You've heard the word, we're sure, but you may be confused as to what a guru actually is. A guru is a spiritual teacher. You can have many spiritual teachers in your life, but traditionally, you have only one guru, and you attach, spiritually, not only to the guru but to the guru's lineage (in other words, the particular tradition out of which that guru comes, what he or she has studied, what "school" or "branch" of yoga he or she is associated with). Literally, the word guru means "dispeller of darkness," and that is the guru's role: to help you dispel your own spiritual darkness.
Do you need a guru? Not necessarily. But perhaps. A guru/disciple relationship between mature individuals is really a journey of spiritual revelations and discoveries for both disciple and guru. The guru's "job" is to give you spiritual guidance and insight, and to insist that you think for yourself. In fact, it is essential that a disciple have the freedom to follow or not follow that guidance. A good disciple will travel toward spiritual independence, but a guru makes a great traveling companion with an excellent road map to get you well on your way.
The concept of the guru is a little hard for us Westerners to swallow. After all, we like to be self-sufficient. We aren't a submissive, follow-the-leader type of culture, and the idea that we should surrender to some kind of a superior—putting our physical, mental, and spiritual development in his or her hands—makes us uncomfortable. This isn't a difficult concept for many Easterners, whose culture has taught them, over the course of centuries, that the best way to truly learn anything—a craft, a posture, a philosophy, enlightenment—is by loyal devotion to a wise individual who has sage advice and knowledge to impart.
We Westerners like to question, and our doubting natures are only encouraged when we hear story after story about spiritual teachers and leaders who have gone astray. Our modern world is full of temptations, and sometimes gurus, priests, evangelists, healers, and others whose purpose is to lead others to a higher spiritual plane cave in to temptation. A true, enlightened guru will remain your spiritual guide for a lifetime, but these days, good gurus are hard to find! (And many a guru will counter that good students are equally hard to find!)
But you may not need a guru—at least not in the traditional sense. For some, a guru is a crucial part of the yoga journey, but for others, a teacher is the perfect guide. A qualified yoga teacher you truly connect with can be your most valuable resource. A great yoga teacher can change your life and improve your practice of yoga far beyond what you could figure out on your own. And we all have a guru within. Most important, don't be discouraged if you haven't found the acarya or guru who is right for you. Be patient, keep your eyes open, keep practicing, don't be afraid to be picky, don't put up with mediocre instruction or a teacher who doesn't understand you, and eventually, if it's meant to work out that way, you'll find the perfect fit. Ultimately, the fit is an internal one.
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