Sri Swami Satchidananda with his Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Riskhikesh, India, early 1950s.

Swami Satchidananda often explained that the easiest way to learn to master something is to train with an expert in one’s chosen field. All fields of training and learning come down to a succession of those who master the material—whether its mechanics, doctors, architects, athletes, musicians, and so on—who have studied with an expert in the field. Another example he often gave is that of someone who travels to unknown parts without the benefit of a guide or map. Theoretically, the person might one day reach their destination. But, it is advisable to look to those who have taken the same journey, who can point us in the right direction, guide, and encourage us. A living lineage serves as an example of how to accomplish what is possible. And, an example alone has the ability to uplift and energize us.

The path of Yoga leads to the discovery of our inner peace and wisdom, of self-mastery, and to Self-realization. If we want to follow a path to freedom, we can seek out those who have followed the path and attained freedom in this way—through a path that is authentic, efficient, and reliable. When embarking on this journey of self-discovery it is advised to follow a well-proven path of an established lineage and a tradition of wisdom, practices, and examples of those who have successfully accomplished the journey.

Swami Satchidananda was responsible for the transmission of the “spark” that is the lineage of the Integral Yoga tradition today. Integral Yoga swamis (monks), ministers, and students can trace their lineage from Swami Satchidananda to his Guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, whose Guru was Swami Vishwananda, and all the way back to Sri Patanjali—the codifier of the classical Yoga system in 400 CE—upon which the system of Integral Yoga is based—and Adi Shankaracharya (800 CE), the founder of the Saraswati Order (and several other monastic lineages) in India.

For some, the concept of having or learning from a Guru is something they are not very drawn to, or may even be suspicious of, and may have resistance toward. This is very understandable so we want to help to reframe and contextualize the traditional meaning behind and the benefits of having a Guru or following a lineage. And, how this aspect of a Yoga path can become incredibly helpful and enriching.

We have this notion of the Guru as the empowering condition that quickens our spiritual progress. This a concept that can really trip us up. So, let’s try and clarify what we mean by the “empowering condition.” Swami Satchidananda often gave the example of the process involved in making yogurt. In order to make yogurt, one needs a “starter.” You begin with milk, which will then be heated. But, it’s not enough just to heat the fresh milk to produce yogurt. You need a starter, which comes from some previously made yogurt, which is then added to the new milk. The role of the starter is to spread the good bacteria throughout all the milk. This is also the role of the Guru or teacher, who has generated enough “good bacteria,” through their own personal practice, that they can then transmit that to the new student. This is what is known as diksha, or initiation in the Yoga and Buddhist traditions, during which a spiritual, energetic, and alchemic transmission is passed onto the student—in a sense, kickstarting the spiritual evolution and journey of the student, just like the starter in yogurt.

What the Guru principle is also pointing us to is not simply that there is this external person that we are looking to as a teacher or as an enlightened being, but, essentially we are relating to our Guru, our teachers, and our lineage, in such a way that they mirror back to us our own essential, true, awakened nature. The idea being that when we can see something outside, it helps us to see it on the inside.

Since the 1960s, we have seen the influx and influence of many Gurus bringing a variety of teachings to the West and into a culture that was, in many ways, wholly unprepared to understand this. Some students began to blindly follow a Guru, while others when they heard the word “guru,” equated this term with a cult. All of these distortions can happen, not only in the Yoga tradition, but in other traditions, like in the Buddhist tradition, with its practice of Guru Yoga. There are many ways that we can really misunderstand this idea of the Guru and not understand that it is not pointing us to some weird power dynamic where we let go of our own innate wisdom and sanity and give that away to some other person, group, or organization but, rather, in its fullest sense, it is helping us to get in touch with our inner wisdom.

The classical tradition of the Guru-disciple or teacher-student relationship, helps us to see, to experience, and to fully nurture the quality of wisdom within us. The external teacher — the outer Guru, as opposed to this inner Guru, is really just the skillful means or catalyst that helps us to see access this within ourselves. In fact, there is no other purpose for the outer Guru than to help us to see and experience the inner Guru. This principle, the Guru principle, is something that has taken time for westerners to understand in the proper context. Swami Satchidananda, the Guru of the Integral Yoga tradition, explained it as follows:

“What is Guru or who is Guru? The conscience within you is the Guru. The one that guides you. The one that enlightens you. As such, there is a Guru in everybody. The external Guru, or the teachings, are to guide you to go within and recognize that Guru within who is constantly guiding us. It’s almost like a mirror showing your face. The mirror doesn’t have a face of its own. It simply reflects your face. Because unfortunately no one has seen his or her own face. Have you ever seen your face? Do you know you have a face? How do you know? Have you seen it? In the mirror. In the mirror you don’t see your face. What you see in the mirror is the reflection. Like that, you are the Guru. You have not seen it. The external Guru is to point out the Guru within you. Guru is not a person. Guru is the omnipresent consciousness which pervades everywhere, which guides the entire universe constantly. But because the Guru is within you, and you have never seen it, you want to see it with a reflection. It is there the external Guru comes. The teaching is the Guru. With the help of the teaching, you will realize your own Guru within.”

In many Yoga, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions there is a long history of devotion and offerings to the Guru. There is an annual day, known as Guru Poornima, during which one’s Guru or spiritual teacher is honored. The festival is celebrated on the full moon day (Purnima) in the Hindu month of Ashadha (June–July) as it is known in the Hindu calendar of India and Nepal. Historically, this Ashadha Purnima Day was observed in sacred memory of the great sage Sri Vyasa who composed the Brahma Sutras, edited the four Vedas, wrote the eighteen Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavata. These are some of the most important historical spiritual texts in the Yoga and Hindu traditions. As Swami Sivananda explained, “We can attempt to repay this deep debt of gratitude we owe him only by constant study of his works and practice of his teachings imparted for the regeneration of humanity in the iron age or Kali Yuga. In honor of this divine personage, all sadhakas and devotees perform Vyasa Puja (worship to the Guru) on this day.”

Bhakti Yoga, the classical Yoga path of love and devotion, is one of the six branches of Integral Yoga. This path of devotional practices directed toward God, one’s Guru, or to a chosen deity or deities includes kirtan and bhajan (chanting), puja (worship), among others. Devotion, and these practices in particular, again can be easily misunderstood without the proper context. As a central experience of the classical Bhakti Yoga path, we put ourselves in a receptive state so that we are able to open our hearts, increasingly, and to see the divine within ourselves.

Placing our trust in a lineage, a Guru, or spiritual teacher, or a proven path, is a sign of wisdom, a sign of having discerned what is true and real. Associating ourselves with a lineage is not bowing down, or lowering ourselves, but reaching up to take what is being offered, to make use of the compassion, the wisdom, and the practices that are being offered to us. Through studying with a living lineage, we can touch the truth of the teachings as they are embodied in the teachers who we can meet, and we can be energized by the spark of the unbroken power of that lineage. Lineage gives us inspiration, strength, and confidence that we, too, can do it.

Modern yogis may choose to follow their own paths, unassociated with any particular lineage or Guru. And yet, all practitioners have lineage to thank for the existence of Yoga in the current world.

Source: Integral Yoga International