The art of teaching

Krisna_instruisant_Arjuna“When the disciple is ready, the Master will appear.”

Om saha navavatu saha nau bhunaktu saha viryam karavavahai tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvishavahai
om shantih shantih shantih
Accept us both together. Protect us both together. May our knowledge and strength increase. May we not resent one another.

Before I started practicing yoga, I had various people in my life whom I called teachers. I have fond memories of my school days, and have come to realize that each one of the teachers that left an impression on me did so because they shined a light on some aspect of relationship. I suppose I can see these teachers as my first yoga teachers; each one helped me get a better understanding of myself.

When I first started practicing yoga, I was fascinated with the idea of having a Guru. I studied about the importance of the teacher, and was determined to find mine. I searched near and far, and at some point I even felt a little bit like the duckling from the very popular 1979’s children’s book, Are You My Mother? With each new teacher I encountered, I waited for a magical moment, the moment I knew I’d found “the one”. Years went by and I attended many classes, workshops and retreats with many renowned and wonderful teachers. I went through at least one life crisis, and eventually I found myself at the Jivamukti teacher training in 2007. I embraced this method of yoga and its founders, Sharon Gannon and David Life, whom I had never met until the training. My head wanted me to feel an electric current drawing me ever closer to these masterful yogis, but my heart was conflicted. While I certainly felt vulnerable in their presence in a weird and wonderful way, I was confused, scared and uncertain. How could I know for sure?

In addition to my own uncertainties, there was almost a cult-like encircling around the teachers that I had never seen before. I was dumbstruck by the reverence and devotion other teacher trainees bestowed upon Sharon and David. Part celebrity-styled idolizing, part deep-admiration and love, it was sometimes difficult to discern the difference between the two, and hence my understanding of the complexity of relationship between student and teacher grew. Perhaps I was simply not far enough along on my path at that time to understand the nature of teacher-disciple relationship, or perhaps I understood the word Guru to be something so revered that I would only bring myself to use it only when a most divine bond had been cemented. Whatever the case may be, by the end of the training, I had come to realize that the relationship in question was as much about the teacher nourishing the student as the other way around. I left the training with unanswered questions. Is the student chosen by the teacher, or the teacher chosen by the student? How can a student see them self in the teacher without the teacher seeing them self in the student? As long as there is a divide, is it yoga? Is there a difference between a teacher and a guru?

For many years, I carried these questions around like extra baggage, being naively let down by teachers who showed their ego at times I deemed to be inappropriate; disenchanted by others due to my own narrow-minded expectations.

Still and forever on my journey, I have come to realize a few things.

First, to refer to the quote above: “When the disciple is ready, the Master will appear.”

We all have a variety of teachers in our lives that become our teachers when we are ready to see them as such; ourselves included. Friends, family, loved ones and nemesis are not to be overlooked. When a time rich in potential for transformation unveils itself, you can be assured, the right teacher in that moment will be there to guide the way. It is our choice, or course, to be open the form in which they will appear. It may not be what we are expecting.

Then, the mantra: Om saha navavatu saha nau bhunaktu saha viryam karavavahai tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvishavahai om shantih shantih shantih Accept us both together. Protect us both together. May our knowledge and strength increase. May we not resent one another.

In times when I have been in the presence of a great teacher, I have learned over time that it is always up to me to embrace the relationship. I am in the presence of magnificent teachers every day, and my biggest obstacle is my own ego, filled with judgement, preferences, and avidya (ignorance). The moment I see a teacher as human, flawed, capable of using their power to harm or manipulate, embarking in selfish actions, I succumb to fear, and miss out on the opportunity of learning, of growing. In these instances I fail to see clearly from a state of love. I create a separation.

Of course, we all have insecurities, and sometimes in the presence of a master, those insecurities can feel like they are being unmasked and magnified for the world to behold. This is in equal parts terrifying, diminishing and enlightening. The teacher who holds this power is a Guru, as they are lifting the veil of darkness, or avidya. We see ourselves as we are; all the beauty and potential, all the flaws. The challenge and work at hand is to accept this, and understand our responsibility to oneself. The Guru is not necessarily there to hold our hand and cater to our every need and weakness. Far from it.

It may seem for some that the remover of darkness, the Guru, is there to deliver the disciple into a field of rose petals at the dawn of a new day, with nothing but peace and freedom from the word ‘go’. In my experience, this ain’t how it works. In reality, the Guru may lead us to see great suffering and pain before finding enlightenment. Darkness can take many forms, including believing that happiness comes solely from material gain or physical appearance. Imagine you have spent your life amassing fortune in torturous, harmful conditions….or starving your body to an incurable state of illness in the hopes of finding happiness, only to be told it was all for naught. Not a field of rose petals at dawn, I can tell you.

I have my own unique views when it comes to the guru principle. I hold my teachers in my heart always; they come to me in dreams even when I am not able to be physically near them. Their words resonate within me and I aspire to be near them, to be with them. Ultimately, however, I have come to believe that the Guru exists in its purest state, within. It is something ignitable in each of us that can be turned on by tuning in. Sometimes it takes an exceptional teacher to help us find the switch, but when we do, we become powerful beyond our imagination. We become an instrument for divine will.

The true art of teaching then, comes from learning to tune in long enough to find our own ‘guru’ switch, and then empowering others to do the same. We can only do that when we embrace, accept and protect each other, and that takes a lot of letting go of fear, resentment and anger. The master will appear, it’s just a question of time.

What makes a good teacher?

This question, asked so frequently from many different vantage points, has no one answer, instead, challenging the respondent to review and articulate something meaningful from their own unique experience of the question. As a yoga teacher and perennial student, my answer to this question continually shifts and expands.

I’ve had *a lot* of teachers in my life, and while the subject of study has changed and concept of teacher has broadened to include things like phenomena in the natural world, young children, mean-spirited people and illness alike, there are a few common threads that help me define a good teacher in the more traditional sense of the word. Here is my short list.

1. A good teacher is a good student. This means that the teacher is continually seeking to better understand their own potential and to broaden their breadth of knowledge. They recognize there is no one way to understand any given subject or the world we live in. With grace and humility, a true teacher sets ego aside to continually be in the role of the student, not so embedded in their own beliefs that they cannot invite another perspective to challenge their model of understanding the world.

2. A good teacher knows the topic. It may sound a bit obvious, but many teachers come from only a few years of experience and one angle of the subject. All good teachers should have a multidimensional approach in both absorbing information and teaching it.

3. A good teacher is quietly confident. Without being boastful or condescending of other teachers, modalities or students, it takes an inner confidence to stand up in front of a room and teach something meaningful that others may or may not know already. It has been my experience that this quiet strength comes from an honesty and awareness of the boundaries of one’s own knowledge. I am always impressed when a teacher admits to not knowing the answer, but takes the time in collaborative exploration with the student to find the realm of possibility.

4. A good teacher is compassionate and passionate. Compassion for the students and passion for the topic should be a prerequisite for all teachers. We all learn differently. While some people rely on heavy handed militaristic teachers for a more disciplined learning approach, a good teacher can be firm and compassionate without being bossy, aggressive or dogmatic. It goes without saying that anyone teaching for a paycheck is in the wrong profession. Teachers should be teaching because of their unbridled desire to pass on whatever knowledge they have of the subject matter. For the students who have come to a class to learn, the teacher’s raison d’être is always evident.

5. A good teacher is engaging and authentic. Communicating something of value to another being entails knowing who you’re speaking to and engaging with them from a place that is real. The best teachers I’ve had, from nursery school to graduate school and straight through to my present day Rolfing training, speak to the audience in a way that is both relevant and personal.

Whether you are looking for a university degree, a yoga teacher certification or a degree in fashion design, consider who your teachers are in your day to day life, and what qualities drive you to learn and blossom. Chances are, you may learn a thing or two about yourself by looking to whom you gravitate for knowledge and understanding.

A dear teacher of mine once told me to work with (study with, cultivate relationships with) people who celebrate my strengths, who see my potential and challenge me to rise to it. This advice has been some of the most powerful and transformative that I have received, and reminds me of the importance the work teachers from all walks of life impart to their students. The more a teacher asks the student to think creatively, embrace their passion for the subject and offer compassionate critique, the more the student can rise above challenges and hardship to be better, happier, more educated, and most importantly, more self aware.

The “Sahanavavatu mantra” is one of the shanti (peace) mantras which has its origins in the Taittiriya Upanisad. This mantra is often used to send the message of peace and prosperity. The mantra may also be used to invoke God’s blessings for harmony amongst teachers and students.

AUM saha navavatu, saha nau bhunaktu
Saha veeryam karvaavahai
Tejasvi naa vadhita mastu
maa vid vishaa va hai
AUM shaantih, shaantih, shaantih.

Meaning of the Sahanavavatu Mantra

Let us together (-saha) be protected (-na vavatu) and let us together be nourished (-bhunaktu) by blessings of divine manifestation. Let us together join our mental forces in strength (-veeryam) for the benefit of humanity (-karvaa vahai). Let our efforts at learning be luminous (-tejasvi) and filled with joy, and endowed with the force of purpose (-vadhita mastu). Let us never (-maa) be poisoned (-vishaa) with the seeds of hatred for anyone. Let there be peace and serenity (-shaantih) in all the three universes.

This mantra highlights the nature of the teacher-student relationship that produces ideal results for the student. The transference of mental, spiritual and intellectual energies from the teacher to the student can be achieved through a mutually nourishing relationship which is based on (mutual) respect, joy (of giving and receiving), and absence of malice or negative thoughts.

Shraddha and the Guru

Guru Brahma
Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat
Param Brahma
Tasmai Sri
Guruve namaha

May I have the good grace to see the teacher in my creators, those helping to preserve my present life, and the lessons learned through calamity, illness, birth and death. May I become aware of those gurus around me all the time which may pass me by, and the teachers in those otherworldly forces I may not see or even understand.

The other day while explaining the meaning of the Guru Chant in class, a student in the front row of class asked gently, “excuse me, do I have to participate in this part of class? I’m Christian…”

I was glad that she asked this question since people coming to a yoga class for the first time, and in particular the Jivamukti class where there tends to be chanting and spiritual discourse, may be intimidated by references to Hindu Dieties, and talk about God, Faith and Spirituality.

Yoga in itself is not a religion. It may certainly co-exist and strengthen one’s spiritual beliefs, however, the yoga practice has no organized hierarchy of persons residing over a specific set of beliefs or rituals that one must follow to be admitted to the organization. The ancient texts of the yoga practice aim to aide the practitioner in understanding and attaining the state of yoga, and many of the western schools of yoga exist to keep these teachings alive through modernised methods. While there are books, schools and studios available to educate and bring structure to one’s practice, it is not necessary to read the texts or even to practice with a school of yoga to be a yogi. In fact, some of the great, enlightened beings have been self-taught or have even been born in that state (see Amma, Anandamayi Ma, Ramana Maharshi, Sai Baba-ji).

There is a sanskrit word shraddha, which translates loosely to faith, or as the great teacher Amma describes it “constant alertness arising from Love”.  It is with this faith that we can be open to the teachers as they present themselves to us in all their various forms. This faith enables us to believe in the teacher, as well as the teacher that we all have within us. This faith empowers us to become self-aware and to take responsibilitiy for our actions, particularly how we interact with and affect the planet and all its inhabitants.  In this context, yoga is a faith-based spiritual philosophy with limitless paths (sadhana) and unlimited possibilities for everlasting bliss and happiness (samadhi). It is the teachers in our lives – from our parents and ancestors, to those supporting us in our daily lives to those we may not even recognize as teachers at all – who help us to define our individual path and continue to evolve along the way. May we honor these teachers.

Ma, the first teacher

The teachings of yoga honor the Mother as the first true Guru in our lives. Not the Virgin Mary or even the Mother Earth, but one’s actual mother; the one who brought life into a developing fetus, the one whose subtle (and sometimes no-so-subtle) vibrations are heard and felt through the first days and years of life.

A Guru means the one who has removed the darkness, or one’s inability to see the Truth (Ru-remover; Gu-ignorance, darkness, obscurity). The Truth is that we are all connected through our unlimited potential to love and be loved; we are not separate, individual beings, but One. The Guru is the teacher who sees her student completely and transparently, loving the student unconditionally as a holy being.

Traditionally it is the mother who spends the most time with her child through the early years of life. Teaching baby how to eat, sleep, and bathe are paramount; communication, walking and talking fall in place as priorities for survival. However, it may difficult for some to perceive mother as a teacher, particularly if the relationship has been complicated by a history of harmful or abusive behavior. Growing up through the various changes in life is challenging, and often love and hate become intertwined in moments of frustration; anger can emerge as emotions run high.

Yoga philosophy says that nothing is by chance. Past karmas (everything we’ve ever thought, said or done, including in past lives) dictate the family one is born into, whom one’s parents are, where one comes from, and even how a person looks and behaves. Whether or not this is in line with your belief system, resolving past issues with one’s mother can aide in reaching a point of compassion and understanding in the relationship. Through the practices of yoga, we come to appreciate that given one’s samskaras (past karmic grooves or imprints), each and every one of us is doing the best we can in life given our individual circumstances, and this understanding alone can help cultivate loving kindness.

Thich Nhat Hanh says “give up hope of a better past”. By focusing on the present moment honor your mother as your teacher and all the positive things she’s brought into your life.

The Guru as Mirror

guru satyam guru jnanam guru anandam guru shantih
My teacher is the truth, my teacher is the wisdom, my teacher is the bliss,
my teacher is the peace.

Often when a student talks about their guru, they say things like, “It was like they saw right through me. There is nothing I can hide from them; I am transparent in their presence. They remind me of God; I feel more whole when I am with them. They seem to know everything about me, and yet they still love me, unconditionally.” How does this work? What kind of relationship is this? Gu means “ignorance; that which obscures Truth.” Ru means “that which removes.” The guru is the agent-the teacher-who removes ignorance so that the Truth can be revealed.

The relationship between student and teacher is a spiritual one-a relationship focused on identity. The quest for identity is the ultimate quest. To know oneself, to find out, to discover who you are, is the truth that everyone is looking for. The student seeks out a teacher because they want to know who they are. They are looking for help in understanding the confounding complexities and limitations of their own personality. You could say they are having an identity crisis. Usually the search starts with an experience of discontent and a feeling that they may be more than they thought they were, or that life may hold more potential beyond just eating, sleeping, money, sex, marriage, home, job and acquiring more stuff. This is why the spiritual path is not for normal people; it is for people who are looking for something more than success in the realms of the three basic power drives which fuel the three lower chakras: money, sex and fame. When these start to look less interesting, it is then that a person is at a critical point where they begin to realize that they are more than their body and mind, more than a skin encapsulated ego/personality. At this time, they begin to seriously ask: Is there more to life? Is compassion, generosity and kindness really worthwhile? What is Love, and does God exist?

We all need help to be able to see ourselves as we truly are. The job of a guru is to provide this assistance. A guru is someone who sees you as you really are-sees beyond your personality foibles, sees you as a holy being. It is through the medium of love that the guru is able to perceive this truth.

Love is that which connects us all-it is the ground of being, the medium through which all is created, sustained and renewed.  Real love is slippery like mercury and cannot be grasped, while at the same time it is attractive, embracing, enveloping, nurturing and constant. Traditionally the guru serves as a love object for the student, allowing the student to love them. It is understood between student and teacher that the relationship will be based on love. The teacher by their presence becomes a focus for the student to pour their feelings into, but it is an unusual relationship because the normal aspects of relationship are missing; material gain, sexual gratification or ego enhancement is not involved. You could say it is a “pure” relationship in that sense; there is nothing else that the teacher gives the student: in the words of the old song, “I can’t give you anything but love.” There is nothing that the teacher needs or wants from the student other than the student’s happiness and ultimate enlightenment-Self realization-the realization of Love.

This realization is facilitated by the guru, who serves as a mirror for the student, reflecting the student’s outward as well as innermost desires, and thereby reveals to the student who they really are. The teacher reminds the student of God, which after all is who they really are. Before embarking on a teacher-student relationship, it is good to be sure that you want and are ready for what will come up, because it will all come up. But approached with humility, respect, appreciation and a sense of adventure, the guru can be a doorway, a magic mirror through which the student can walk into the realm of infinite possibilities.

-Sharon Gannon

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