A Question of Lineage


"How do I know which teacher and practice to choose?" you might ask when you start your practice of yoga.

As a yoga student I’ve always known that I was in the right place if I felt that I could ask any kind of question, even uncomfortable ones. As a teacher this is also dearly important to me: That I allow my students to ask anything they need to ask.

Not that it’s easy having my long-held beliefs put under constant scrutiny. But without this scrutiny, I could probably get away with teaching the same things over and over again, year after year. And that might feel great. It might make me feel completely on top of things. Guru-like almost. But I don’t want to be a guru. I want to be a student. And to be a student I have to stay open to having my beliefs proven wrong. To learn new things. To be ready to change what I teach.

These days, the concept of gurus and lineage is being discussed a lot in yoga, especially in ashtanga yoga. Let me make it clear from the outset that I’m personally less interested in an academic definition of lineage than a definition that I can actually work with. Besides, in my experience, you can always find a Sanskrit quote to prove your point. 

Two ways of looking at lineage seem to be taking shape at the moment. In one, lineage is something that keeps evolving through the discoveries of the people who form the lineage. They put effort into teaching with curiosity, asking questions of and being asked questions by their students and sharing knowledge with their peers. In the other understanding, lineage is something that is under fairly strict control for instance in regards to method.

I’ve practiced ashtanga yoga for most of my adult life, not as a follower of the method currently taught in Mysore at KPJAYI, but as a student of Richard Freeman, a senior ashtanga teacher. And while I no longer practice or teach yoga in a way that looks remotely like ashtanga, I still very much consider Richard to be my teacher.

How I can consider someone to be my teacher if I don’t practice the external forms that he teaches might seem odd, especially if you understand lineage as something that has to do with a fairly strict method.

But I can honestly say that the way prana moves through the internal forms of my body hasn’t changed at all since I practiced ashtanga with Richard, even if the shapes my body takes when I practice these days changes from day to day and looks a lot like flow/vinyasa yoga. And if I explained this to Richard, I’m pretty sure that he would support it.

What really rocked my world when I met yoga twenty years ago were never the formalities of method, anyway. It was how yoga helped me find my freedom. Freedom from my patterns. Freedom from my need for control. Even freedom from the methods that I used to find freedom.

So for someone like me, the idea that lineage has to do with a very specific method of learning seems quite constricting, especially if this method is set in stone and not open to the different perspectives of senior teachers.

I realise that as the head of a lineage you might find that you need to be in control of the methods taught in the name of your lineage. But the reality is that this control is an illusion anyway. We might teach our method perfectly, but what if the method itself is flawed, as most methods are, to a certain extent? How about instead of asking experienced teachers to follow a certain, very particular method, instead you ask them what modifications they find necessary when they teach, and why? And if you allow the most experienced teachers to conduct trainings, you can compare results and continuously improve on how you train teachers yourself. As someone who’s been training teachers for the past seven years I’ll be the first to admit that there’s always room for improvement.

To sum it up, imagine these two scenarios: On the one hand, you have a group of maybe thirty or forty teachers each with 20+ years of experience who meet up once a year to discuss what they’re learning from continuously being present with their students. None of them are in charge. No one’s the guru. They’re simply sharing, learning and, hopefully, growing as teachers.

On the other hand, you have a guru who only teaches one method and who demands that everyone authorized in his lineage follow this method to the letter.

In which group do you see the greatest potential for moving towards constantly greater insights? In which group would you feel that your needs as a student could be met, no matter how great or small?

We all come to yoga with different goals. Sometimes we want to get in shape. Sometimes we want to master advanced asanas. Sometimes we want to hide from the world on our meditation cushion or by memorizing philosophical terms in Sanskrit. Sometimes we simply want to be in a place that sets such strict boundaries around our lives that we feel supported by the very strictness of them.

But at a certain point we will come to realise that none of what we thought was yoga, not even the most tightly taught sequence of poses, will ever get us to a state of yoga if we don’t let go. And when we get to that point, we’re lucky if we’re supported and surrounded by teachers and fellow practitioners who dared ask all the difficult questions. Because they will know that yoga was never about control. Never about a specific method. Yoga was always about being able to let go continuously of everything we thought of as yoga in order for us to fall into the present moment of pure consciousness. And I have a pretty strong feeling that when we meet it, pure consciousness won’t have too much to say about method or lineage.