Guiding Yoga in the Twenty-First Century

Posted by – June 23, 2014
Categories: Bodywork & Somatics

Mark Stephens writes,

In its noun form, the Sanskrit term guru means “one who shares knowledge,” while as an adjective it means “heavy” or “weighty” in reference to spiritual knowledge. Some have suggested that the separate syllables gu and ru refer to dark and light, with the role of the guru being to impart the light of transcendental knowledge (Grimes 1996, 133). Regardless of etymology or specific definition, the relationship between guru and disciple is commonly one of the guru as the disciple’s ultimate source of learning or awakening, which is said to be viable only if the guru is genuine and the disciple obedient and devoted to the guru’s teachings. Rather than questioning the guru’s understandings or methods, the disciple must only absorb them in practice.

One might find a sense of spiritual, paternal, or maternal comfort in the care of a guru or other spiritual guide who provides answers to all of the most basic or deepest questions of daily life. In explaining the benefits she has found in following a guru, a follower of Paramahansa Yogananda states that in having a guru, you “stop seeking and searching various paths and you have this one goal that you can wholeheartedly follow, trusting your guru to take you to the final goal of Yoga.” Surely there are many people for whom this resonates, particularly those who feel the need for a certain path along which any difficulties can be clearly explained through an appeal to the beliefs or liturgy of the guru. Surrendering completely to the wisdom and authority of the guru, believing wholly in the guru’s teachings and thus feeling more fully the claimed truth of the one path, one might find liberation from routine distractions that allows a sense of purity in one’s practice. Surrendering to a guru can also be problematic, especially if the guru abuses his or her power, which some observers have cogently argued is a common tendency in the guru-disciple relationship.


There are other paths. As discussed above, there are not only many paths, but it is very likely that all paths are continuously evolving, even if there is much effort made to preserve what one believes to be a pure or correct path. As we arrived in the twentieth century, yoga was just coming to the West, where soon it would diversify and multiply in ways likely unimaginable even to those for whom practicing yoga was then a radical departure from the known diverse cultures of physical and spiritual practice. Much to the dismay of those holding fast to fundamentalist yoga beliefs, the attitude of open-minded experimentation with yoga practices was on wide display by the 1920s. Nearly a century later, this experimentation is contributing to the greatest creative evolution of yoga practice in the history of yoga. Why? While the reality of yoga history is that yoga has always evolved through the creative explorations and new experiences of those deeply into the practice, today there are tens of millions of people worldwide stepping onto yoga mats with some intention related to living a better life. On every continent, in nearly every culture, across the cycles of life and the patterns of gender, ethnicity, religion, and belief, we find people practicing yoga. In practicing yoga, people are making choices about their practice that are related to the other realities of their lives: where they are, their values, their immediate needs and goals. In the spirit of human endeavor to have greater clarity, meaning, and well being in life, we find that people modify what they are learning from their teachers, books, and other sources. In some instances the modifications are designed to make the practice more accessible, as in the pioneering creativity of Tiramulai Krishnamacharya (who created Ashtanga Vinyasa as an original synthesis of various forms of physical culture) or that of his student, B. K. S. Iyengar, who has given us most of the world of yoga props. In many instances we find innovations that tap into the wells of insight found in other practices, including dance, acrobatics, gymnastics, and the martial arts, various religious rituals and observances, and forms that can make it difficult to discern any element of yoga.

Whenever someone shows up in the practice, he or she is at least potentially contributing to the creative evolution of yoga practice. As teachers—in contrast to gurus—we might well best open ourselves to working with our students in a way that supports them in the ways they are evolving their own practice, even as we contribute to this expansive evolution through the ways we create class sequences, provide narrative overlays to those sequences, share insights, and bring in qualities that derive from multiple varied sources found in the world’s richly diverse cultures and in our own creative imaginations. While many on the fundamentalist paths will likely denounce such creativity as sacrilegious, it is likely that yoga will continue to evolve in myriad ways.

Excerpted from Yoga Adjustments: Philosophy, Principles, and Techniques by Mark Stephens (2014).

The author of the best-selling Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques and Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes, Mark Stephens has practiced yoga for twenty-two years and has taught yoga full-time for seventeen years. The founder of Yoga Inside Foundation, L.A. Yoga Center, and Santa Cruz Yoga, Stephens has trained over 1,200 yoga teachers. At Yoga Inside Foundation, he trained and supported yoga teachers in over 300 alternative settings across the U.S. and Canada, receiving Yoga Journal‘s first Annual Karma Yoga Award in 2000 for this work.

Yoga Adjustments

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