Flip through the “World’s Greatest Yoga Masters” article in the June 2007 issue of Vanity Fair magazine (outtakes here), and tell me: Which one is the real yogi? Or, perhaps more to the point: Which one teaches the real yoga?
The obvious answer to this question is, “They all do,” which is exactly what students in my class responded when I showed them photos of teachers of different styles of yoga and posed that question.
But it is enlightening to go deeper, to explore what distinguishes and binds people who subscribe to diverse yoga styles, and what constitutes an authentic yoga practice. These are issues almost all the students that I’ve known well have confronted at some point on their path.
As a teacher of Anusara Inspired(TM) yoga, I embrace diversity. John Friend peppered his “Anusara Yoga Teacher Training Manual” with suggestions (both implicit and explicit) to uplift all yoga. In Ch. 12 on the attitude of the teacher, he writes, “Avoid making direct comparisons between Anusara Yoga and other systems. In this way we can cultivate harmony and unity in the community. This further honors the great art and tradition of yoga that we represent.”
Or, to paraphrase comments made by Anusara philosopher Douglas Brooks during the Anusara Grand Gathering at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colo. last fall: Any one style of yoga is but a drop in the vast, rich ocean of the yoga tradition.
Or, as Georg Fueurstein writes in the second chapter of his book “The Yoga Tradition”: “So, when we speak of Yoga we speak of a multitude of yogic paths and orientations with contrasting theoretical frameworks and occasionally even divergent goals, though all are means to liberation.”
I share these views not because I am an Anusara groupie, but because they ring true to me on an intuitional level. I am suspicious of people who tell you their way is the right way, or the only way — particularly when they emerge from a very complex field.
Accepting diversity is practical, too. If you start from the stance that everyone is on a path, and every path is the right one, you are not afraid to branch out from your own comfortable way. You may come back and pick up your original path, but you will do so with a wider view. Or you may continue to meander from path to path, letting one discovery lead you to the next. Either way, your own practice is enhanced.
This is why I encourage staudents to visit other teachers’ classes, and try other styles of yoga. I find that those who are open to the richness of the yoga tradition are similarly open to the richness of the inner self that their practice is helping them unearth.
On the flip side of this argument is the guru-disciple relationship. As all the thinkers I quoted above have also pointed out, yoga has a history of guru-worship. Feuerstein at one point in “The Yoga Tradition” even cites the metaphor of moths flitting from flame to flame to describe students who frequent different teachers.
Yes, it is important to have a guru, as my distance from my own teacher these last five years has shown me. When I left Los Angeles for Las Vegas, I knew I would only occasionally be able to study with Noah Maze, whose teachings resonate on a deeper level of my being than any other teacher with whom I’ve studied.
But I also knew that our teacher-student relationship transcends time and distance. No matter how, when, where or with whom I practice, I am always deepening and understanding that Noah gave me. And I continue to learn from him even when we’re apart, not just by communicating verbally with him, but also by going back to his old words and finding new meaning in them.
So, I don’t find it contradictory to encourage my students to both remain open to a variety of classes and still seek the sacred teacher-student bond that characterizes the transmission of the yoga tradition. You could even say I believe that that more of the world we experience, the more context we bring to the many lessons of yoga that our teachers have to offer.