a friend asked me whether I had a guru and I answered “no,” but later that night as I drifted off to sleep I silently asked my higher self whether this was true. To my surprise, a sincere voice answered, “Paulie is your guru!” There’d been no conscious choice involved, it was a matter-of-fact.
Through the years I’ve continued to “try on” spiritual teachers, and while many have taught me remarkable techniques, what the great ones have in common is not only that they practice what they preach, but also that they’re empty. As a result of their dedication and discipline, their ego has been set aside and a more authentic self is at the wheel.
When you look, listen and give them your attention—literally reaching out with your mind to touch them—the remarkable energy they channel flows effortlessly into you, imbuing you with their tremendous vision and grace.
On more than one occasion I’ve felt that energy escort me home and continue to work on me during my dreams, often cleaning out old patterns or samskaras in its wake.
In ancient times, it may have been easier to surrender oneself to a guru—after all, there probably wasn’t all that much to give up. These days, spiritual teachers are forced to devote as much time and energy to marketing and social media as the average entrepreneur. And, as the general public is so inundated with solicitations—i.e., the yoga market is flooded with teachers—the real gems often go unnoticed.
So, if you’re out shopping for a guru, suffice to say it may not be wise to sell the family farm and go native based on fanfare or fervor surrounding a particular teacher or community.
You’ll know that you’ve found your guru when you feel that you can be yourself around him or her—that there’s no reason to hide anything—and even in your darkest hour, they’ll be by your side beaming out the love that they embody simply because that’s the only thing they know how to do.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Used with Permission from Paulie and Maria Zink