“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
I never wanted to be a teacher. Whenever that profession was floated, more often than not by a well-meaning, yet clueless adult, I would roll my eyes and dismiss it. A noble profession for sure, but not for me. I was intended for something else, I wasn’t sure what, but I was certain it wasn’t teaching. You see, I thought I knew what being a teacher meant, because I had (as we all do) teachers all my life. To me, a teacher was someone who passed along content knowledge. A teacher was an institution; the person in front of the room, who lectured, gave assignments, and wore unfortunate khakis. None of this sat well with me (and still doesn’t).
Years passed, degrees earned, indecision grew, and an opportunity was offered. At the ripe age of 22 I found myself in front of 32 children, underprepared, overextended and all of a sudden being called, “teacher.” Days passed, lessons were taught, tears (mostly mine) cried, academic gains made, and all of a sudden when people asked what I did, I would answer, “I am a teacher.” And I would see that moment of recognition, when the schema of teacher would unlock, the person would nod, and say something generic, benevolent, but more often than not, dismissive.
As my time in the classroom extended, I found myself drawn to matters of the heart and alienated by demands for academic achievement. Students came into my classroom hungry, hurt, abused, neglected, worn down and failed by a system that was actively working against them. Pressure to hit marks of academic growth overshadowed the social and emotional needs I saw in my students. Every day I felt that aspects of this work were so right for me, and others so wrong.
Stressed, overworked, and at a loss I turned to yoga. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I had a teacher again. And this time it was different; this teacher did not care about the grade I got on a paper, or what school I got into. He didn’t care about MLA formatting, or a transcript. He cared about my whole being He cared about the union of body and mind and my ability to love myself. He cared about the open nature of my heart, because everything depends on an open heart. And it was on the mat that my education truly began.
And as it always does, these teachings on the mat started to bleed into all aspects of my life. I now was able to verbalize what being a teacher meant to me, and it transformed how I showed up for my students. Whenever I found myself frustrated by a limited understanding of my profession it became my goal to show, explain, and share what it meant to truly educate, helping myself and others shed fixed and limited understandings of teacher to one that included heart and mind.
The word Yoga means to yoke; to join and bring together. And that is what a true teacher does; they yoke matters of the mind to matters of the heart; they teach students to recognize, understand, label, and express their emotions so that they can communicate their needs effectively and always be in control of their actions. They teach that a healthy body sets the stage for a healthy mind. And they know that everything depends on an open heart. This type of education can be found both on the yoga mat and in classrooms across the country (and happens to be a definition of teaching that I can get down with).
If this is a definition that sits well with you as well, then share it. Talk about the teachers who have done this type of work in your life (in school or on the mat), or in the lives or your children. Support organizations that develop these types of teachers, and always hold high and celebrated space for this work.
Lately in Savasana I place my hands over my stomach. Last night it was my fifth class in four months, and my skin was practically vibrating. This is what I do in Savasana now, even though I love the feeling of my arms out to my sides. Last night I almost started to cry. It was dark outside and the room was dark too. I felt such an outpouring of love toward my body. Mixed in with the caring gesture of hands to stomach was a profound and intense feeling of understanding the temporariness of this body I care so much for. During the past two years I have been dealing with a serious illness and have had two major abdominal surgeries. When I put my hands on my stomach I remember that I am healing, that I am strong, and that I am immensely more fragile than I can comprehend.
I am only recently back to my physical yoga practice, and I am awed at being able to move with relative ease after not even being allowed to open doors for myself for so long. When I say that I am grateful for all of this, I don’t want to suggest that it has been easy or that there have not been terrible moments. But when I tried to think of the guru I want to honor this month as I explore our December theme, the only teacher I could think of was illness.
Yoga, so rooted in the body, has been a profound way to explore every fear, contradiction, limitation, and uncertainty of illness and recovery. Somehow yoga has allowed me to remember and forget my physical form, attach to my living self and feel a deep sense of softness that can only be described as letting go. It has allowed me to navigate the scariest thing I have ever experienced with a genuine calm. Some of the time I didn’t even realize that I was doing yoga, but I was.
The word guru means, simply, teacher. Etymologically gu is dark and ru is light. We often think of the guru as being the light that shines into the darkness or the knowledge that breaks through ignorance. For the past months, illness has been my guru. But, it hasn’t been an experience of the light illuminating the dark exactly. It may be better described as an experience of my eyes adjusting to the dark, perhaps.
This particular version of guru will visit all of us in one form of hardship or another, of course. One lesson I have learned is that none of us are spared. I am still turning all of this over in my mind and probably will be for the rest of my life. Being confronted with the tangible prospect of death, as opposed to the conceptual knowledge of death, does something startling. We see with a clarity health just doesn’t afford us much of the time. I remember being in the hospital and writing in my journal: I hope I remember this. Already, I don’t quite remember what I meant. But what I think I meant was this. Being alive in this very second, being fully present in it. I mean that viscerally. Sometimes, when we are really, really present it can be incredibly intense, and so we flit away from the present, in harmless, natural ways. I have learned to take a deep breath and come back, if I can. My hands on my stomach in Savasana help me do that. I am here, in this room, right now, alive. I feel the tenderness of each second as it is immediately gone.
Many people have lost and left their bodies before me, and I am not spared simply because I have been spared for now. Illness has taught me a gentleness toward myself. My skin, my bones, my eyes, the incredible scar, these things are all terribly precious and not to be grasped or kept. Illness is the teacher that let me understand this in my body, not just on paper, not just in a book or philosophy. It is really scary sometimes. It is sad. It is still, of course, impossible to fathom in many ways. But it has also never felt so good to exist in my body as it does now.
I feel so much I didn’t feel before. I have more empathy. My experience of fear and pain made me less able to turn away from it when I see it elsewhere. This manifests itself in tangible and intangible ways. I can speak to a friend who is going through her own health issues with a different capacity. I can stop for a woman on the street who needs help. I read the news differently, I watch movies differently, I am open to things I was not open to before. Even love feels different.
One sort of funny, but wonderful, example I will end with is that a lifelong fear of flying has magically disappeared. Before, even when I was able to intellectually work through my anxiety on a flight, I would still have sweaty palms, my heart would race. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. It’s gone. And the reason I love this example is because that fear of flying was something I couldn’t control and felt everywhere: in body, in mind, in emotions. But now the fear is gone in much the same way. The calm is something I feel on a physiological, intellectual, and energetic level. The shift has occurred totally.
The philosopher Wittgenstein says, “What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.” I re-read this line often. Illness introduced me to my body in a way I could never have imagined, it introduced a language I had never heard or spoken, it introduced sensations I am still examining. The feeling of my hands on my stomach in Savasana is a feeling of vastness, and of the invisible, it is the feeling of what the body says that is beyond words, and the ways in which darkness can be a teacher that blasts our entire life full of light.
by Alex Crow
I didn’t journey to India looking for anything in particular. I wanted to experience the land that I had already learned so much from through my practice of yoga, with an open mind and heart. Of course I came to know that what they say is true, “the guru finds you when you aren’t looking.” I can safely say that the term “guru” is generally misunderstood and misrepresented here in the West, but in India, “guru” is commonplace. In fact, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of men claiming to be gurus, exploiting their own “powers” of extreme flexibility, intense discipline, or ridiculous skill. While these men deserve recognition, it would be unwise for anyone to follow them as you would a true guru.
We all have many teachers, people that help to light our path. But, there are some things that make a guru…a guru. The great mind of Osho, speaks to the qualities of the guru:
1. “A guru is a person who has realized truth. Now he is the original source; he himself has encountered reality, he is face to face with it.” Truth can only be experienced directly. At times, we are slapped in the face with reality, at other times it sets in slowly. Regardless, it is only the truth that is worth repeating. If it doesn’t resonate as truth, it probably isn’t.
2. “A guru is not aware of his guruship; he cannot be. A guru cannot claim that he is a guru-there is no claim like that. A person can only know whether or not he has fulfilled the condition of egolessness; otherwise he cannot encounter truth.” The truth tends to purify all individual opinions, which leaves no room for the phony.
3. “The guru is not necessarily present, he is a presence. His very non-claiming, his non egoistic, non teaching attitude, and his living the truth, are the communion.” Ram Dass speaks about Mahara-ji (his guru in India) as being like a pillar of pure unconditional love. He didn’t have to say anything to express the truth that was in his heart.
It is in this that I recognize the divine beauty of the guru – while there may be authentic individuals with followings (such as Amma “the hugging saint”, and Neem Karoli Baba “Mahara-ji”), the love and honest truth that these gurus emit is a strength and power that all beings posses. So who was the guru that came to me when I wasn’t looking? The guru revealed itself to me in the glimmer of every eye that I met along my path. She was in the gaze of the old woman who blessed me with flowers in Hampi. He was in the smile of the young rickshaw driver who helped me when I was lost and a bit frightened in the streets of Mumbai. She is in the heart of every friend, and inside every word of truth. The guru winks at us in the words of mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz, and sings to us in the ancient mantras of the Vedas. And most of all perhaps, the guru reveals itself when we are at our most vulnerable, most present and exposed state. When we finally surrender the effort of understanding, and unveil the truth and knowing at the deepest layer of our being, we come to find that the guru is also within.
“I am the Self, dwelling in the heart of all beings, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that lives as well.”
-The Bhagavad Gita (10:20)
Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat Para Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha
Alex Crow is a teacher at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, a space where she can share what she loves. You can catch her teaching Yin and Lotus Flow on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Alex is in unending gratitude toward all of the teachers that have helped to light her path, especially her Laughing Lotus Family, Jasmine Tarkeshi and Keith Borden. You can find out more about what Alex Crow is about at: alexcrowflies.com
by Roche Janken
As I write, I am sitting in front of a lovely, glowing Christmas tree. This morning, my roommate landed from her Thanksgiving travels, went to the lot to pick it up and strung it up with lights and homemade origami ornaments. No one asked her to do these things–she’s just a generous person who likes to be festive.
The word guru loosely translates to remover of darkness or bringer of light. When I think about my gurus of the past several years, my roommates are the first to come to mind. I do not live with Osho or Pema Chodrin (can you imagine?!?)–in fact, none of them even practice yoga asana. Yet their steady honesty and kindness inspires me.
Yoga is primarily an awareness practice and it has encouraged me to be more awake to my everyday. Rather than waiting for a guru to descend from on-high, I can listen into my own life to learn. Sometimes an act of service can simply be scrubbing the shower or making enough pancakes for everyone. These beautiful humans have brought light into my life–and not just the decorative holiday kind.
In the past several years, this has inspired a new question in me. Rather than just trying to get by, how can I bring light into my communities? How can I dispel darkness?
As a city dweller, I feel extremely lucky that I don’t have to go out of my way to serve. Every day, I move between communities of people that I care about. I wake up in my communal house, go to work with a group of people I appreciate and teach yoga in the warmth of Laughing Lotus. In the spirit of what I’ve learned at Lotus, a big part of my efforts involve the first two yamas, ahimsa (non-harming) and satya (truthfulness). For me, non-harming looks like going the extra mile to be kind and provide for the people I love. Truthfulness means standing by my word and doing what I say I’m going to do. For example, at Lotus I practice ahimsa by making the effort to know what’s going on in my student’s lives and satya by beginning and ending my classes punctually.
To be honest, staying true to these ideas is not HARD–it just takes attention and an eye for seeing the opportunities to serve.
You won’t see me taking on the title of guru anytime soon, but anyone can aspire to bring in a little more light.
by Jasmine Tarkeshi
Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu, Guru devo Maheshwara,
Guru sakshat, param Brahma, tasmai shri guravay namah
“Our creation is that guru (Brahma-the force of creation); the duration of our lives is that guru (Vishnu-the force of preservation); our trials, tribulations, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru (devo Maheshwara-the force of destruction or transformation). There is a guru nearby (Guru Sakshat) and a guru that is beyond the beyond (param Brahma). I make my offering (tasmai) to the beautiful (shri) remover of my darkness, my ignorance; (Guru) it is to you I bow and lay down my life (namah).“ -Translated by Sharon Gannon
I first heard and chanted this sacred mantra at the Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City on Second Avenue around 1996. My roller coaster of a life had me once more longing for a deeper internal happiness that nothing I seemed to achieve externally, no matter how hard I tried seemed to fulfill. So, I found myself yet again at the feet of the wise, wonderful and whimsical Sharon Gannon.
As someone who never had much guidance in my life, I loved that I had found a Teacher who seemed to know so much, not about Yoga and the Universe, but who spoke to me about love, life and loss, and hauntingly seemed to know everything about ME! This is the Guru’s roll, to shed light on the true self, and show us the parts of us we want to see and those we don’t. Gu means darkness, and ru means light; the light that dispels darkness or ignorance. During times of darkness and doubt, she was that light.
“Guru is the remover of darkness: Gu means darkness, and Ru means remover. Darkness refers to what obscures the light of awareness. Guru is the enlightenment principal that aids one in the realization of the true Self, the whole Self, the holy Self. The guru removes avidya, or ignorance, which is a case of mistaken identity. It is when you think you are your personality, mistaking your body/mind container for who you are and ignore who you really are. It is when you feel separate from the whole.” Sharon Gannon
One day when I was in quite a bit of despair, I ran to class and to my disappointment she was not there! Instead, it was her fiery assistant, Dana Flynn. With my attachment to who I thought was my Guru, I would usually leave and not take class, but on this day I was desperate and stayed. Flynn started class with the Guru Mantra and I chanted along in perfect Sanskrit. Then she read the translation on the Mantra sheet and I got it! Sharon was even teaching me about my ignorance without even being there!
Not only was Dana an incredible teacher in a different form, and someone who continues to guide me to this day, but my whole life, family and difficulties themselves that I had been running from were my very Gurus!
I have had the honor to sit at the feet of the Great Yoga Teachers and Gurus, traveled to India to Ashrams and the Kumbh Mela but the Maha Guru Mantra has been my guiding light. It is what informs my practice, life and teaching. Life IS our highest teacher when we bow our heads in surrender of our egos with our hands in prayer to each moment, and throw ourselves in full pranam or prostration to every experience no matter how beautiful or terrible. We truly learn about life when we become quiet enough to LISTEN with an open mind and heart to the great wisdom being whispered behind the cloak of our daily interactions with others.
Like the great Sufi Poet and Saint Hafez says:
“How do I listen? As if everyone were my beloved Master whispering to me their cherished last words.”
“Life and Guru are inseparable. Your life is the Guru tatva (principle). Throw light on your own life. The wisdom that shines through your life – you need to honor, that is honoring the Guru. See, life has taught you so many things – what you did wrong and what you did right, and if you don’t throw light on your own life, then the Guru is absent. So reflect on your own life and honor the wisdom that life has offered you. That is honoring the Guru. Are you with me? It is serious stuff.” ~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
And Hafez says again:
“How did the Rose ever open it’s Heart and Give to the world all of its beauty? It felt the encouragement of Light against it’s Being Otherwise we would all be too frightened.” – Hafez
During December, the darkest month of the year, we honor and celebrate our Gurus, the incredible beings who have devoted their lives to awakening and share their inspiring stories and teachings to uplift and encourage us all to open our hearts and give to the world all of our beauty!
This is the practice of Svadyaya, Self Study through studying the lives of great beings and spiritual texts as cosmic mirrors reflecting and sparking our own Light and Truth.
The winter solstice is actually the turning from darkness towards the LIGHT. The 21st will be the darkest day of the year and then the days will start increasing in LIGHT!
So it truly is a time of Celebrating all the magnificent teachers, prophets, poets and saints who we discover have at some time, also been sinners as well as soul and rock and roll voices, authors, artists, madmen and women and pioneers of the Spirit that have inspired change and revolution!!
During this time of reflection before the new year, it is great to look back and honor every teaching we have received from our lives, our own parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, nature, the Great Mystery and yes, even our foes and difficulties to inform our choices and lives in 2014.
Join me on December 13th at 5:30 for an Info session for our Celebrated Teacher Training in 2014 to soak in Yoga’s timeless wisdom and awaken the teacher within you to share the teachings from your own living experience.
On Friday, December the 20th, give thanks and praise to all life’s experience during Solstice Kirtan and Join me and Astrud for our Annual Yogic New Year’s Eve of exhaling 2013 and Inhaling into 2014 with Intention setting, fire ceremony, Yoga, and singing and Dancing into the New Year.
Namaste and Love,