It helps us move from inaccurate to accurate understanding
Is a teacher necessary to learn yoga? Before answering that question, let’s ask this first: what are you learning? If what you are learning is unsound, it makes no difference whether you learn it under the personal guidance of a guru or from a book.
If it is the true path of yoga, then again, it may be okay to learn it from a book, but then your transformation depends on your personal effort. If you want to learn the real thing, it is important to know that most of the work is already done — it has been written down in the form of the Yogasutras and the commentaries on it. For a teacher to be of value in this process, they must either be able to explain these states of mind from direct personal experience, or at least have a clear intellectual understanding of what those who have experienced it have said.
Place of asana
Now, yoga is often associated primarily with the practice of asana. Asana is one of the eight limbs of the practice of yoga as outlined by Patanjali in the Yogasutras. We take this up here because it is better to learn asana from a teacher than from a book. What can be complicated and awkward to learn from a book can be explained or demonstrated easily in person. However, it is important to understand well the correct place of asana in the path of yoga. Eventually, yoga is the transformation of the mind. Yoga should give you health benefits in the form of improved strength, flexibility, structural alignment, proper functioning of body systems and mental steadiness. However, the core of yoga is not about physical health, but about mental steadiness alone, as we have said in the earlier articles.
Therefore, what asanas you learn is not so important. More important is to consider why you are learning them and even more important, where they are leading you. In doing whatever asana or pranayama or other yoga practices are you really following the path of yoga as explained by the luminaries of the past? This, actually, is a grey area.
All of us want knowledge that is accurate. None of us want knowledge that is incorrect. This is where, doubt enters the picture, as an important component that helps us move from inaccurate to accurate understanding. If we never have any doubts, we may remain stuck in an inaccurate understanding indefinitely. That can be a real problem if that inaccurate understanding is related to our own personal growth and transformation. We are not talking about doubt, which could be crippling.
When we encourage a sense of healthy inquiry, we open the possibility of growth.
Where no doubts are possible
Three-year old John was busy scribbling something on a piece of paper.
His mother called out to him, “John, what are you doing?”
John replied, “I’m writing a letter to Michael, mama.” Michael was his younger brother, just a year old.
Amused, his mother said, “But you don’t know how to write!”
John replied, “Oh, that’s alright. He doesn’t know how to read!”
This article appeared in The Hindu newspaper.