Do You Need a Guru?

“Who needs a guru anyway?” It’s a question Western yoga students often ask. But in the wake of yet another guru scandal, maybe we need to change the question to “What is a guru anyway?”

Guru is often translated as “dispeller of darkness” (gu=light, ru=darkness), though Sanskrit scholars stress that the word “guru” connotes weightiness or gravitas—suggesting someone heavy with spiritual wisdom. A guru’s insight and experience can help you see your way clearly through confusion, ignorance, or doubt. For hundreds of years, this is how yoga was taught, directly from guru to student.

Now that “yoga” is a household word, and “guru” is used to describe nearly any kind of expert, has the concept of a guru lost its meaning? Look through a newspaper or surf the internet, and you’ll find references to “finance gurus,” “computer gurus,” “mommy gurus,” and more. In trying to integrate a spiritual tradition with a secular, commercial society, have we created confusion about who a guru is or what a guru does?

We may yearn to be guided like Arjuna, who was wisely counseled by Krishna on the battleground of Kurukshetra, a symbol for life’s challenges. But avatars and self-realized masters are hard to find in today’s yoga community, now a $5-billion a year industry encompassing a diversity of lineages, teaching styles, and specializations. Some people are turned off by yoga’s spiritual underpinnings, while others bemoan how shallow and commercial yoga has become. Though you may hope for a guru to guide you through yoga’s deeper practices, many students require nothing more than a skilled asana teacher.

As in any big, bickering family, getting along requires tolerance and respect, and the surest way to disappointment and disillusionment is through unmet expectations. It’s not surprising that we feel angry or betrayed when teachers behave badly. After all, traditional yoga included ethical principles—not instructions for Triangle Pose. And though many teachers make an effort to place yoga’s “ten commandments”—the yamas and niyamas—in a modern context, the greater yoga community has no official guidelines or consequences regarding ethical behavior. Here’s a reality check: If someone refers to himself as a guru, he probably isn’t, at least not in the yogic sense of the word.

Ultimately, spiritual realization is an “inside job,” not something that can be bought from or taught by a self-proclaimed master. Continue to practice, practice, practice. Hone your skills of discernment until you find a “weighty” teacher whose values and knowledge are in alignment with your needs. In the meantime, as many teachers are fond of saying during Shavasana, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Bow to the long tradition of reverence for one’s guru. But if he turns out to be nothing more than a “marketing guru,” feel free to practice that time-honored capitalist tradition of taking your mat elsewhere.

What qualities would you hope to find in a guru?

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