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Celebrity Yoga Teachers: Cutting Through Appearances and Discerning the Real
Submitted by Dr. Miles Neale on Tue, 3/22/2011, 6:00am
An old, round, bald, and hairy man lays in silence on a rickety wooden cot, surrounded by a small handful of students. Not quite the image you had of a yoga teacher?
Perhaps you’re used to a yoga teacher that looks more like a hybrid of gymnast, super-model and rock star? Young, fit, attractive, adorned in the latest hip apparel, bent into a pretzel pose on a sandy beach, and air-brushed on the cover of a yoga magazine. Could there be any greater contrast?
A recent interview I gave for Newsweek that explored narcissism among yoga teachers got me thinking about the difference between celebrity yoga teachers in America and the traditional Indian icons of the last century such as Paramahansa Yoganada, Swami Vivekananda and others.
The manner in which many yoga teachers look and act these days can appear disparate from their Indian forbearers. But can the contrast solely be attributed to a difference in time-period and culture? Maybe we're taking yoga in a completely novel and positive direction? Or is there something slightly off with America's pop yoga culture? For starters, is the phrase ‘celebrity yoga teacher’ an oxymoron? I'd love to hear your take on how we're doing with the transmission and evolution of yoga in our country.
The image of the round, bald man mentioned above, happens to be Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately remembered as Maharaj-ji (great king). To his devout students such as Ram Das and Krishna Das, Maharaj-ji was the embodiment of love, the essence of Yoga. By their reports he hardly ever gave formal sermons and certainly didn’t practice pretzel poses on the beach. He owned nothing and had nothing for sale. Apparently, he just hung out in a state of bliss, communicating his deep insight either through story-telling or silently through his gentle being and radiant smile.
I can't escape the contrast of Maharaj-ji’s reported qualities of humility, simplicity, and transcendent wisdom with the buzz of many Western yoga teachers who, ironically without a single silent pause for breath, can fill an entire 90 minute class with their ‘yoga-yap’ and ‘chakra chatter’. Then of course there is the constant business of self-promotion that comes with competing for celebrity status, including selling books, DVD collections, and high-end clothing lines, filling up event schedules like a rock star on tour, and amassing fan bases the size of Texas. What might be driving these activities?
Obviously not all of America’s celebrity yoga teachers appear to have fallen victim to what Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism. In New York City alone we have many outstanding teachers, sincere in their devotion (bhakti), versed in the ancient texts (jnana), and engaged in selfless service (karma). But even they seem to pale in comparision to the likes of Maharaj-ji. Just as the rest of us, they're still bound to compulsive existence (samsara) and unconsciously motivated by the eight mundane concerns of chasing gain and avoiding loss, chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, chasing praise and avoiding blame, chasing fame and avoiding disgrace. By all accounts, Maharaj-ji was free of these worldly preoccupations. He was living liberated (jivanmukta) from samsara. For more inspiring stories on the liberated yogis and saints of India including Maharaj-ji, check out Ram Dass' new book Be Love Now.
So what are the qualities of a true yoga teacher? What makes someone great in the yoga world, worthy of our admiration and devotion? If we cut through the appearances of the bright lights, glitz and glam, perfectly shaped bodies, well-marketed products, and the majesty of arm-balance and handstands that characterize yoga super stardom, what should we be looking for in our gurus?
Here I turn to one of the scriptural authorities of Tibetan Buddhism called the Fifty Verses on Guru Devotion (Gurupancasika) composed by Ashvagosha (Aryasura) in the 1st century BCE. Contained therein is a list of qualities that can help us be more informed and discriminant about those we take as our spiritual guides.
A Guru posses:
(1) ethical discipline as a result of his mastery of the training in the higher discipline of moral self-control;
(2) mental quiescence from his training in higher concentration;
(3) pacification of all delusions and obstacles from his training in higher wisdom;
(4) more knowledge than his student in the subject to be taught;
(5) enthusiastic perseverance and joy in teaching;
(6) a treasure of scriptural knowledge;
(7) insight into and an understanding of Voidness;
(8) skill in presenting the teachings;
(9) great compassion; and
(10) no reluctance to teach and infinite patience to address the various needs of his students.
Ultimately a true yoga teacher is the door to liberation. It's not their perfect poses or well-packaged products, but the degree of their transformation, that helps us access our own potential for awakening. The hallmark of true yoga teacher is that they want absolutely nothing from their students, not pleasure, not fame, not fortune, not power. Since they have already found real contentment within themselves, what more could they possibly need?
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