Looking back from last week’s post on lineage, I realized that I have now been following Guruji’s teachings and participating in this lineage for 25 years, which is exactly half of my life. One of the most important experiences I have had was early on in my first years as Guruji’s student, when I realized that when I followed his instructions on how to practice, things went well – my mind was absorbed and concentrated within the practice. But when I started changing even small things, the effect was not as good. Hence, his instruction to practice as he taught, and to not make changes, was not because he was being authoritative, it was because when the practice is done right, it works. When it’s done differently, it doesn’t work quite as well.
Why have we been taught that philosophical systems and practical methods such as yoga, Vedanta and associated disciplines and philosophies are more trustworthy when they have been passed down from generation to generation? It is because they have the benefit of being tested, and that test brings experience to life. It is essentially the experience of the practitioner that continually brings the teachings to life, and that is what is passed down in each generation. One of the essential purposes of a practice is to carry techniques that help still the patterns of our minds; patterns that cause us to identify with something other than who we really are. When we look at yoga as a mechanism that carries such techniques, we will not be so enamored with ideas of academics who coin terms like “modern yoga”, or “Modern Postural Yoga”, or “Transnational Anglophone Yoga”; monikers that only examine the most superficial aspects of yoga: postures. To call it “modern yoga” is to miss the thread, to mistake the finger pointing at the moon as the moon itself.
It is okay to trust the experience of a lineage that has survived through a century or more, tested and adapted in each age by the dedication and devotion of the teachers who were practitioners themselves. It is also okay to be skeptical of someone who claims to have invented their own system of yoga—let them prove that it actually works over a few generations, before they make such a claim. And if it does indeed deliver what Yoga promises, then let us accept those practices as valid. Otherwise, it’s a fad. If Goat Yoga is still around in 100 years, then we can accept it. If it’s gone by the time the next yoga season rolls around, then we know it was another cute idea that has worn itself thin, another media story that had four legs to carry it.
Practices that are passed on are allowed to change in topical ways. Increasing levels of sophistication is a natural part of the world, and the nature of change. My daughter largely communicates by Snapchat and emojis from her phone. A small graphic now can replace words (a picture is indeed worth a thousand of them these days, especially when there is so much to read). Alexander Graham-Bell’s first phone call in 1876 was as short as an emoji: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Interestingly, Bell recognized the distraction of the telephone early on, and refused to have one of his own inventions in his study, as he felt it would distract his work. When he passed away in 1922, North Americans were asked to refrain from making any phone calls during his funeral as a moment of silence!
Parampara is like a complicated game of telephone that has lasted a few millenniums. It is one of the cornerstone institutions of the Vedic traditions, earlier known as the Sanatana Dharma, or roughly translated, “eternal law or path”, now called Hinduism. All cultures have their own forms of lineage, and their own ways of passing down tradition. The Jewish tradition, of which I am from, has passed down stories and customs since the time that the Jews were slaves in Egypt. Hindus have a tradition of passing down knowledge and practices over thousands of years, which can be observed today in the Maths or monasteries, where their acharyas and gurus live. It is indeed one of the oldest, continuous sources of knowledge that exists in the world today. Yoga has its root in this tradition.
In the Bhagavad Gita—a sacred text that centers around a conversation between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and his friend and disciple, Arjuna—Krishna instructs Arjuna in the path of Yoga in eighteen chapters. Early on in the conversation, in chapter four, verse two and three, Krishna says to Arjuna:
Evam paramparapratum imam rajarshayo vidhuhu |
sa kalenena mahata yoga nasta parantapa ||
Thus, this science of yoga was passed down in disciplic succession, even the great Kings knew of it. But over time, this succession was broken, and the science of yoga was lost.
sa evayam maya te ‘dya yogah proktah puratanah |
bhakto ‘si me sakha ceti rahasyam hy etad uttamam ||
Today, I speak to you of this same, ancient yoga, For you are my friend and my devotee, and are fit to hear this supreme mystery.
This sacred conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna is said to be the revival of the disciplic succession of yoga in this age, and much of what we look to as the philosophy of yoga are contained in these eighteen chapters—including instruction on asana, pranayama, dhyana, diet and lifestyle habits.
And though the Gita is more than just a book, it is also very true that there is only so much that we can learn from a book, and that is why, as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said again and again, a Guru, or a living teacher, is absolutely necessary. We can only get so far on our own steam, and at a certain point we need to accept a guide who has gone to the depths of knowledge, and can lead us through paths that we have not yet seen. Someone who can guide us when we struggle, and encourage us when we become disillusioned. This acceptance of a teacher is called surrender, or bhakti, in Sanskrit. While bhakti is also translated as devotion, the idea of devotion basically means to have faith or conviction in something other than the infallibility of your own abilities, that there is something deeper that empowers us, and that sometimes we need help. Surrender does not mean giving everything up including your own sense of agency; it means giving up the idea that you are the only source of agency.
Looking through this lens, parampara has two parts: firstly, the transmission of techniques or viewpoints of self-knowledge, and secondly, bhakti. The last and necessary part is how those two things are carried: through a vessel. That vessel is called ‘guru’. Gu means remover, ru means darkness. The darkness refers to the seeker not knowing who they truly are, or what their purpose is. Darkness covers the inner light of knowledge, and yoga and the like removes that darkness, like turning on a lightbulb removes the darkness from a room. The guru is not the lightbulb, they are the one who can teach you how to turn on the switch.
Swamigal Chandrashekarendra Bharati, in his book The Guru Tradition, said that the flaws of the guru are to be expected and accepted, but not followed. There is very little possibility of a human being existing without flaws. The guru tradition, however, is not about people, it is about knowledge, and knowledge is carried by vessels, like water is carried by a pot. If you put pure water into a gold, silver or clay pot, the water will still remain pure whether the pot is in perfect condition or whether it has a few dents. As people, we all have a few dents in us, and that is to be expected. It does not, however, invalidate our knowledge or experiences, or our ability to pass them on. In fact, it is quite often those who have the most dents in them, but have learned from those dents, that make the best teachers. The expectation we place upon teachers to be perfect is unrealistic, and unfair, as it puts them in an impossible position to not allow them to freely be the flawed, individuals that they may be. And we do that when we want to deny our own flaws, and cover them with so-called spirituality.
So is lineage important? Can I not learn from a book, or a video? The answer is yes: you can learn quite a lot from a video, but you will miss out on feedback. A video cannot monitor your progress, correct you, or fill in the unseen details. Lineage has made it possible for us to learn what we know of yoga today. If it were not for lineage, we would have never learned anything about yoga. To answer the question: why is lineage in Ashtanga yoga important to us today? It is not important just for today, it is important for all time. Without lineage, yoga will be lost.
When you look for a teacher, look to their experience, look to their character, and most importantly, check to make sure the practice itself makes you feel like you are doing yoga. If you do not feel, inwardly, in your intuitive self, that the practice is truly yoga, then keep looking. Eventually, you’ll find it. It’s one of the promises that the Katha Upanishad makes:
Nāyamātmā pravacanena labhyo na medhayā na bahunā śrutena |
Yamevaisha vrnute tena labhya tasyaisha ātmā vrnute tanūgm svām ||
This Self cannot be known through much study, nor through the intellect, nor through much hearing (of teachings). It can be known by the Self alone that the aspirant prays to; the Self alone reveals it’s own nature to the seeker who seeks to know it.
The Upanishad says: don’t look to people or books to know God, or to know your true self; look straight to God to know God, and straight towards your inner being to know your Self.43