Welcome to the Heavyweight Championship of the World…
Let’s Begin with an Exercise:
Ask me, go ahead and ask me:
What is a Guru?
Ok, What is a Guru?
Well, I thought you’d never ask!
Ok, Spell “Guru”
Gee, You Are You!
What does this mean?
It means, you are you-nique! Ultimately, the Guru is within you.
INNERCISE: What does this mean to you?
Who, or What, is a Guru?
The word “guru” is a Sanskrit word meaning literally “heavy” or “weighty.” Traditionally, someone who is a guru is a person who carries weight, they’re a “heavyweight,” if you will. Their word is “weighty.” In the 60s, the hippies used the word “heavy” to mean the same thing: “Hey, man, that’s really heavy, dig it!”
That is in its adjectival form. As a noun, guru means “imparter of knowledge” (jnana).
Here is what the Wikipedia entry says:
As a noun the word means the imparter of knowledge (jñāna; also Pali: ñāna). As an adjective, it means ‘heavy,’ or ‘weighty,’ in the sense of “heavy with knowledge,” heavy with spiritual wisdom, “heavy with spiritual weight,” “heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization,” or “heavy with a wealth of knowledge.” The word has its roots in the Sanskrit gri (to invoke, or to praise), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning ‘to raise, lift up, or to make an effort’.
Traditionally, the guru system works with the teacher/guru giving initiation (diksha) to a student/disciple. This still happens to this day. I received diksha from my teachers, who were thus connecting me with their lineage. In the past, a student was only to take initiation from one teacher and stay with that teacher their entire life, or until they attained liberation (moksha, mukti). Today, western seekers like myself have taken initiations from more than one teacher, making things a bit more complicated. Questions arise like: Who do I follow? Does the guru lineage still hold in the same way it has for thousands of years, and will I be cursed or worse if I have taken initiation but do not stay with my teacher?
Another more popular etymology of the word “guru” is as follows:
The syllable gu means shadows
The syllable ru, he who disperses them,
Because of the power to disperse darkness
the guru is thus named.
— Advaya Taraka Upanishad 14—18, verse 5
The guru is thus one who is capable of shining light on the darkness of the disciple/student. A true guru is believed to know what the student’s karma is, the issues that need to be addressed, and so the guru creates tests, challenges, and other situations that will help the student to see what they need to work on, and also help feel the deep desire to correct what needs to be corrected. For some gurus, the teacher does nothing – such things just happen through being in the field of the teacher. In any case, the disciple’s devotion and faith are being tested. Will they stay true to their teacher and their path, despite questionable teachings and practices of their guru? In the West today, there appears to be a general movement away from these traditional notions of Guru-Disciple relationship, which brings us to one last way of understanding the word “Guru”…
An even more increasingly popular answer to the question of “What is a Guru” is the playful one we began with: “Gee, You Are You.” In other words, YOU are the Guru — the Guru is no different than God or your Higher Self that lives in your heart. Despite what I said at the beginning, this is the popular view, yet could it be misleading? Wisdom would suggest that while it is true that the Guru lives within you, perhaps one needs a spiritual mentor/guide/teacher to help show you the way to the inner Guru? Just as most of us need a teacher to learn anything new, so too on the spiritual path.
INNERCISE: The following are questions we will be considering in a later Session. How would you personally answer these questions, knowing what you know right now?
~ Do I need a guru?
~ Where do I find my guru?
~ Can anyone be my guru?
~ How do I determine if a guru is a true guru (satguru)?
~ How do I know if I am being abused by my teacher/movement?
~ Is it okay for a guru to speak ill about another guru, or to try to prevent me from going to see another guru?
~ I feel guilty about leaving my guru (or organization), because I took vows (or initiation). I am scared that something bad might happen to me if I leave…What do I do?
~ I have heard it said that the time of the guru is now over, or at least that there is a spiritual power shift that is happening now from where it has been in India and Tibet, to Chile and Peru. Is this true?
Selected Quotes About the Guru
Note: We don’t necessarily endorse any one of these statements in particular. As always: Decide for yourself!
“God, Guru, and Self are One.” ~ Ramana Maharishi
“No one and nothing outside of you can give you salvation, or free you from the misery. You have to light your own lamp. You have to know the miniature universe that you yourself are.”
― Banani Ray, Awakening Inner Guru
“Let each man take the path according to his capacity, understanding and temperament. His true guru will meet him along that path.”
― Swami Sivananda
“It appears to me 2012 isn’t a spiritual awakening, but instead, a human one. It is the disillusionment from the nonsense being sold to us from gurus for centuries and the empowerment of our true selves.”
― Steve Maraboli
“Guru is not the goal. Anyone who establishes himself as a guru to be worshipped is not a guru. Guru is like a boat for crossing the river. It is important to have a good boat and it is very dangerous to have a boat that is leaking. The boat brings you across the river. When the river is crossed the boat is no longer necessary. You don’t hang onto the boat after completing the journey, and you certainly don’t worship the boat.”
― Swami Rama of the Himalayas Dec. 31 1969
Main Points of This Session
~ The word “Guru” has at least several meanings. Literally, the word means “heavy, weighty.” The Guru is thus one who “carries weight,” their word is to be heeded, their lead is to be followed.
~ Another etymology of the word is that the syllable “gu” represents “darkness,” and “ru” means the one who removes the darkness, who brings light to the darkness. The guru, then, is the one who shows the disciple their own darkness so that they may better remove it.
~ One final important meaning of the word is becoming more popular in the West, yet it has also been part of the yoga tradition. It is the idea that the external guru is there only to lead you to the inner guru within.
RECOMMENDED RESOURCES FOR FURTHER STUDY
“What is a Guru?” by Devasthanam
Advaya Taraka Upanishad, Translated into English By Georg Feuerstein. (Scroll down to the end for the English)
(Guru of Sri Yukteswar, who was Paramahamsa Yogananda’s Guru)
“The Love Guru” Mike Myers
(for some comic relief, phew!)
Meet the Gurus:
11 World-Renown Teachers of the Yoga Tradition
There are many gurus who could be on this list. I’ve chosen the ones that I sense have had the biggest impact on the world. They certainly have all had a huge influence on me personally.
If you click on the name of the teacher, you will be taken to a site dedicated to them, with biographical and other information to learn more.
After each teacher’s name, you will find my personal commentary, followed by a favorite quote from them. (Please forgive any factual details that are missing or incorrect, and I do welcome your feedback.)
I have also more often than not included some other perspectives on these individuals, because again, this course/Quest is not about creating blind obedience to anyone or anything, but to ask pointed questions to get down to the heart of things.
Ammachi (aka “The Hugging Saint”; full name Mata Amritanandamayi, which translates as Mother of the Nectar of Immortal Bliss). BHAKTI YOGA.
I first met Ammachi in the summer of 1996 in NYC. A colleague in the Religious Studies grad department had given me her biography to read, and when I finally did get around to going through it, I was amazed, and even more when I was told that we were going to meet this living saint/mystic in person(!) Such was my naiveté. Meeting Ammachi and receiving her darshan (literally, “seeing the divine”) that summer ranks as one of the most influential experiences of my life. It was Ammachi perhaps more than any other teacher I met or read about who was the most inspirational to me at that time. It helped also that I read all of the books about her, too, because hearing all about her omniscience and other yogic powers only added to my sense of awe about her. I felt from the start that she is an avatar (descent of the Divine in human form). Who else can do what she do? Who but a true avatar could inspire this huge international charitable movement, hug people nearly every day, all day, eating very little, sleeping very little, demonstrating patience and endurance beyond normal human limits?
Two quick stories. First is very personal. Early on in my yoga journey I was troubled by the fact that I was a Jewish person who was seemingly on the road to adopting this eastern path as my own. Was that kosher? I needed to know because it was deeply troubling to me to think I was denying my birth religion. So one summer day in the late 90s when I went to receive darshan from Ammachi in NYC again, I was determined to ask her this question to ease my gnawing doubt. I was thinking about this issue all day, but actually not sure if I was really going to ask it after all, and kind of weighing towards not bothering with it. Finally, after waiting in line a long time to receive Amma’s darshan, I was in front of her to get my hug. Just then, I heard clear as a bell a question that was being asked by a woman to the right of Ammachi, who was asking Ammachi’s right hand man Swami the question that he would then translate into Amma’s native language. Guess what the question was? That’s right, it was my question!
What I understood from this is 1) Many others, Jewish and from religions other than Hinduism, had the same question as me; 2) There are many Jewish people who are involved in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other eastern paths, and many of them play leading roles. I had begun to really wonder deeply about all of this, and even began to write a book about it. I might still do that at some point.
Another story: The first summer in NYC when I met Ammachi, I met a young African-American woman who had foregone the possibility of doing graduate work at Harvard to stay with Ammachi at her ashram in Kerala, South India. I was amazed by how full of life (shakti) this young woman was, and how in love with Ammachi she seemed to be, as she regaled us with stories from her time spent at the ashram. Fast forward nearly 15 years. I’m online reading some things about Ammachi and I find a site started by this same woman, who has now become a evangelical Christian, saying that Ammachi is a cult leader, an energy vampire who is working for satanic forces, etc. Her name is Jovan Jones, and she has written a book called “Chasing the Avatar,” which she says is 90% about her time with Ammachi. You can read more about all of this HERE.
Today, as I write all of this, I found another site (Guruphilac) listing all of the reasons to leave Ammachi, based on one her closest disciples who left the organization. Read it HERE (and make sure to read the comment by “Ram Das”).
I have no comment about all of this, except that it’s all very interesting. Who is Ammachi? Is it all a Big Lie? It’s up to you to decide for yourself. At least explore both sides first before you come to any final conclusions. Don’t listen to just one side! To decide you must di-side! Listen to both sides! Don’t rely on mere words either, remember it’s personal experience that counts most!
I will say this for myself personally: By early 2000, going to receive Ammachi’s darshan was just not the same for me. Was it my ego that was now making me feel disillusioned, or was it something else? I will say that there was a part of me that began to doubt Ammachi, based on some things that happened that I won’t go into right now. Perhaps that was a test for me. More on this another time!
One more note: I might have included Satya Sai Baba on this list, but did not. What is happening right now is very similar to what happened with Sai Baba, yet at this moment at least, Ammachi does not seem to have the bad name that Sai Baba had by the time of his passing in 2011.
Jesus (Yeshua, Isa). ALL PATHS.
That’s a good segue into talking about Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew). Why is Jesus even included on this list, one might wonder…Was he a teacher of yoga? My answer to that is an unqualified “yes,” and let me explain. Before I got into yoga, I was a graduate student in religious studies at UPenn working toward a PhD. I got there after having been on a spiritual quest for the past 8 years, which included converting to Christianity (very briefly) my first year of college, and living in Israel in my early twenties for 2 years and becoming an Orthodox Jew. It was during the time that I lived in Israel that I first read the New Testament. I connected with Jesus at that point as a rabbi and great teacher.
In graduate school, I did more New Testament and Jesus studies, and ended up writing a long paper on what happened during the so-called “Lost Years” of Jesus, from the age of 12-30, when he began his ministry. It’s a good question, because the gospels say nothing about what he did in those years. Well, by this point many of us have heard the theory that Jesus went to India, learned yoga in the Himalayas (he was called “Isa” there, I read), and then brought it back to Galilee and began his teaching, demonstrating the yogic powers he had acquired. That’s just one theory, by the way – some sources say he went to England to study with the Druids, others to Egypt, the Essenes in the Galilean desert, that he and Krishna were one and the same, etc. I was fascinated to learn, too, that there is a strong case to be made that Jesus never lived at all, but was a myth based on the Zodiac and other, earlier myths (for more on this, watch the movie Zeitgeist.) Anyway, when I did get into yoga just a few months after completing this term paper on Jesus, I was interested to see how much Indian teachers either talk about Jesus, or quote from the Bible (both Old and New Testaments). Some, like Yogananda, even trace their yogic lineage back to Jesus (or through Jesus), while others just consider him to be one of the greatest avatars (incarnations of the Divine) who ever walked the face of the earth, if not THE greatest. The other thing I realized, too, is that everything that Jesus said and did in the Gospels was really in complete accord with what other great yoga teachers past and present have done. It all gave me a greater appreciation and respect for Jesus, at the very least, and there are deeper teachings, too, that will come in a later course offering.
QUOTES: “Let thine eye be single, and thy body will be filled with light.”
“Blessed are the Pure in Heart, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The two most important commandments: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might…and thy neighbor as thyself.”
Learn More: “Jesus in India?” BBC Documentary.
Mahatma Gandhi ~ KARMA YOGA
Some would object to my including Gandhi here. Was he truly a great teacher of yoga? Well, many Indians felt he was, and so he was given the name “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.” Yogananda felt he was, and many believe that Yogananda was one of the greatest teachers of yoga in modern times (see below). Martin Luther King was highly influenced by Gandhi, especially his ideas of passive resistance. Gandhi might not have been hailed as an avatar like some of the other teachers on this list, yet he was definitely a great student and teacher of yoga. I doubt many could juggle and navigate the spiritual AND political realms at the same time as Gandhi did. He practiced what he preached, and he did his best to reform the India of his time, showing the world that one could live very simply and still be happy. One of his reforms that I feel most can appreciate: He called the so-called “Untouchables” of India “Harijan,” meaning “Children of God,” and began to dress like them. I would say the crowning moment of Gandhi’s life was his death: When being shot by his assassin, he put his hand up in blessing with the words “Rama” on his lips.
Note: I want to mention the noted absence of another great political-spiritual teacher of yoga here, namely the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Well, now he is not absent because I mentioned him J A highly recommended film about the Dalai Lama is Rick Ray’s documentary, “10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.”
Gandhi Quote: “Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.”
Tool for Learning: Learn More About Gandhi by Listening to the MC Yogi song, “Be the Change.” You can read the lyrics HERE. (This song came on Pandora just after I wrote the above about Gandhi!)
Watch the movie “Gandhi,” starring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi.
Meher Baba ~ BHAKTI YOGA
I first heard about Meher Baba when I discovered that one of my early music heroes, Pete Townshend, was a devotee of his, and had even written songs about and for him, including the classic Who song, “Baba O’reilly.” I thought this was really interesting because I always thought of Townshend as this tough, angry, hardheaded rock guitarist who smashed his guitar at the end of every show, and butted heads with Hendrix, Abby Hoffman, etc. I never imagined he would be a devotee of an Indian guru. Nor did I ever think I would have a connection to Meher Baba, yet as it turns out, I seem to…Meher Baba was fairly well-known in the 60s, and perhaps especially due to the influence of Ram Dass, and also because he published a pamphlet for the young people of America and the West, “God in a Pill?” which stated categorically that LSD had no spiritual value whatsoever, and that everyone using it was under a huge illusion. Meher Baba resurfaced in the popular Western consciousness in the ‘80s somewhat with the
Bobby McFerrin’s song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” taken from the poster above of Meher Baba. I thought this was all very cute, until recently when I began to learn more about Meher Baba and how he claimed that he was “The Avatar of the Age,” how he was an influence in Ram Dass’ search for truth (see Ram Dass below), and when I met . Some years before I had read Paul Brunton’s “Search in Secret India” where he lambasted the self-proclaimed Avatar for marketing himself as such, etc.
QUOTE: “I tell you all, with my Divine Authority, that you and I are not “WE,” but “ONE.” You unconsciously feel my Avatarhood within you; I consciously feel in you what each of you feel. Thus every one of us is Avatar, in the sense that everyone and everything is everyone and everything, at the same time, and for all time.”
Neem Karoli Baba (aka “Maharajji”) ~ BHAKTI YOGA
I first learned about Neem Karoli Baba through reading Ram Dass’ now classic, “Be Here Now.” In the book, Ram Dass wants to show that not only was Maharajji (as he was affectionately called – it literally means “Beloved Great King”) a true yoga master who can consume mega-doses of LSD without it having an effect on him, but he also had other yogic powers (siddhis) like omniscience. Clearly Neem Karoli Baba impressed the other Western youth who came to be around him in the late 60s in much the same way, people like Larry Brilliant, Krishna Das, Jai Uttal, Bhagavan Das, Lama Surya Das, David Newman, etc., who went on to be some of the most influential people in the world of yoga and spirituality. The young Steve Jobs was also highly influenced by Ram Dass and Neem Karoli Baba. The world of kirtan as we know it today would not be what it is except for Neem Karoli Baba’s inspiration, as many of the top kirtan artists today were his devotees (most of those listed above). Could all of these brilliant people have been duped, or are those who would try to bring down the guru themselves duped?
“Love is the Strongest Medicine…stronger than LSD.”
“Feed People.” (When asked by his western devotees what they should do as their yoga practice.)
“Meditate like Jesus…He lost himself in love.”
Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert) ~ JNANA-BHAKTI
Ram Dass’ story is one of the most fascinating I have ever encountered. Over the course of about 6 or 7 years, including his time as Professor of Psychology at Harvard (as Dr. Richard Alpert), he ingested large quantities of psychedelics. By the time the government made LSD illegal, he had already taken it over 300 times, and he clearly still had his wits about him. When he wrote to Meher Baba hoping to get a deeper perspective on psychedelics, he was told that he no longer needed to take them, that they had served their purpose – to bring him to the Avatar. It turned out, though, that he was to become the devotee not of Meher Baba, but of another Baba – Neem Karoli Baba. This happened in late 1967. A couple of years later, Alpert, now Ram Dass, published the classic “Be Here Now,” which was one of the most influential spiritual books of the time. Ram Dass’ message to the world, and especially the hippies, was simple: A yoga practice can provide a lasting “high” that one acquires through disciplined self-effort, and devotion to a master. Psychedelics can give one a glimpse of what it is like to be awake, but for the most part they cannot offer a lasting change or transformation of the individual. Ram Dass subsequently wrote and gave Sessions on yoga and spirituality around the world. In the late ‘90s he had a stroke, and that led him to live here on Maui. I finally met him last year here on Maui on my birthday at the Mystic Island Festival. He kissed my hand, and I kissed his. Ram Dass’ path has become more and more focused on Love and a practice which he calls “Loving Presence,” which involves remained in a constant of loving awareness. I would highly recommend reading his books “Be Here Now,” and his most recent, “Be Love Now,” which seems to be his crowning achievement and most important work to date. A great film about his life that was also featured by Oprah recently is “Fierce Grace.”
Sources for Further Study:
Be Here Now
Be Love Now
Omraam Mikhail Aivanhov ~ RAJA-JNANA
One of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century. I first learned of Master Omraam through an Ammachi devotee who highly recommended the book “The Mystery of Light,” by Georg Feuerstein. The book is a really nice introduction to Aivanhov’s teachings, and the fact that Feuerstein so highly regarded this Bulgarian-French teacher made me feel that much more interested and trusting in them. Ever since that time, I’ve retained the connection with Omraam, even making him the centerpiece of one of our yoga teacher trainings on Maui (blog I wrote about it). Even though it is true that this master was more of a magus who drew upon many different traditions in his teaching – Kabbalah, Esoteric Christianity, Hindu Yoga, and more – he seemed to have been connected with the yoga tradition most of all. In 1959-60 he went on pilgrimage to India that was clearly very transformative for him. It was on that trip to his spiritual Motherland that he met some of the great living yoga masters of the time – Ramana Maharishi, Sivananda, and Neem Karoli Baba, among others – all who apparently recognized him as a western master. Apparently it was Neem Karoli Baba who conferred the name “Omraam” upon Aivanhov, which is also very interesting given Dr. Richard Alpert’s own connection with Neem Karoli Baba a decade later in the late ‘60s. You can learn more about Master Omraam on this website.
“Do not direct all your energies towards seeking pleasure but rather towards a sublime ideal. Your energies will then serve you and contribute to the realisation of your goal or ideal.”
“All of you, therefore, who want to make progress on the path of evolution, should limit and reduce the sensations you receive through your five senses and start to look within yourselves.”
“GOD IS 1, LOVE IS 1…GOD IS LOVE.”
Osho ~ TANTRA/CRAZY WISDOM
An increasingly popular guru, or rather anti-guru, as Osho didn’t spare anyone! There were no “sacred cows” for him, no one that couldn’t be made fun of, including himself. His was the path of paradox, the path that is no-path. Otherwise put, his is the “Crazy Wisdom” path, and Osho was a trickster that delighted in iconoclasm and leaving everyone guessing, not to mention laughing.
Perhaps more than any modern teacher, he embodied these words of Walt Whitman:
“Do I contradict myself, well, then, I contradict myself!
I am large, I contain multitudes”
A few stories about Osho from my personal experience…When I first got into yoga, I was involved with a group which I felt was a cult, and Osho was one of their biggest targets for ridicule and abuse. Through their eyes, he seemed like a black magician who was leading young people astray. Once I’d explored Osho more, I began to have a more balanced view of him, neither seeing him as an evil, false guru, though also not necessarily as the greatest teacher ever, either. Another story: Osho’s ashram is in Pune. Another yoga attraction in Pune is BKS Iyengar’s school. A colleague whose opinion I respect went to Pune to study with Iyengar, but was so turned off that he ended up at Osho’s ashram instead, and he loved it! I wouldn’t have necessarily thought he would, but go figure…
There are many Osho books on the market today, and also numerous Youtube videos of his teachings.
“If you find a saint who has no sense of humor, then he is not a saint at all.”
“Nothing kills the ego like playfulness, like laughter. When you start taking life as fun, the ego has to die, it cannot exist anymore.”
“Life is nothing but an opportunity for Love to blossom.”
Ramana Maharishi ~ JNANA YOGA
Ramana Maharishi is notable for being the one deceased Indian sage for whom there seems to be no dirt on, or at least not that I’ve heard. Otherwise put, Ramana seems to be universally regarded as one of the greatest masters ever to have come out of India. Even the skeptical Paul Brunton in his “Search in Secret India” found the man to be the only truly realized master he met among many (including Meher Baba, above). The mother of my teacher, Sri Karunamayi, went to see Ramana before giving birth to Karunamayi, and he told her she was going to give birth to the Divine Mother. It turns out that Karunamayi was born on the 10th and last day of the festival Navaratri, which celebrates the victory of the Divine Mother over the forces of evil. So in a way, I feel that Ramana is an important part of my own yoga lineage. He’s had a profound influence on me, in any case, and you, too, through contemporary exponents who have continued his tradition of Advaita Vedanta through the path of Jnana Yoga. Everyone now has heard of Eckhart Tolle…well, he has been popularizing things that masters like Ramana have been saying for a very long time. The most fundamental question, Ramana taught, is “Who Am I?” with the focus on the “I” – what is this “I”? Delve deep into the source of this “I” thought, Ramana taught, and you will realize the immortal, everlasting Self, which is neither born, and which will never die.
“Reality is simply the loss of ego. Destroy the ego by seeking its identity. Because the ego is no entity it will automatically vanish and reality will shine forth by itself.”
“Wanting to reform the world without discovering one’s true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes.”
“Nobody doubts that he exists, though he may doubt the existence of God. If he finds out the truth about himself and discovers his own source, this is all that is required.”
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa ~ BHAKTI YOGA
If it weren’t for Ramakrishna and his most celebrated disciple, Swami Vivekananda, yoga would not have made quite the inroads into Western culture that it has. Ramakrishna was a generation before teachers like Yogananda and Krishnamacharya, teachers who might not have even been known about had it not been for these giants who came before them. Ramakrishna is best known for having been a great Bhakta (devotee) of the Divine Mother, particularly in the form of Kali (the one who removes ego), and to have actually practiced other religions, specifically Islam and Christianity, and found that they all lead to the same place. Two of my favorite and most inspirational teachers, Shree and Swami Satyananda Saraswati, are of the Ramakrishna lineage. Resources: Read “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.”
~ “The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail.”
~ “God is in all men, but all men are not in God; that is why we suffer.”
~ “God is everywhere, but he is most manifest in man. So serve man as God. That is as good as worshipping God.”
~ “Many are the names of God and infinite forms through which he may be approached.”
Swami Vivekananda ~ RAJA-JNANA YOGA
Swami Vivekananda is most interesting to me because he started as a real skeptic about spiritual matters – until he met his master, Ramakrishna, who was able with just his touch to put the young Narendra (Vivekananda’s birth name) into a deep mystical trance. Having thus had such an experience, Vivekananda could no longer doubt there was something to what this seeming madman was doing, and thus he went on to become one of Ramakrishna’s most devoted disciples. At Ramakrishna’s behest, Vivekananda went to the West, gaining great fame as a teacher in his own right. His breakthrough moment came during the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, when the Swami brought those in attendance to their feet with a passionate speech about the brotherhood of man, India’s tolerance toward other faiths, etc. With that feather in his cap, many doors opened for the Swami, and he went on to open several Vedanta Centers in North American, and those paved the way for other Indian teachers and teachings to come to the West.
Vivekananda’s book Raja Yoga is considered a classic, well worth your time. Personally, I love reading Vivekananda quotes, they are very inspiring. One interesting thing to mention here is that Vivekananda, like those of his time and certain other gurus to follow, did not really do much Hatha Yoga, nor did he endorse it. Was this perhaps why he died so young, or was it rather because he had fulfilled his mission in life – a mission which did not include being a practitioner of that path of yoga?
~ “You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.”
~ ”Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”
“That man has reached immortality who is disturbed by nothing material.”
Paramahamsa Yogananda ~ KRIYA YOGA
I have a wonderful story that about my connection with Yogananda that I feel is really telling about the spiritual path and how “when the student is ready the teacher/teaching appears.” You can read the story HERE. If you have no time for my tale, I will briefly debrief you…
When I was 21, a yoga devotee strongly suggested I read Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I did buy the book, but was turned off after the first few pages, I couldn’t relate. Then I went traveling for the next 3 years, including spending 2 years living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. When I finally did get into yoga at the age of 26, I again picked up the book and now, 5 years and much spiritual experience later, Yogananda’s story was completely engrossing and inspirational to me. What happened? The book didn’t change, I did. What I also was beginning to notice is that while the world was not changing all that much, yet as I got serious about my own spiritual journey and did my practice, my view of the world was shifting, sometimes subtly, and sometimes in rather obvious ways.
Anyway, this is all preface to saying that “Autobiography of a Yogi” is a spiritual/yoga classic that I feel every yoga teacher would do well to read, not only for its fascinating content, but also because it has influenced many past and present to take up yoga. It actually could just be a life-changing book for you, it can certainly have that kind of impact.
The next question is: Which version to read? You can actually read the first edition (published 1946) online HERE , coming from the Ananda Yoga movement. Ananda was begun by a man named Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Yogananda who, after the master’s passing, was asked to leave the organization Yogananda set up to continue his work, The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF, based in Encinitas, California). What Kriyananda and Ananda claim is that the SRF leadership have taken too great liberties with Yogananda’s original book, editing in ways that Yogananda would not have approved. To make a long story short, what we see here is a sectarian rivalry that has often erupted after the passing of a great teacher. I have no real opinion on this, except to say that I know people who are members of both groups, and they all seem to be getting what they need. I will also say that I have heard from other sources that SRF may have some management and other issues, and if you take a look at the free online book, “Stripping the Gurus,” you will see that it was written by a man who was a disaffected SRF person, and he begins his attack with attempting to bring down SRF.
I have not personally practiced Kriya Yoga as taught through Yogananda’s lineage, but I have done Yogananda’s energization exercises on a number of occasions, and hosted a few events by Ananda people. I do feel a special connection with Yogananda, and do highly recommend your learning more about him, first through reading his autobiography, and then exploring these other issues, if you wish.
Ps. I have had past yoga teacher training students read Yogananda’s autobiography, and put together a selection of the most pertinent quotes HERE.
INNERCISE: So what did you learn from all of this? What teacher did you find most appealing to you personally, or pique your curiosity? From reading all of this, did your views of traditional teachers/gurus change at all? Howso?
Perhaps you were disturbed by the fact that all but one of the teachers listed above are men. Well, yes, that is true, yet most of my own teachers have been women. Please keep in mind that it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th Century that it even began to become acceptable for women to do yoga, let alone teach it. For example, Krishnamacharya was not at all keen on teaching Indra Devi at first. Later in his life, however, Krishnamacharya became one of the biggest proponents of women teaching yoga, saying that it is women and children who will be the future of yoga. When yoga found me in the mid-‘90s, I entered a yoga world in which women saints from India were in abundance. Some of them, like Anandi Ma and Gurumayi, had been made the successors of their lineage by the previous teacher, who was almost always male. Others, like Ammachi and Karunamayi, were not the successors of any lineage, but rather considered avatars – incarnations of the divine from birth.
Ammachi ~ See my notes above.
Sri Anandi Ma. KUNDALINI YOGA. ~
Anandi Ma & Dhyanyogi in Her Early Years
I received Shaktipat from Sri Anandi Ma in the summer of 1996. Shaktipat is a direct transmission of Shakti (spiritual energy, personified as feminine) from guru to disciple, coming through a lineage. In this case, the lineage was through the Kundalini lineage of Anandi Ma’s teacher, Dhyanyogi Madhusudandasji (pictured with Anandi Ma above). Dhyanyogi had passed away just a couple of years before I joined the group, so I never met him physically, but his presence always seemed palpable, and Anandi Ma was clearly absolutely devoted to him. My Shaktipat experience happened in a group in a darkened room. Although I felt very little happen to me, I heard others crying, laughing, and doing God knows what else in that room. Not too long after while doing my own practice, I began to have subtle yet palpable experiences of my own – feeling chakras moving, heat in different places, experiencing bliss on numerous occasions, at one time I actually felt the room vibrating, another time I felt myself beginning to have an out-of-body experience, but was too afraid to let it happen, and so on…Not only that, but I personally witnessed amazing kundalini experiences that occurred to others while I was with the group. I also was present on a few occasions when Anandi Ma went into a deep state of Samadhi which literally took hours for her to come back from, she was so deep. So why did I leave the group? Good question. I don’t have a ready answer. If you would like to read something I wrote about Anandi Ma in comparison to another group I was looking into early on, but ultimately felt was a cult, click HERE . Kundalini is a real phenomenon. There are useful books on the subject, such as those by Gopi Krishna. Also, today there are even online support networks, such as THIS ONE.
Sri Dharma Mittra. HATHA–RAJA YOGA ~
My favorite Hatha Yoga teacher. I had the great fortune of taking classes with Dharma in NYC when I was commuting from the Philadelphia area to attend New York University in the late ‘90s up until 9/11. Dharma is most famous for his 908 Yoga Pose poster that he masterfully created himself in the mid-80s. You can see from the poster that Dharma mastered nearly every advanced asana, and was an exceptionally dedicated yogi. I loved Dharma’s classes because of his calm, loving presence, and because Dharma is successfully able to integrate the full yoga experience into a 90-minute class. His sessions invariably include chanting, pranayama, asanas, relaxation, meditation, and wisdom from the yoga tradition. In early 2000, I brought Dharma to the Philadelphia area to give a workshop at a local suburban studio. Dharma was a pure joy to be with the whole time, and everyone loved him.
Georg Feuerstein. JNANA YOGA.
Georg Feuerstein just passed this year, and I have dedicated this course to him. If it had not been for him, this course probably wouldn’t even exist, as I, and most other scholars of yoga, owe him a great debt for his research and numerous popular books.
I feel his crowning achievement is one his last works, “Yoga Philosophy and History Teacher Training Manual.”
I highly highly recommend this to all yoga teacher training students, and those seriously interested in the yoga tradition. Also his text book on yoga, “The Yoga Tradition.” I would have loved to have met this great scholar and learned from him. In any case, we still have his literary output, and that should last us quite awhile.
By the way, you can see a lot of him in the film, “Yoga Unveiled,” also highly recommended.
Dr. David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri). JNANA YOGA.
Dr. Frawley is one of the great bridgers of East and West, mainly through his writings on Hindu Astrology, Ayurveda, Yoga, etc., and also his course offerings. I had the opportunity to take his Advanced Yoga and Ayurveda course (300 Hours) some years back, and I was very impressed not only by Dr. Frawley’s scholarship, but also his accessibility. Like Dr. Feuerstein, I consider him to be one of my teachers, though we have never met, and I have also used some of his teaching materials in this course. Click on his name above to go to Dr. Frawley’s website, vedanet.com.
Shree Maa & Swami Satyananda Saraswati ~ BHAKTI YOGA.
Two just amazing teachers, I don’t know which I am more blown away by, even though it is Shree Maa who is revered as a saint. Like Karunamayi, I followed these two great gurus through the mid-‘90s to early 2000-2001, and was deeply inspired by their dedication, focus, discipline, and simple lifestyle. I also had several experiences around them that I knew had to do with being in their energy field. One of which was just massive heart opening moments in the presence of Shree Maa, and also through her divine singing and music. And Swamiji is the real deal yogi, and even beyond that, a true master from what I could see, absolutely dedicated to his practice, passed on to him by his guru in the ‘60s. He lived in India nearly 20 years, practicing the most rigorous tapasya (austerities), until the early ‘80s when he and Shree Maa responded to the inner call to come to the States and assist in spreading the dharma in the West. I have never been, but I hear their ashram in Napa Valley, CA is sublime, as they are. I would definitely recommend visiting their website (click their names above) to learn more about them: www.shreemaa.org.
Sri Karunamayi. BHAKTI-RAJA YOGA.
There is so much to say about Sri Karunamayi (full name “Sri Sri Sri Vijayeshwari Devi), it’s hard to know where to start, where to end…I first met Amma (Mother, as she is adoringly known) in Philadelphia in 1996, she was giving a public program in a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, of all places. In the 5 years to follow, I was indeed to follow Amma all around the eastern seaboard, and even to India, where I spent a good 3 months with her on 5 separate visits, both at her ashram in Bangalore, and also her forest ashram in Penusila. Karunamayi spent 12 years meditating in the Penusila forest before beginning her mission, and she now enjoys a worldwide following. Karunamayi’s emphasis is on love, devotion, compassion, selfless service, and lots of meditation to attain Self-realization. Her’s is quite a challenging path, yet the degree of heart opening I experienced with her was worth every moment.
Ganga White & Tracey Rich. HATHA-JNANA YOGA.
I had known about Ganga and Tracey for several years, but first really connected with them when I read Ganga’s book, “Yoga Beyond Belief.” The title says it all. Ganga playfully yet seriously calls himself a “Renegade Yogi” because he has been leading the way in questioning the dogmas of traditional yoga ever since he left the Sivananda Yoga group in the late Sixties. An Indian teacher who was very influential for him in this regard was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who also left his yoga organization (The Theosophy Movement) early on, declaring famously, “Truth is a Pathless Land.” Krishnamurti practiced the Jnana Yoga tradition of questioning everything, rooting out worn-out and limiting beliefs, accepting only what works now, in this historical moment. Ganga and Tracey make a great teaching team. I attended their advanced yoga training at White Lotus in the spring of 2011. Highly recommended.
For a pertinent excerpt from Ganga’s “Yoga Beyond Belief,” click HERE
Resources for Further Study
Ramakrishna was a homoerotic pedophile.
His chief disciple, Vivekananda, visited brothels in India.
Krishnamurti carried on an affair for over twenty years with the wife of a good friend. Chögyam Trungpa drank himself into an early grave. One of Adi Da’s nine “wives” was a former Playboy centerfold. Bhagwan Rajneesh sniffed laughing gas to get high. Andrew Cohen, guru and publisher of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, by his own reported admission sometimes feels “like a god.”
I actually don’t endorse this book, I just feel it’s important to be aware of it. I don’t endorse it because the author is clearly trying to find as much dirt as he can on each of the major teachers of the yoga tradition, and much of it is either speculative or subjective. In any case, it seems that one of the things we always expect of our spiritual teachers, particularly gurus, is that they be completely perfect in every way. And they might BE perfect (in the sense of being completely harmonized with Source), yet on the surface their actions might appear bizarre or unethical by human standards. Or, they might just be human, just like us, yet despite their foibles, have valuable things to share.
(Or, we might want to stay as far away as we can!)
Again, we see the world not as it is, but as we are. How can we understand/see something that we’re not ready to yet? How can we understand someone functioning at a higher level of awareness if we don’t currently operate at that level ourselves? We would be wise to ask ourselves questions such as these before criticizing or condemning things. We would be wise to see first our own imperfections, shining light on our own darkness, before trying to bring down someone else for the things that are also within us.
Despite it’s name, the site gives you all the reasons why gurus suck, basically. Has all the latest dirt and scandals, much of it from disaffected former devotees.
Interesting blogsite that brings news about what’s happening in the yoga world, and also about the latest yoga scandals. For example, there site has a “running timeline of the Anusara controversy, updates and teacher resignations.” Not exactly “anti-guru.”
I have been involved with cult-like groups myself, and have often wondered about how to draw the line between a legitimate new religious group and a cult, because it’s not always so clear-cut. Sites like the following might help you to do that for yourself….
Early on in my yoga journey I found this website which brings together a lot of the criticisms of the various new religious groups out there. Keep in mind that just because a group is listed on this site and has some negative energy coming at them, does not mean that they’re necessarily evil or to be avoided.
Very interesting Blog piece on Cults, and survey on how to know if you might be in one.
ADDENDUM: 11 OTHER GREAT SPIRITUAL TEACHERS OF THE PAST & PRESENT