Is there such a thing as a “true” guru? A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart. Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work. Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.
Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to. Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition. Better yet – don’t go there. Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc. Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war. Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.
Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here). Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.
True or phoney. Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic! Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“). From his book page:
Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.
Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).
Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga. Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions. Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.
“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes. In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”
“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West. Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy. Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”
“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”