Students, mentors, midwives:
The third in a series of articles on transformational teaching.
A fascinating process occurs when a wisdom tradition is transplanted into a foreign culture. Its shape and flavor begin to shift and change, slowly at first and then more rapidly. Cultural trappings are shed as deeper truths are closely examined. A new expression gradually emerges, one appropriate to its time and place. Sometimes this acculturation process does more than allow ancient wisdom to be transmitted to a different audience. There is the potential for something positive to result from the clash of worldviews. The teachings that emerge often have a greater wholeness and deeper potency. The tradition's essence has not only been preserved; it has evolved.
Today, just such a process is underway as yoga encounters the secular and scientific West. It's easy to criticize the commercialization of yoga, or righteously lament its reduction to an exercise system. It is helpful to acknowledge that something valuable is also happening. Millions of people are practicing yoga, many in nontraditional forms and settings. Medical science is studying hatha yoga and the ways it impacts the body. Psychology is exploring how meditation influences the mind. Scrutinized from multiple perspectives, the yoga tradition is evolving.
Nowhere is a focused effort to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff more important than in the teacher/student relationship. Yoga is a living tradition, one passed down by teachers to students, in ashram settings and weekly classes, in books, on DVDs and the Web. As the mechanism forging the links in the chain that connects its past and future, the teacher/student relationship has been core to yoga's potency as a wisdom tradition. For teachers inquiring into this subject, it is only fitting to ask questions such as, Why has Kripalu yoga abandoned the guru/disciple relationship? What can replace it? And most importantly, What type of relationship do I want to create with my students?
The second article in this series detailed the traditional guru/disciple relationship, which has strengths as a teaching model, especially for those new to the spiritual path and yoga. Practicing under the tutelage of a charismatic guru gives disciples a single role model and great confidence in their chosen path. As a result, initial practice is focused and tends to be engaged in with greater zeal. Other disciples provide social support that reinforces a commitment to change. Initiated into a guru path, a disciple feels he has found the highway to enlightenment.
Without negating any of its virtues, our collective Kripalu experience has been that the guru/disciple relationship also has a shadow sideone that ultimately outweighs its initial benefits. A primary aim of yoga is to reconnect with our spiritual source and inner authorityto awaken the "guru within." It is curious to pursue that goal by surrendering unconditionally to an external authority figure. Admittedly, following a guru's guidance can be a powerful way to break habits and overcome past conditioning, but it is one fraught with potential for obvious and not-so-obvious abuses of power.
Moreover, the guru system is often surrounded by a complex of social and psychological dynamics that create an invisible ceiling, blocking development beyond a certain point. It is a rare guru who allows students, even mature long-term disciples, to "graduate" and live on their own terms. Rapid change can give way to long-term stagnation, as disciples become dependent instead of empowered, and seek conformity over individuation, the guru's approval over growth, and status within the disciple community over freedom. While drawing on the external guidance of teachers is almost always an important step along the way, it can only take us so far. True transformation always involves learning to access, trust and act upon the wisdom that arises from deep within.
While guru scandals are frequently in the news, something far more noteworthy has been gained from the experience of yoga communities like Kripalu, something that is not commonly known or widely discussed. Moving beyond the guru/disciple model does not require sacrificing potency or accepting a superficial teacher/student relationship. It is possible to be a tradition of teachers dedicated to respectfully mentoring students through the rigors of the transformative process. It is possible to recognize the need for individuation and healthy ego development without negating the capacity of mature students to awaken spiritually and grow beyond the confines of an egocentric identity. It is possible to be a community of teachers that operates in accord with yoga's founding principle that "the divine dwells in every one of us," and treats even the newest student as innately wise. That is the harvest we can reap from our years of collective practice and experience.
A vital student/teacher relationship cannot be legislated, even by an institution like Kripalu or an association like KYTA. It is a highly personal matter, a subtle understanding created between each teacher and her students in spoken and unspoken ways. Yet dialogue and debate within the KYTA community has a role to play by encouraging us to share our experience, learn from others, and refine our approach. Toward that end, the bold text at the bottom of the screen contains some principles I have found helpful in my student/teacher relationships.
The essence of Kripalu yoga is using the tools of yoga to accept yourself, however you are showing up, and to rest in a depth experience of life unfolding moment to moment. Rather than making something happen, it is about being present to what is naturally happening. Instead of fostering complacency, this acceptance frees up our evolutionary energy. Practiced in this context, yoga initiates a profound transformative process that steadily removes the obstacles to healing and growth, allowing a student to blossom from the inside out. A skilled yoga teacher can hold this space of radical acceptance, and invite students into a deeper experience of self and life. Anyone who aspires to do this, even if he or she teaches nothing beyond gentle stretching and breath awareness, is transmitting the depth of yoga.
Be a perpetual student. A powerful teacher does not have to be a yoga master, whatever that is! I've made it enough to be practicing to the best of my ability and sincere in my efforts to grow and awaken. Modeling a willingness to be in the fire of the transformative process is really all I have to offer.
Invite students into a deeper experience of themselves. A deep respect for each individual is fundamental to the Kripalu yoga approach. Rather than direct anyone to do anything with their body or mind, I invite students into a deeper experience of body, mind, soul, and spirit. The power to do, or not do, or do differently, always remains with the student. Some students don't resonate with my style or approach, and that's OK.
Aspire to authentic relationship: Like all teachers, I am constantly serving a variety of needs. At first, students need information: how to do the postures properly, how to sustain a flowing breath, how to relax while staying present in the body. I work to provide clear instruction along with the encouragement needed to instill confidence. As practice deepens, students often want a measure of personal guidance to help them learn self-acceptance, move beyond self-limiting beliefs, or integrate powerful yoga experiences. At times a student's growth may require me to call attention to certain behaviors or mental/emotional patterns. Whether serving as an educator or guide, the key to skillful interpersonal relationships is always authenticity. For me, that often shows up as a willingness to be direct yet kind.
Empower: Kripalu yoga teaches students to learn from direct experience. Regular practice awakens the "guru within" and students become self-directed yogis walking forward on their own path of transformation. I am always on the lookout for students ready to graduate in big or little ways. When presented with an opportunity, I find ways to celebrate the step they've just taken, or acknowledge the leap they are about to make.
Shobhan Richard Faulds, M.A., J.D., is a certified professional-level Kripalu yoga teacher. His latest project is Sayings of Swami Kripalu: Inspiring Quotes from a Contemporary Yoga Master, a collection of quotations with accompanying commentary. To order copies, available at wholesale prices to KYTA members when you buy five or more, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.