by Steven Mih
“A king asked a sage to explain the Truth. In response the sage asked the king how he would convey the taste of a mango to someone who had never eaten anything sweet. No matter how hard the king tried, he could not adequately describe the flavor of the fruit, and, in frustration, he demanded of the sage “Tell me then, how would you describe it?” The sage picked up a mango and handed it to the king saying “This is very sweet. Try eating it!” – Hindu Teaching
A guru is someone who lends help in overcoming obstacles to one’s spiritual journey. On modern yoga’s spiritual but non-religious path, most people are wary of the traditional practice of seeking a living guru to guide their spiritual inquisition. Really, why would you want to find a guru? Would you be risking losing your independence and self will? What does one need to see to recognize a guru? Even more, what does seeking a guru do for you?
One of my favorite yoga stories is from Tim Miller, an American yogi, who shared his own experience with his guru, Pattabhi Jois. When Tim first began practicing with Pattabhi Jois, he would complete his personal practice but skip out a procession where his fellow students would bow at the feet of their teacher at the end of the day. After many days, he worked through his aversion to this and went to join the gathering, thinking “why not?” When he bowed down at his teacher’s feet, he felt a never-before deep sense of surrender and relief. He looked up, saw his guru smiling down at him, and felt the tears filling his own eyes.
As Tim’s story prescribes, the process of seeking out a guru has benefits in and of itself. The seeking opens up one’s spiritual potential. And the devotion and surrendering nourishes the seeker just as much. As a old Indian proverb asks, “If you could choose between meeting God or meeting your guru, which do you choose? Your guru, because you may not recognize God until they introduce you.”
The next question is, then, what does one need to see to recognize one’s guru. There are many paths to spirituality so it is hard to know which one is best suited to you. Just take a quick look at the types of yoga there are. Some primarily focus on the physical postures known as asana, some involve no asana at all. Some heavily utilize mantra and traditional scripts, while some simply perscribe questions like “Who am I?” Whichever direction we go, there is potential teaching available when we are ready to hear. Personally, I find it most helpful to just keep in tune and impartial at those moments that provide me much joy in my life. Joy can be our teacher as well. I now enjoy the practice of chanting and find it deeply connecting. On the other hand, I’d say that even though I was quite adept at both laughing yoga and gibberish yoga sessions in India, both practices didn’t really stick with me.
The second quality to cultivate during a search is your own discriminating wisdom. As you watch and learn your practice from any teacher, you’ll want to be aware of what they’re saying and doing. Instead of blindly agreeing with what is said, we must ask ourselves why and what for. A guru has specific qualities to check out for. I have borrowed from the notes a friend brought back for me from him own search in India. A few of the key ones are: Do they practice the ethics of what they teach? Do they possess an ability to concentrate? Do they have a wealth of scriptural knowledge? Have they realized oneness or a deep experience in meditation? Sometimes the answers can be vague. And everyone’s answer would be unique, of course. I recall sitting with an Acharya (spiritual teacher) in Mysore, India who explained how his samadhi (state of oneness) began with hearing of sounds fading away. But honestly, we could all recognize a few common qualities as basics: can they teach in a skilled and compassionate way? Do they have great patience? And last but not the least, are they willing to teach us? Some gurus are just too busy or are too remote to have a real relationship with. Some, however, are right close to home.
While a guru may or may not have appeared in your life, there are many benefits to the search. Explore with us in classes this month, the gurus within, gurus out there, and in each other.