What is a Yoga Visionary Anyway?
This morning Maya Devi Georg, a blogger on Brahmaloka or Bust and Yoganonymous, posed an interesting question on Facebook: “Why do some teachers never acknowledge their own teachers? They'll refer to themselves as ‘visionaries,’ ‘philosophers’ and ‘enlightened.’ But no mention of training, education, or the teachers that helped the along the way. What is that about?”
A spirited discussion has ensued. Some commenters wondered if these teachers had not studied with a particular mentor or small group of mentors and therefore, had no one to cite. Others wondered if these teachers wanted to hog all the credit for their knowledge. Others lamented the opposite: name dropping of famous teachers to beef up one’s bio.
I think there’s some truth in all these responses. Most people come to teaching because somewhere along the way, Yoga has inspired them. Unlike 20 years ago, teachers and trainings abound. People are less likely to stay with the same teacher for decades. Many people choose teacher training based on cost, convenience and time commitment. There is nothing wrong with this. Most of us have to juggle making a living and family responsibilities with our Yoga teaching aspirations. But sometimes this makes for a rather unfocused experience. There may not, in fact, be a single teacher or mentor that served as a consistent guide.
It is also true that there are those who ignore or maybe don’t appreciate the foundation their teachers have set for them. The pressure to be seen as an “innovator” or “creator” of one’s own unique style is huge these days. If you want to shoot for the realm of the traveling workshop teacher, it’s very helpful to claim a style you can call your own. Some may think that acknowledging where your “vision” came from lessens the novelty of their discoveries. I disagree. True innovators absorb themselves in whatever subject they are passionate about, and seek out the wisest, most profound teachers. The springboard to innovation is learning the basics—always—in Yoga, music, art, dance, technology or whatever your passion happens to be. A wise teacher helps you set that foundation and helps you see through your blind spots.
It’s true that there are teachers who have nurtured the development of new ways of approaching Yoga. Donna Farhi, for one, comes to mind. Through dedicated, consistent practice and a love of learning, she’s developed an ever-evolving and integrated amalgam of all she’s learned over decades that is truly different from what anyone else is offering. But without fail, Donna always acknowledges the teachers and teachings that she has synthesized. I’ve known her a very long time, and have never heard her call herself a “visionary” or “innovator.”
Where Does Innovation Come From?
This practice of Yoga has been cultivated over millennia. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. Even if we don’t have a single teacher/mentor that we can cite as the most influential, we all stand on the foundation that generations of teachers and sages have built for thousands of years.
As a Yoga practitioner of 32 years, I would never call myself a “visionary,” “philosopher,” or least of all, “enlightened.” I’m a human being, plugging along in a very ordinary life, that has had the good fortune to have discovered two technologies—Yoga and Buddhism—that I like to believe have brought a small measure of peace, grace, truth, generosity, kindness, etc., to my ordinary existence that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank my teachers for this, either in my meditations or when I share something I learned from them with my students.
No one steps into the role of Yoga teacher without a whole lot of support from our families, friends, communities and our own teachers—Yoga teachers and teachers of other disciplines. In other words, the whole of our lives creates us as teachers, but the Yoga teachers we choose will, perhaps more than any other factor, determine what kind of teacher we become.
At the risk of being accused of name dropping, here’s my short list of teachers whose teachings influence my own every single day. Whatever “vision” I’ve been fortunate enough to develop over the decades of my practice is undeniably attributable to the teachers who planted the seeds over decades of many, many workshops and retreats. These include Donna Farhi, Judith Hanson Lasater, the late Mary Dunn, Elise Miller, and especially my mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, all of whom worked directly with B.K.S. Iyengar in their formative stages as students. There are others too, such as Jenny Otto, that I’m just getting to know and plan to learn from in the future.
Have I synthesized what I’ve learned from them in my own way? Absolutely. I don’t teach like any of my teachers. My unique life history, experience, temperament and genetics all play into the way I teach. But am I the sole creator of my teaching style, philosophy or writings? Absolutely not. Yoga is universal. No one owns it. It belongs to everyone, and we are free to synthesize the teachings in a way that resonates with every stage of our lives. But remember those beings—known and unknown to you—who built the springboard from which we all discover our own Yoga.