Removing the Gu: The Trouble with Guru Worship
"see if they wet their pants"
The words Guru, Swami, Super Swami, Master, Teacher, Murshid,
most of those sporting such a title are
The litmus test is:
hold them upside down over a cliff for a few hours.
If they don't wet their
maybe you have found a real
- From Love Poems from God, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Yoga has been a savior for me, a rescue system, a joy, a home, a healing, and many other things. My teachers are amazing, unique people that I continue to learn a lot from. The reason I love these teachers so much, perhaps, is because they never tell me that they are the only person in the universe with the knowledge I need. They keep reminding me that my own best teacher is me. Eric Stoneberg, for example, says, “There’s nothing anyone can give you that you can’t give to yourself.”
Yoga can teach you many beautiful things, including opening your heart to trusting others. No heart should be open, though, without a solid bullshit detector standing by in the “on” position. We learn to trust others because we learn to trust ourselves: the gut feelings that can tell us when we are safe, and when someone might be trying to take advantage of us.
I think it’s deeply important to acknowledge that as wonderful as any healing field is, it also always has a shadow side. People who are healing are in a process of discovery and recovery—finding vulnerability, love, and trust again. There are a lot of open hearts out there with faulty bullshit detectors, which makes them very easy to get inside.
The word “guru” in Sanskrit breaks down to “gu”: ignorance or darkness and “ru” light, or the radiance of knowledge. A guru is someone who is willing to help you remove your gu. That’s right, it’s you! And that rhymes, so you know it’s true.
Traditionally, there are all kinds of traditions around guru relationships, including bowing and kissing the feet of your guru, and making a payment of absolutely anything your guru asks at the end of your mentorship—including if it’s your first-born child. This sort of worship doesn’t vibe that well with our Western culture ethos; we turn up our nose at stuff like that. Many of us don’t realize, though that we do the same thing, it’s just called something else: celebrity worship.
Our modern Western yoga gurus showcase their beautiful shining hair, photographed on top of a beautiful mountain or at a rustic but comfortable cabin where they are leading a retreat. They will remove the gu around your midsection and make you look as sleek as they do, or whisk you away on a beach vacation to “find yourself." Worst of all, they’ll charge you up the wazoo to join their ashram which turns out to be some kind of cult based around having sex with the fearless leader at the top.
As yogis, we must remember that we are our own best gurus. There are amazing guides out there, yoga teachers, meditation teachers, your spouses, friends, students, and children, but you are the only person who can take you where you want to go. You’re the only one who can figure out the difference between a true guide and an ego on a yoga mat.
In my opinion (and don’t you dare take my word for it), a good teacher will welcome your questions and criticisms. She will be willing to learn from you, acknowledging you, her student, as her best possible guide. She will never coerce you into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with. She will never Tetell you that your doubt or questions or lifestyle is wrong, and she will not justify this by saying that all her other starry-eyed devotees agree with everything she says, so your choices must be wrong. She will never take credit for someone else’s work. A good teacher will avoid giving too many rules: to paraphrase Leslie Kaminoff, rules make you lazy because you don’t have to think about the reasons behind the rules anymore.
As intelligent consumers, let’s recognize our own vulnerabilities and allow them to be a source of power for learning and healing. Let’s also illuminate the fact that we are squarely in the middle of a hot market. And if anyone tells you your questions, concerns, or instincts are wrong, before you buy it, hold them upside down over a cliff for a few hours. See if they wet their pants.