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When the Teacher IS the Teachings, Part 1

Yoga teacher Iris Cohen describes a ritual in which yoga students were invited to place pieces of wood in a large fire, with the conscious intention of burning their yoga teachers. It was a metaphysical rather than a physical ceremony: no teachers were burned! The idea was that pure teachings will outlast any teacher. “We are invited to surrender the glorification of the teacher,” Cohen writes, “so we are left with the purity of the teaching. The teacher is a guide, a transmitter of the ancient yogic teachings.”[1]

The late Harbhajan Singh Puri, an Indian customs inspector who came to California in the late 1960s, took on the name Yogi Bhajan, and ultimately created a large and still-thriving yoga organization, would also tell students to “follow the teachings, not the teacher."[2] Yet his form of yoga, which he trademarked as Kundalini Yoga, was not a pure or ancient practice. Many followers still echo his hollow advice, to be guided by the teachings and not the teacher, to justify the continuation of the practice, especially those who are still profiting from teaching and training teachers of Kundalini Yoga. In this case, however, the advice is useless, as the teachings were corrupted by his urge for total control. Bhajan left little space between the teachings and the teacher.

Source: Iris Cohen, The Teachings, Not the Teacher

The concept does make sense. Yoga teachers are people, and people can disappoint you and break your heart. But that doesn’t mean that the teachings will fail you, right? When a teacher is removed from the picture, the yoga becomes a private thing between an ancient past and a modern practitioner, and the core principles live on.

But what if the core is rotten? What if the teacher is only pretending to teach ancient practices? In that case, the teachings are polluted by the teacher, with a toxicity that extends long after the teacher is gone, because the teachings were little more than an impure extension of the guru’s immorality.

A Zen practitioner put it this way: “We can love our teachers, see them as human, admire their wisdom and effort. And when one of them crosses a line, we don’t need to throw out all the principles because of their wrong step. What they have taught is not lost even though they may be.”[3]

That is true when a practice is founded on principles. In that case you can safely follow the teachings, not the teacher.


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