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Looking back to move forward:
The guru-disciple relationship

Fall 2004

by Shobhan Richard Faulds


The second in a series of articles on transformational teaching

In the quest to be a transformative teacher, there is much to be learned from a study of the traditional guru/disciple relationship. Even among yoga enthusiasts, the labels "guru" and "disciple" elicit a mixed reaction today, yet it is undeniable that this unique relationship sourced and sustained the spiritual potency of the yoga tradition throughout its 5,000 years of evolution in India. Closer to home, the contemporary yoga movement sprouted from seeds sown by Indian gurus in American disciples. For those of us who practice and teach the current expression of Kripalu Yoga, it's easy to forget that it arose in a devotional ashram community that was still chanting the Guru Gita a mere ten years ago. Given this history, it's only fitting to ask: What is the guru/disciple relationship all about?

The syllable gu means darkness; ru means light. The title "guru" implies the capacity to dispel students' inner darkness and guide them into the light of conscious awareness. Yoga traditionally recognized a spectrum of teachers, with the title of guru reserved for a genuine adept. The title was not meant to imply that all gurus were fully enlightened beings, but rather that they had attained the degree of realization required to safely guide others down the spiritual path. Over the centuries, the title became a common honorific, leading Swami Kripalu to emphasize that authentic gurus are few and far between. Students were likely to study with many teachers whose task was to impart ordinary knowledge; only very fortunate students would encounter a guru able to transmit extraordinary knowledge.

Students came to a guru to enter a specific relationship. They sought initiation into an esoteric tradition, aware that it had a distinct set of teachings and practices. One of the great strengths of the yoga tradition is that it has always recognized a diversity of paths, each leading to a common destination of eternal truth. As my good friend Stephen Cope puts it, "The way to the universal is always through the particular." Schools of yoga vary widely and at times directly contradict one another. This is not a problem but a blessing, since different approaches appeal to people of different temperaments. While at first students benefit from sampling the wares of different yoga schools, eventually they must adopt a particular approach and practice it intensively in order to make real progress. This is the essence of what it means to be a disciple.

Part of India's religious system, the guru/disciple relationship was surrounded by a set of cultural ideals that supported mutual trust and intimacy. The guru's role was to skillfully guide the disciple's development and always act with his or her best interest and highest welfare in mind. The disciple's role was to adopt a reverent attitude toward the guru, study and practice the teachings diligently and follow the guru's personal guidance without doubt or hesitation. The guru was duty bound to find and successfully mentor at least one disciple able to carry on the lineage. Disciples were expected to personally ensure, through selfless service, that the guru's basic needs in life were met.

Although ideals are inspiring and often helpful, they don't guarantee that individuals will act accordingly. Gurus were unquestioned authorities able to take advantage of disciples for personal gain and ego aggrandizement. Adulating disciples could regress into emotional dependence, placing their gurus on a pedestal and avoiding the difficult inner work of individuation and transformation. These existing pitfalls became even more slippery when Eastern gurus set up shop with Western disciples, outside the cultural supports of Indian society.

The primary purpose of the guru/disciple relationship was to provide a context in which a disciple could practice intensively under the personal guidance of a master teacher. "Just as thirst cannot be dispelled without water," Swami Kripalu said, "ignorance cannot be dispelled without the agency of a particular great person." The first step was always initiation or diksha, a formal and often ritualized acceptance into the tradition which frequently took the form of mantra diksha—permission to recite the tradition's sacred sound formula in meditation. Initiation was a psychological rebirth that sanctified practice and called forth divine assistance to quicken the disciple's efforts to awaken. It instilled great confidence in the disciple, providing a clear line of demarcation indicating that a significant step forward had been taken.

The initial practice that followed was designed to purify and strengthen the disciple's body, heart and mind. Closely monitoring the disciple's progress, the guru would offer encouragement and practical support. As the relationship deepened, the guru's emphasis was likely to shift from offering support to confronting a disciple's blind spots and unconscious patterns blocking growth. For householder disciples focused on living a dharmic life, this level of practice was often satisfying and sufficient. If—and only if—this initial practice was successfully completed, a secret initiation would follow. This initiation was energetic, the direct transmission of a spiritual energy or consciousness that planted the seed of transpersonal awakening deep into the psyche of the disciple. Called shaktipat diksha or "descent of the power," this was not a ritualized initiation ceremony but rather an energetic empowerment. After shaktipat, the tenor of practice shifts, becoming more self-directed as the energetic seed sprouts, grows and ultimately flowers in the disciple's realization. Where initial practice is guided by the external guru, depth practice is intended to awaken the guru within.

Secrecy was critical to the effectiveness of the guru system in fostering depth practice because it allowed a set of esoteric teachings to be delivered sequentially to disciples as they grew ready to receive them. In some traditions, this process involved a series of distinct initiations with corresponding practices. Disciples would reside in or near the ashram for many years to remain in personal contact with the guru. Other gurus only initiated disciples who had already achieved fitness through a combination of work with other teachers and their own efforts. In these cases, full initiation would be given immediately, sometimes on a first encounter, along with the requisite teachings and instructions for practice. With only sporadic guidance provided afterwards, disciples were compelled to find their own way forward.

Swami Kripalu's experience as a disciple was a mixture of these approaches. Residing in his guru's ashram for 15 months, he was given mantra initiation and personally schooled in the scriptures. After a lengthy fast that culminated in a second initiation, the young Swami Kripalu was physically abandoned. For the rest of his life, guidance came only when necessary via the mysterious and miraculous appearances of his guru. Swami Kripalu believed that, while highly desirable, it was not essential for a sincere practitioner of yoga to receive shaktipat from a guru. His belief, attained through personal experience, was that shakti energy can descend directly from God when the disciple is ready.

As contemporary teachers, what can we learn from yoga's past? An optimal student/teacher relationship has clarity of purpose and boundaries understood by both parties. It is marked by mutual trust and grows towards genuine intimacy, a closeness that fosters encouragement but also allows for challenge. As students develop, they benefit from working personally with someone deeply steeped in the transformative process, as the teachings must be personally tailored to meet their unique needs. Ultimately, the highest benefit a teacher can offer is not a technique or metaphysical understanding of life. It is an energetic modeling of what a powerful spiritual connection looks and feels like, an invitation to resonate at a higher frequency, the courage to attune to reality as it is.

Despite its noble history and rich content, the guru/disciple paradigm has proved problematic and unworkable in a multitude of spiritual communities across America. For good reasons, Kripalu Yoga is one of many traditions now evolving outside its classical framework. The last article in this series will focus on contemporary expressions of the teacher/student relationship and ways to retain its transformative potency.

Shobhan Richard Faulds, M.A., J.D., is a certified professional-level Kripalu yoga teacher. He will codirect the 2004 KYTA Conference, Oct. 21-24, where he will offer the keynote address, Fully Human, Fully Divine, Fully Alive and the workshop Catalyst for Change: Becoming a Transformational Teacher. Shobhan and his wife, poet Danna Faulds, are developing The Yoga Tradition of Swami Kripalu: A Two-Year Home Study Course for Teachers and Depth Practitioners. For more information, contact Danna at yogapoems@aol.com.

Complete list of articles by this author:

Kripalu's Non-sectarian Approach to Yoga

The Path to Tantra: The first in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

The sadhana of Swami Kripalu: The second in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Yogi Amrit Desai, originator of Kripalu Yoga: The third in a series of articles on the evolution of Kripalu Yoga

Professionals with Heart and Soul: Teaching Yoga in the "Yoga Boom"

Eastern tradition meets Western disciples: Co-creation in Kripalu's resident community

The yoga of communication: Leading groups the Kripalu way

Kripalu Yoga: A path of transformation

What distinguishes Kripalu Yoga?

Facets of transformative teaching

Looking back to move forward: The guru-disciple relationship

Students, mentors, midwives: A model for transformative teaching

The journey from known to unknown: The first in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Purifying body and mind

A Kripalu Yoga definition of enlightenment: The last in a series of articles on yoga's transformative process

Mastery in teaching

Swami Kripalu’s Inspiration for Yoga Teachers

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