What does yoga have to say about "Guru"?

Teachers are important figures in all our lives as they shape us and make us who we are. This is probably why traditional Indian scriptures always placed a high level of importance on the role of teachers. And yogic scriptures are no different.

India recently celebrated teacher's day on the fifth of September. This day is generally celebrated with great joy and pomp across schools and colleges. While grown-ups take the time to reminisce about their childhood and their favourite teachers.

Teachers are important figures in all our lives as they shape us and make us who we are. This is probably why traditional Indian scriptures always placed a high level of importance on the role of teachers. And yogic scriptures are no different. The significance of a guru in the life of a yoga student is a topic that is re-iterated throughout all the tratditional yogic texts.

Let's explore some of them today and understand how these can be understood in a modern context.

The Patanjali Yoga Sutras

The yoga darshana is one of six philosophies or shad-darshanas which emerged in ancient India. This philosophy of yoga is based on the text "Yoga Sutras" by sage Patanjali.

It contains 196 aphorisms to yoga divided into four chapters. In this text, sage Patanjali first explains the definition of yoga and the ultimate goal of yoga, and its benefits in the first chapter, Samadhi pada. He then proceeds to elaborate on Ashtanga yoga or the eight limbs of yoga in his second chapter, Sadhana pada. These include the actual practice of yoga like pranayama, asanas, meditation etc...

In his third chapter, Vibhooti pada he outlines the super-powers that a yogi can gain by practice. These are called siddhis or vibhootis. But he also cautions the reader that these are more like side-effects of practice and not the ultimate goal. The yogi must not be led astray from the real goal which is Kaivalya.

In his last chapter, the Kaivalya pada he describes its meaning. Kaivalya is the breaking of the cylce of birth and death. It is called moksha in other hindu scriptures, or nirvana in buddhist philosophy. Patanjali terms this state as "man's vision of his true-self or swa-roopa". It is essentially a state of release, when man is freed from the consequences of his actions (karma).

Throughout this exhaustive work on yoga, sage Patanjali uses the term "Guru", many times.

First mention of the word "guru"

स पूर्वेषाम् अपि गुरुः कालेनानवच्छेदात्

God is the first, foremost and absolute Guru, unbound by space and time.

The path to attain Samadhi

Sage patanjali enumerates many ways by which the state of Samadhi can be attained. One of these include:

वीतरागविषयं वा चित्तम्

Contemplation on enlightened beings or sages who have freed themselves from desires and attachments.

This encourages the student to meditate and contemplate on his Guru, who is an enlightened being to reach his own state of enlightenment.

Guidance to better practice

मूर्धज्योतिषि सिद्धदर्शनम्

By contemplation, on the light of the crown of the head (ajna chakra), the yogi has visions of perfected beings.

By these visions of perfected beings or acharyas (great teachers), he can obtain guidance and inspiration to succeed in his practice.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika translates to "light on hatha yoga". It is one of the 4 classical texts on hatha yoga. This voluminous work was authored by Swami Swatmarama and it talks in detail about hatha yoga in four chapters.

This text majorly focuses on the purification of the body and mind. It describes in great detail, the actual method of practice of various asanas, pranayama, shat kriyas, mudras and bandhas. It also enumerates the benefits of each of these practices.

And just like the yoga sutras, this work also places great importance on the guru or teacher.

The beginning

Swami Swatmarama begins his text by first offering his prayer to the foremost guru of yoga, Lord Shiva.

श्रीआदिनाथाय नमो.अस्तु तस्मै
येन उपदिष्टा हठयोगविद्या
विभ्राजते प्रोन्नतराजयोगम्
आरोढुम् इच्छोर् अधिरोहिणीव

Salutations to the glorious primal (original) guru, Sri Adinath, who instructed the knowledge of hatha yoga which shines forth as a stairway for those who wish to ascend to the highest stage of yoga, raja yoga.

In many yoga classes even today, the session commences with a small prayer usually invoking the blessings of the guru.

Instructions of the Guru

Swami Swatmarama advises the reader to practice only under guidance and supervision of the teacher.

एवं विधे मठे स्थित्वा सर्वचिन्ताविवर्जितः
गुरूपदिष्टमार्गेण योगम् एव समभ्यसेत्

In this manner, dwelling in the hermitage, being devoid of all thought (excess mentation) yoga should be practiced in the way instructed by the guru.

He asks the student to be devoid of thought to prevent him from doubting or questioning himself about the yoga practice. He encourages complete trust in one's guru and believe in the process, in order to achieve the goal.

Guru's Grace

सुप्ता गुरुप्रसादेन यदा जागर्ति कुण्डली
तदा सर्वाणि पद्मानि भिद्यन्ते ग्रन्थयो.अपि च

Indeed, by guru's grace this sleeping kundalini is awakened, then all the lotuses (chakras) and knots (granthis) are opened.

The awakening of the kundalini is a practice of yoga talked about, even to this day. Swami Swatmarama says it can only be achieved by the grace of your teacher.

It is said the Swami Vivekanada's guru, Sri Ramakrishna graced him with a similar transcendant yogic experience to dispel all doubts in his mind.

Attaining Siddhi

तस्य वाक्यपरो भूत्वा मुद्राभ्यासे समाहितः
अणिमादिगुणैः सार्धं लभते कालवञ्चनम्

By following explicitly his (guru’s) words, and practicing mudra; one obtains the super-powers or ashta siddihis like anima etc..., and overcomes death/time.

The secret of knowledge

राजयोगस्य माहात्म्यं को वा जानाति तत्त्वतः
जञानं मुक्तिः सथितिः सिद्धिर्गुरुवाक्येन लभ्यते

Who really knows the magnitude of raja yoga? Through the guru’s words, inner knowledge, liberation, perfection fructify.

The true greatness of Raja yoga can only be understood by the Guru's teachings.

Guru's Compassion

दुर्लभो विषयत्यागो दुर्लभं तत्त्वदर्शनम्
दुर्लभा सहजावस्था सद्गुरोः करुणां विना

Without the compassion of the true guru, renunciation is impossible, perception of the truth inaccessible and sahaja samadhi unobtainable.

The significance of a yoga teacher is no trivial matter. The practice of yoga must be performed in the right manner to avoid harm from incorrect methods.

Therefore, make sure to always practice under proper guidance and supervision to have a safe and happy yoga session.