In this interview, we talk to two of the leading teacher trainers—the founders of the Jivamukti Yoga Method—Sharon Gannon and David Life. They discuss the role of the Yoga teacher and the special qualities needed to be a modern day Yoga teacher.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What is the role of the modern day Yoga teacher?
David Life (DL): The role of a Yoga teacher has always been to guide people in the use of the yogic techniques, philosophy and wisdom tradition that could lead to enlightenment. In each age, the universal teachings of Yoga have been called forth into the language and culture they serve. Yoga teachers, being immersed in a particular contemporary world culture, are the translators and commentators of these universal teachings into a context that provides the deepest level of understanding in their time. Sharon talks often about this interesting example: The Hathayogapradipika (HYP) has a list of asanas to practice, but none of them are standing poses. By contrast, in our present age we find that Yoga classes commonly focus primarily on standing poses. She says that perhaps, because the standing poses address our relationship to the earth, and that relationship to the earth has become more dysfunctional to us than it was in the age that the HYP was compiled. That is how the contemporary application of the wealth of yogic techniques organically flows through contemporary teachers according to the needs of the student.
Sharon Gannon (SG): A Yoga teacher only has one job: to see the student as a holy being. Students can provide the teacher with opportunities to resolve past karmas and move towards enlightenment. Yoga is both the goal and the practice. According to Patanjali, Yoga is samadhi, enlightenment, ananda, bliss, happiness, the realization of the oneness of being, where all separation between self and other dissolves. We cannot “do” Yoga, because it is our natural state. What we can do are practices that may reveal to us where we are resisting this natural state. Once we become aware of our resistances, the obstacles to our happiness, we can start a process of self-reflection where we attempt to re-route our karmic tendencies. By keeping the goal of Yoga in mind we can stop reacting, overcome bad habits and gain control of our actions when they rise in the mind, before they manifest into an action. A Yoga teacher teaches these practices. To be able to teach these practices effectively, a teacher must have some mastery of the practices. Of course, because Yoga means enlightenment, it would be ideal if the teacher was enlightened. How can we recognize whether or not a teacher is an enlightened being? There’s an old saying, “It takes one to know one.” So whether or not the student sees the teacher as an enlightened being, or the teacher sees himself or herself as an enlightened being, is of no consequence to the practice. The practices remain as they have for thousands of years. Anyone with a sincere desire can engage in the practices of Yoga and share those practices with others.
IYM: What makes a good teacher, and how can one grow and evolve as a teacher?
DL: Shri Krishnamacharya said that a Yoga teacher should have:
- A lineage connection: A good teacher is part of a lineage and has acknowledged their own teacher and has been blessed by their teacher to teach.
- A regular practice: They practice regularly, most often daily. This consistent practice informs their teaching; they practice what they teach. A Yoga teacher lives an exemplary life, following the precepts of Yoga.
- A sincere liking for people: A teacher must sincerely like people and make themselves available. A good teacher will even place the welfare of their students above their own. A good teacher always comes from a place of compassion; they are able to put themselves in the place of the student, to know the appropriate teachings to give.
Once we have found a qualified teacher, it is up to us to keep that precious teacher in our lives with the techniques of discipleship. We plant the karmic seeds of our experience with our students in the future by how we treat our teachers today. Our students will treat us in the same way as we have treated our own teachers. We become good teachers by being good students. As each of us grows and evolves as yoga practitioners, our expression of that evolution in the form of teaching evolves. It is a parallel development.
IYM: How has the role of Yoga teacher changed since the time of the ancient Guru-disciple relationship?
DL: This transmission did not stop. It is a classical system called parampara. Part of what makes successful teachers, master teachers, is that they’re able to transmit and empower others with their wisdom teachings. We all know that the karma of enlightened action is an enlightened result. Reincarnation is also a principle of Yoga philosophy that we can’t deny, if we want to call ourselves yogis. The names and faces have changed, but has the system of transmission really changed? Today there may be greater access to information through translations, publications, Internet and so forth, but mere information is not transmission. Although true transmission could occur through a book, reading a book does not assure transmission. Instead, the book awakens samskaras that were pre-existing in seed form in the seeker. True transmission can also occur through dreams or visions, but no matter the method—the kind of transmission we are talking about depends upon the relationship between a teacher and a student just as it always has.
IYM: Does something get lost in translation when Yoga is taught in groups vs. a one-on-one experience?
SG: The classic situation—where an aspirant renounced home and family and set off to find a Guru, and, if they were fortunate enough to find one, moved in with their teacher and served the teacher (cooked the food, cleaned the house, etc.) in exchange for precious teachings—is rare these days. Still, we should consider that evidence exists showing that in ancient times, say two to five thousand years ago, Yoga was taught in universities in India to groups of students and Yoga was also taught in ashrams and monasteries, where many students would be housed under one roof and there would be a Guru, or abbot, who would be respected as the giver of the wisdom teachings to the congregation. And this system can still be found today all over the world, not just in India.
IYM: When Yoga first came to the West, students typically studied with one teacher. Today, Yoga teachers seem to train with many different teachers, some would say, they “collect” different teachers for their resumes. Thoughts?
SG: It’s hard to say why a student leaves a particular teacher and hooks up with another one. If we care to look, we can see a growing trend in the inability to stay with one person for some duration in most of the relationships in modern times. Most people who get married get divorced and go on to have several marriages or romantic relationships. Most children leave home at an early age and continue into adulthood to have difficult relationships with their parents, citing a “bad childhood.” Most people don’t stay with a job for very long, but have many jobs over the course of their lives. Most people don’t stay in the same house or apartment for very long. It’s common to move residences many times. People who watch television switch channels. I would say that all of it is a sign of the times, the Kali Yuga, the age of unsettling conflict. Most people today have fragmented minds and an inability to focus their attention for very long on one thing. Yoga offers a remedy for fragmentation with reintegration methods that provide the means to harness one’s precious faculty of attention and to concentrate it. This ability leads first to self-confidence and later to Self-realization.
IYM: Most of the great Yoga Masters who came from the East have left their bodies. What remains and how can students today connect with a lineage or become a sincere disciple?
DL: Those Masters all had students, who became teachers who had students, who became teachers, etc. A student should not try to connect to a lineage. Instead, they should seek a teacher. When they find a teacher to whom they can relate, whose knowledge and experience they trust, and who had a teacher who told them to teach, they should commit to that teacher. It is through our relationship to a teacher that we gain access to the parampara.
SG: To be a disciple means to be disciplined. When you are able to hold the highest self-less intention in your mind and utilize the Yoga practices for your own transformation, if you are a sincere student, who disciplines yourself and practices regularly for some duration, you will achieve success.
IYM: In classical times, the Guru gave a mantra to the disciple. What about now?
DL: Mantra is part of the package of transmission. Each parampara has distinctive mantras, melodies and chants drawn from the infinity of Sanskrit vibration. Nama and rupa are one, the name and the form have an identical nature. Nada Brahma is God as Sound and Nada Yoga techniques, like mantra japa, lead to this realization. Mantra is received as a whisper in your ear from the enlightened master. It is held in the heart where its repetition manifests into the form of perfection. In different traditions we see different criteria for mantra diksha, or initiation. Some teachers bestow mantra freely, while others withhold the mantra until certain preparatory work is completed. In any case the disciple must first express a desire to receive a mantra.
IYM: How can teachers honor their styles and allow their personalities to come through without watering down the lineage that they follow?
DL: First of all, you don’t “honor” a style. In fact, the word style implies a fleeting whim of consumer culture branded with personality. What you honor is the underlying structure of unity that provides stability and continuity. Yoga is a celebration of diversity through the thread of consciousness that is unity. The lineage of teachers spoke the big message. Our connection to the parampara provides stability and continuity. Most of the enlightened masters have spoken simple lessons learned from their teachers. They spoke those same lessons in many ways over and over during their lives with words like “love” and “Yoga.” They never claimed to have invented love or Yoga.
Do we really have a choice about letting our personalities come through? Isn’t the personality, the voice and the subtleties of communication the medium for the big message? Ultimately the question is what is the big message? And who told it to you? And could you interest others in that message?
SG: Ultimately we want to lose ourselves in love. Love for God. A teacher strives to be an instrument, to allow the teachings to be channeled through them. This takes both surrender and sadhana. A teacher must be humble and work hard to discipline themselves through practicing everyday.
IYM: How can Yoga teachers overcome personal obstacles in teaching—issues of emotional challenges, ethics, etc.
DL: By practicing what we were taught, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, concentration and meditation. Do no harm. Nurture compassion through selfless action to serve others and relieve their suffering. Eat a vegan diet and advocate for the earth and all earthlings. Become a voice for those who suffer the most. Give the big message and walk the walk.
SG: All obstacles can be overcome through practice. The practices of Yoga were designed for that goal—to overcome obstacles. Usually what happens is that many people become Yoga teachers before they themselves have become firmly established in sadhana (practice). What to do? Step up your practice. When you become a teacher, don’t let your own practice decrease, instead increase your sadhana. Yoga teachers like anyone else, can remain inspired and motivated by remaining in the presence of God by chanting the Holy Names and being kind to others. How you treat others is very important to your own happiness. That is why a vegan diet is the best plan for someone seeking happiness. Japa and compassion are magical elixirs that heal the heart by dissolving all negativity in the mind.
IYM: Some teachers today say they feel the pressure to constantly “change things up” because students look for variety and are easily bored and then leave.
DL: By giving a student what they want, rather than what they need, a teacher serves avidya, raga and dvesha—all obstacles to Yoga. By providing consistent structure, the teacher allows the student to step aside from these desires and confusion and rest in the sublime dispassion of repetition. If Yoga is taught on the level of entertainment, then the problem that you reveal in your question is inevitable. It’s like trying to raise a child by satisfying their endless desires rather than by establishing good habits of temperance and self-control. Children like structure and so do Yoga students. If Yoga is taught as a traditional school of practical, perennial philosophy, then the entertainment value is unimportant compared to the enduring consistency.
IYM: How can teachers/studios deal with the financial challenges of staying afloat in the midst of so much competition?
DL: Work very hard to become a Yoga master. Serve others until otherness disappears. Chant the Name.
SG: Let go and let God. Do your best to serve others, always renounce the fruits of your actions, offer those fruits to God—let God do as God wishes with them. Do your best to continue to teach as long as others seek you out, but like death, when the time to go comes, let go gracefully.
About Sharon Gannon and David Life
In 1984 Sharon Gannon and David Life created the Jivamukti Yoga Method, which is a path to enlightenment through compassion for all beings. They are pioneers in teaching Yoga as spiritual activism/activation. The Jivamukti Yoga Method emphasizes asana, scriptural study, devotion, prayer, music, chanting and meditation, as well as animal rights, veganism, environmentalism and political activism. Jivamukti’s passionate focus on the original meaning of the Sanskrit word “asana” as seat, connection, reflects a relationship to the earth that is as practical as it is radical at this time of global crisis and consciousness shift. The Jivamukti Yoga Method is taught worldwide at Jivamukti Yoga Schools and affiliated centers. They wrote the book, Jivamukti Yoga, Practices for Liberating Body & Soul and the Jivamukti practice is also available on DVDs. For more information, www.jivamuktiyoga.com.