Is a guru essential on the path of yoga?
Swami Yogamaya: This is a question often asked by people who come to Ganga Darshan and realize that this is not just a yoga school, it is also a gurukul. It is the place of the guru and it is the energy of the guru that drives this place.
Essentially, there are three aspects that a visitor will encounter here. One is of course yoga. The second is the ashram culture and the third is the sannyasins. Yoga is what you learn in your class. The ashram is not a yoga school. The learning received here is different from learning yoga in a school. In the ashram you are living by the systems of the ashram. When you go to a school you learn your practices in your classes and then you go back home and do whatever you have to. No one tells you what you must do after you have left your class. In the ashram, you are guided throughout the day. This is a way to obtain optimum health, spiritually, physically and mentally.
The third aspect is the sannyasins, the people wearing geru who you see walking and rushing around all day long. Beyond the sannyasins is Swamiji, our guru.
As you observe all these different aspects and interactions, you must wonder, “How does it relate to me? How does the concept of guru apply in my life?”
It must be understood that the guru plays many roles, and the teachings, the learning and training that the sannyasins imbibe from the guru is perhaps different from what the yoga students receive from the guru. Swami Niranjan perhaps teaches you yoga. He tells you about aspects of yoga, but the training that we receive is the training of a sannyasin.
When you watch all these aspects of the ashram, then we come back to the question: ‘What is the role of the guru on the path of yoga?’ You have come to Ganga Darshan to learn yoga and is a guru essential on the path of yoga?
Swami Niranjan often says that yoga is experienced in four stages. The first is yoga practice. This is where you move from yoga centre to yoga centre and try to learn the practices of yoga in order to fulfil an aim that you may have had. It may range from a backache to understanding your psychic experiences, but you are searching for methods. You are moving from practice to practice, from centre to centre, in order to practice yoga. You are, at this point of time, a yoga practitioner.
Then you move on to the next stage, which is yoga sadhana. You move deeper into the practices, not necessarily for the sake of your backache, but for the sake of the aims prescribed by yoga.
The third stage is yoga lifestyle. This is where, having moved deeper into the practices, yoga becomes a way of life for you. You no longer do your practice for one hour in the morning, in the afternoon or in the evening, but you do it every moment. Your whole life becomes yoga. You use the tools and practices of yoga to live your life and deal with the different situations of life. The fourth stage is yogic culture; you become part of the yogic culture and spread that culture.
In the first two stages, yoga practice and sadhana, where you are experimenting with yoga and trying to learn the practices, it is not necessary to have a guru. That is not necessarily the requirement at that stage. There are hundreds of centres and yoga teachers everywhere in the world. You can go to them, learn your practices, see if they work for you, see if they don’t work for you, move from practice to practice, and experiment. When you feel the need, you may want to stay with one teacher or one set of practices. There are many competent teachers who can take you deep into one set of practices and guide you.
However, when you move into yoga lifestyle and yoga culture, you need a guru, because now you are moving from a practice-oriented approach to an experience-oriented approach. Yoga is being experienced. It is not just a practice any more. When that happens, you are living through the subtle aspects of your being and you are following spiritual life. In this situation, a teacher will not be able to guide you. You need someone who has access to those subtle realms of your own consciousness, and that is where the guru comes in.
In order to understand whether a guru is necessary on the path of yoga, what you need to ask yourself is: ‘Where am I on the path of yoga?’ Is yoga just a practice for you? Do you want to deepen one set of practices to experience them better, to become more flexible, to perhaps even understand your mind better? Or are you reaching into the subtle realms in order to live a spiritual life? If yes, then a guru is imperative and necessary.
I can tell you about my own experience. For years I was doing yoga practices, and they felt good, they worked for me. Whenever I felt the need, I would resort to my yoga practices and at other times I would simply forget about them. Then there came a point where I moved deeper into the practices. At that time it so happened that I met Swami Niranjan, and that was that. I realized that it was necessary. It is perhaps not easy to explain this; it is something to be experienced. However, it is a fact that when we move into the deeper realms of yoga, where the experience is lived, not verbally or through the common modes of interaction, we need higher guidance and the resource of a higher energy that we can relate to. Therefore, we need the physical presence of a guru.
It is true that our own inner self is our guide, but we need the presence of a physical guru at that point of time. If you believe that an internal guru will do for you, it is like saying an internal wife or husband is good enough for you. It is not. In the same way, the physical presence of a guru is necessary. It is a very simple thing. For example, you are learning medicine. If you just wanted to be an amateur doctor, you could learn a few tricks here and there, and practice and experiment on yourself. However, if you wanted to treat a relatively serious disease, you would go to a professional. If you wanted to treat someone else, you would learn it from a professional. The same principle applies to yoga. When you are just experimenting, you don’t need a guru, but when you move into the deeper and higher aspects of yoga, you certainly do need a guru.