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Alanna Kaivalya

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Disharmony Between Yoga Teachers and Students: Why Students Must Eventually Leave the Teacher

Posted: 02/ 9/2012 8:00 pm

What do you do when it's time to leave your teacher?

At some point, every student must leave their teacher. It's a built-in principle of yoga. Parents raise children to be able to survive on their own at some point; its the same concept between teachers and students of yoga. Lately, there have been several exoduses of notable teachers from notable lineages. From the outside, and maybe with some of the rawness, it seems like a tragic occurrence, but really, it's a natural evolution of this process.

It took me many years to understand this.

Sometimes we get caught up in the system of yoga and the glory of the teachings that we forget what we're actually here to do: liberate ourselves. This cannot be done if we see someone else as above us or more accomplished than us -- as someone who holds the power that we would do anything to possess. This creates a hierarchy and the potential for heartache as expectations are sorely let down and what we once saw as perfect suddenly changes into something, well, other.

Yes, I'm speaking in metaphor and broad strokes for a reason. It's not helpful to name names or speak in specifics when really the point I'm trying to get across is so important and valuable that we can use the current hubbub to understand the wisdom of yoga through this very, very important lens:

The guru should be no more than a friend and no less than a friend.

This simple statement was first told to me by a lovely man named Mark Whitwell. It came to me at a time in my own life when I was trying to understand this very concept. These simple words created such an illumination that I have been compelled to share them with students ever since. It's a critical lesson. If learned early on, it can potentially save us from heartache and facilitate our own spiritual journey.

It's simple. If we see preferential treatment from a teacher to a student: warning. If we see a teacher treating a student in a harmful way: warning. If a teacher treats us just the way a friend would treat us, then we're treading in safe waters. Another way to eloquently put this would be "We travel as equals or not at all." This simple line from a Joseph Arthur song clears the idea of hierarchical structures -- which is extremely appropriate in yoga. As soon as there is a hierarchy in the system -- as soon as someone seems better than us, or less than us -- we've immediately strayed from the fundamental concept of yoga, which is to be without separation, delineation or hierarchy.

With this in mind, we can be free to follow the teachings, not the teacher. A specific teacher may convey the teachings in a particular way that we resonate with and love... and so we should sit with that teacher for as long as they nourish us and guide us toward spiritual maturity. But, no matter how good that teacher is, at some point, we will have to believe ourselves fully nourished and walk away from the well-spring.

Because what good are the teachings if we can't stand on our own two feet?

For those who have recently (or ever) decided to walk away, after having learnt and absorbed the wellspring of teachings offered to them by any teacher, I say, "congratulations." Now, the real teachings can begin.

This is what someone said to me as I walked away:

It was a confusing time. I understand that it can feel unsteady. But, remember the words of Krishnamacharya: "If you have learnt something really well, then the way you express it, will not be the same way you learned it." At some point, after years of listening, and years of diligent practice, and years of rerouting the teachings through our own internal lens, one becomes more adept at refocusing and transmitting the teachings. It's a subtle process that happens as a result of the unshakable confidence that begins to develop not in what we've been taught, but in what we now know. This is how the teachings continue. And they will. And all teachings, when given from a place of compassion, are valuable.

So, let us go as equals or not at all.

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