How To Get a Good Guru (Devotion)

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When I entered my first yoga class at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale, I entered an ugly, utilitarian room. I found a teeming, swarm of humanity. I did not see the 40 people the written class description claimed as the limit for the class. I did not see 60 people. 80 people, at least. There they stood, lined up in rows and rows. It was by far the largest yoga class I’d ever been a part of it, intimidating enough that I kept my socks on the whole time. 

I took up residence in the back right hand corner of the overflowing room wondering why no one had shut the door long ago. Where did all these illegitimates come from? I, for one, had paid my way in and I had the sneaking suspicion, on account of the written in bold in the course book MAXIMUM 40 students, that at least half of those around me got in for free. Also, the acoustics stunk. It sounded like the rally before a football game not the beginning of a yoga class. And the teacher was late. At two minutes past the hour, some folks dropped into various stretches. Certain others felt a mite irritated. I’d paid for a class that from beginning to end lasted 60 minutes! Now I’d lost four of those precious minutes.

Clearly, some of us needed some yoga.

At seven past the hour a woman walked in apologizing profusely and laughing, like no big deal. She carried a large black bag and effortlessly traipsed around the bodies congesting the floor on her way to the CD player. She did not look around, as I had, astonished at the overflow. She did not do a roll call. She did not ask anyone to leave. She might as well have been Bob Dylan or the entire Grateful Dead or John Lennon or Elvis Presley or Mary Poppins for how quickly and completely I swooned and fell instantly in love, forgiving her everything and hanging on her every word. As she began the class, guiding us along in a harmonic symphony of postures while angels flitted around our heads and occasionally touched us with their wings, I had the strangest thought. And not just due to the mystical appearance of never before seen imaginary creatures.

What she is, I want to be.

“Don’t fall in love,” she admonished us, “Rise in love.” I could feel myself doing just that as she spoke. She wasn’t taking any disciples, she wasn’t being anyone’s guru, but I understood quickly that the room surpassed fire code capacity because of her popularity and that she had not come to count us or follow procedure. She had come to teach yoga. And if I was anything at all, I was her student.

Did the whole guru/disciple relationship (from which our yoga originates and upon which it rests in India) make perfect sense to me in an instant? Pretty much. In the early days of my yoga, of American yoga, few of us in the U.S. could comprehend the peculiar connection between divine teacher (guru), and devoted student (disciple). It seemed like a cross between 50 Shades of Gray, (minus the act of sex…well, usually) and The Power of Now, marinated in a rampant, unchecked egotistical narcissism, of the guru, of course. Even at that moment, as I followed the melody of my new teacher’s voice, I could not have explained in words the experience of my heart or the clarity of insight about guru/student that opened up for me over the course of 53 minutes.

But I knew when I left the ugly room that it is not the guru who makes a disciple. It is the disciple who makes a guru. The relationship originates in the authentic, compelling love in every human heart, the fervent desire to love purely and genuinely and enraptured-ly. We want to love like crazy. We were made to love like crazy. That’s why we become groupies of rock bands or follow singers around or put up posters of athletes on our walls or cry when our favorite writer dies as if we’ve lost a member of our family. Our hearts are oriented and created just for this kind of passionate adoration. If we don’t get a good guru, we will end up directing the tidal force of our love at something less than useful—like alcohol or food or, as is often the case, a boyfriend or girlfriend who will crush us like peanuts in a Cuisinart.

Nobody said to me, “You need to go find someone worth the majesty of your love-force.” I’m willing to bet the price of this book that no one has ever said that to you either. When I met my teacher, I found that—someone worthy of my love, sure, and more, someone to awaken a kind of majestic force of love within me for the Creator, for the Divine.

Up until that moment, I had spent a great deal of time falling in love with all varieties of people, particularly alcoholics, men who swore at me, people with anger problems, untrained dogs, friends who liked to share my boyfriends without asking permission, reckless people who would die in ten years (thanks for the update Facebook!), and kittens with failure to thrive. I truly am the woman who always routes for the losing team. 

We can see this crazy-love in cults. The recent documentary series, Wild, Wild Country educated us on the Rajneeshees, in a story so riveting you couldn’t stop watching the episodes. There are so many examples of similar cults where single-minded devotion to a leader ends in tragedy and disaster. We can write the cult-followers off as insane. We can certainly write the cult leaders off as mentally ill. But that doesn’t give us an opportunity to better understand ourselves. You may not have been been tempted to join a cult, and yet inside of each of us is the biological programming of devotion. We yearn to be devoted to something. That we get it wrong all the time doesn’t mean we don’t need devotion. Examples of bad devotion: cults, addiction, bad marriages. Examples of good devotion: acts of service, yoga, good marriage.

The soul needs to love something or someone great. It’s like a spiritual colonic. It satisfies, purifies and sanctifies. It’s not a bonus in life, but a requirement. If we cannot find that thing, we suffer. 

“There is some kiss we want with our whole lives, the touch of spirit on the body,” wrote Rumi, a Sufi mystic, 800 years ago. His massive popularity now in the yoga world and throughout the various modern spiritual movements, speaks to the hunger for devotion. He writes always of the lover and the beloved, a passionate embrace between human and Divine. The kiss he wants with his whole life is intimacy with God. The yearning is not for romance or beer or a human leader, but for deep closeness with the Creator.

When I watch the cult documentaries or read about people living in cults that they then go on to escape from, I understand. I understand in my cells what drives that kind of love. People give themselves over to causes all the time. Some people will give their whole lives to a company—and not even a company doing good things, just a company selling stuff. They will give the best of themselves to that company for forty years. It will not have made the world a better place. It will not have made them particularly rich. But it will have accessed the human necessity for devotion. Since we must be devoted to something, the important work is choosing.

I had a conversation with a man the other day. He himself does not do yoga, but his wife practices and since I am a yoga teacher, he told me all about her. He told me she loves it, she practices all the time, and then he said, “she’s a total addict.” As he spoke about her love affair with yoga it became clear that he felt left out, that the best of her went into her practice and he got the left-overs. It also highlighted the truth that we can bring our addictive personality to anything we do, including yoga. All addiction, even for good things like spiritual practice, represents a distortion of this devotion programming. And it happens whenever we confuse the messenger with the message. I know it’s happening to my students when they get hooked on a certain style of yoga and decide that this one style is “the way and the only way.”  Or when they conclude that a certain kind of yoga is the “real yoga.” What a difference between saying “my way” and “THE way.” 

I love the story of the statue holding up a hand with a finger pointed to the sky. As the story goes, when people come to see the statue, that’s what they look at: the statue. They look at the finger pointed up to the sky. But the statue is there so we will look up at the sky!

Many in the yoga world get committed to a brand, style or form of the practice and put their passion and energy behind it. As long as we say “my way” not “THE way,” this acts as a wonderful direction for devotion. But when we forget, either as teachers or practitioners that the alignment is not the yoga, we drop our gaze to the level of the finger pointing and then our yoga stops doing the very thing it’s intended to do: yoke our little self to our big Self.

We are programmed not simply for love, but for Love. The only thing worthy of that great Love, of the full-force of our passionate devotion, rests beyond the limits of our sight. While humans, like my teacher, gives us a taste of it, they are not it. While practices give us an experience of it, they are not it. While poets give us a glimpse of it, they are not it. Every good thing opens us further to receiving that connection. Every good practice, every good teacher and every good class helps us orient and then reorient, over and over again, to the possibility of this deep communion. When it happens we find it does not belong to a tradition or style, to a person or brand, to a group or dogma, to a belief or conviction. Nor does it ask for our life or our money or our sanity. It’s more like taking a long drink on a hot day. It satisfies. About it there is often no way to find words. It is the experience for which we all long. It is the moment where nothing is missing. It is, in fact, the moment where all longing is gone. And it is one of the central demands of life, a requirement and necessity: we must, each of us, find something worthy of that great love inside.

Deep in our hearts we know that Funny-Cat-Videos do not meet this requirement. We may not admit it, but within us, we know Instagram cannot equal this inner demand. No social media and no unsocial media. No distraction and no escape will ever come close. While a Netflix binge may bring us comfort or a break from the unrelenting worries of our lives, and ice cream may in fact save us from moments of overwhelming grief, none is worthy, is great enough or equal to that inside of us looking for a match.

My older daughter cried the other day with love for ballet. It brings her unspeakable joy to dance. She cried as she told me how sad she was that her brothers did not have a passion like she had. But she also cried the tears of a devotee who has met her guru. If our love is a mountain, it must meet a mountain. When my daughter dances, a smile expands across her whole being. She is totally in love. And she gives herself to her dancing and her dancing gives her back herself. Only better. This is why I could agree with her that her brother’s passion for video games had a slightly different flavor to it. He certainly gave himself to his games, but more often then not they gave back a lesser version of himself back.

As I gave myself to yoga, it gave me back a better version of myself, over and over again.  But not only there, as if it couldn’t happen in any other place. When I took my vows before my ordination, I copied what I’d seen some of my fellow seminarians do during their vows: they lay prostrate on the ground. Belly down, face down, body  down, lying flat in one of the most ancient forms of prayer we know, still practiced today in many cultures. I felt compelled to do the same because it seemed like the absolute truth that what I was embarking on was completely and totally beyond my abilities. To be a minister! What made me better so special or different or good enough for that title and for that task?! How could I ever know enough or be trained well enough to suppose I had spiritual authority? What other pose could I take then one of total humility.

And perhaps that’s the gift of devotion. It’s too bad so many gurus screw it up so badly. Because humility makes the world a much, much better place. And you only need to watch one movie about cults to see how true that is. 

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