I’ve wrestled with the idea of a yoga guru since the 1990s, when I was in my early 20s and just starting a yoga practice. I thought having a guru meant handing over all my reason, free will and decision-making processes to a teacher, a person just as fallible as any other human being—ludicrous! When I discovered that guru has other meanings like “venerable” and “respectable,” and that a guru is ultimately one who shines a bright light on our dark, I started getting interested.
I read in the Upanishads that “gu” means darkness and “ru” means destroyer. I came to see that a guru was “one who destroys/dispels darkness.” These ancient texts and stories I read by Swami Vivekanada all pointed to needing a guru to be a true yogi. Oh, and there was another requirement: one had to be male. To top it all off, many people at the time called yoga “that weird yogurt,”as if it were icky, for freaks only.
Yoga still surprises me and I am in awe of what I learn every day from it.
Hmm… How was a 20-something woman like myself supposed to find yogic peace and enlightenment?
Although I wasn’t too worried about being called a “yogurt” freak, the supposed gender requirement was clearly not in the cards. As for a guru: I didn’t have one, let alone know where to find one. Did I really need a guru to succeed with yoga? I wasn’t convinced.
Luckily, I found thoughtful encouragement in the swamis at the Vedanta Institute in LA. Even now I ponder the swamis‘ suggestions that one day I might like to be a nun. Occasionally, I wholeheartedly contemplate trading in my laywoman’s yoga garb for the official robes. My hubby gets a kick out of these musings.
About 4 years after my introduction to the Vedanta Institute, I moved to San Diego and found more guidance at the Ashtanga Yoga Center. Located in the heart of the surfer’s town of Encinitas, the Ashtanga Yoga Center was founded by Tim Miller, one of the first yoga teachers to be certified by Pattabhi Jois. Tim’s studio sat behind a hair salon and was somewhat of a “yogurt” stereotype, complete with musty carpets, a donation box and very serious students practicing gravity defying poses. Initially intimidated, I took classes from just about every other teacher but Tim, who for some unknown reason scared the heck out of me.
Years later, I eventually worked up the courage to go through Tim’s teacher training. I had already moved to Costa Rica to go through a yoga teacher training and had been teaching yoga for years, but I knew my avoidance of this reputable teacher was a dark spot I needed to confront. I found Tim to be lighthearted, funny and far from scary. When I told him how long I’d been practicing at his studio he asked why he hadn’t seen me until recently. I told him I was terrified of him. We chuckled.
Shine Your Own Light
In recent years, my practice has been more steady with Tim. So many of us arrive to practice every morning, offering hugs and kisses to our fellow students. Tim creates that community spirit, and he draws loving students into his gravity pull. He is an intense teacher with a soft heart.
Yoga still surprises me and I am in awe of what I learn every day from it. Some days I feel like a 10-ton lead ball and other days I’m floating. There are times when I’m concentrating so hard on a specific pose or transition and it eludes me. Then, when I least expect it, I’ve dropped into that balance of sthira-sukha, and the pose has found me.
I’ve also learned that I don’t want a guru. At least not in the old-school sense. Though if I were to have one, it would be Timji. He holds a presence in a studio like no other teacher I’ve met. I find his wisdom priceless, and his devotion to his teacher’s teaching and yoga are humbling. He jokes with us yet is also there to show us how to shine our own lights on the dark. “The practice is the real teacher,” he says.
In truth, I actually have many gurus. My hubby and kids have shed the most light on my darkest shadows. And amazingly, they still love me. The family and friends who help me see what I cannot at times are also my gurus. However, thanks to Timji, I’ve experienced my yoga practice as my very own teacher inside me. His devotion inspires me to practice and teach with total commitment.
If you’ve been debating whether to seek out a guru, the best advice I can give you is this: Study with as many teachers with as many different backgrounds as you can, and find a teacher(s) who carries a wisdom of the yoga tradition and inspires you to shed your own light on your shadows. Trust that gravity will pull you to that teacher(s).