On this auspicious day of Guru-Pūrṇimā, let us honor and meditate on the teachers who have brought us the wisdom of yoga through the ages.
The guru is inseparable from the yoga path.
We can learn mathematics without the personality of the teacher changing the subject. But yoga is different; it is not just theory. Yoga is self-transformation toward inner peace, wrapped in physical wellbeing. A “yogi + teacher” is an example, and crucially, a guide.
How you understand yoga depends on who interprets it for you. How your transformation proceeds depends partly on your teacher’s state of being and understanding.
In some branches of psychoanalytic therapy, there is the idea of avoiding unconscious interference from the presence of the therapist. Yoga takes the view that the guru will inevitably influence the student – there is no other possibility as the teaching progresses over time.
As the Yoga Sutra says, each yama (such as non-harmfulness, truthfulness, and non-covetousness), directly changes how the person influences everyone around them. If the teacher is established in ahimsa and satya, it impacts the student positively through presence. We feel calm in the presence of those who are calm, and we have all experienced the transformative power of words from a truthful speaker.
Unfortunately, this works in reverse too. If the teacher is hiding kleśa-s within, like ego, desire, dislike, or fear, the student will inevitably be influenced by that too, maybe without even realizing it.
It is not possible to entirely separate the teachings of yoga from the teacher who gives it to you. If you really wish to progress as a yogi, you have to choose your gurus wisely.
This is why the Yoga Sutra emphasizes self-reflection and self-understanding. You have to be your own teacher too.
A deep difference between the traditions of yoga and modern philosophy and psychology is that yoga is based on concrete inner stages of transformation. The foundation of yoga is not theory based on population surveys and hypotheses. It is an inner map, and at its heart, there is a real experience. This is why the profound wisdom of the ancient sages cannot be easily replicated in modern psychology – the root of the approach is very different.
Such deep transformation comes by rarely, which is why it is so important to study the traditional texts from a right teacher. But our responsibility does not end there. Each of us must also strive be an example as much as possible, both as seekers and as teachers. That is the most important way to honor the great gurus of the past.