“In the definition of Bhakti on the yoga path, each spiritual aspirant or yogi, has a love yearning, a desire to be with their beloved, a desire to be whole, a desire to feel that sense of completeness, a desire to spend time with that true being, and that true being is the Divine.” -Kino MacGregor
The ritual of sharing tea with Kino and discussing meaningful topics, in itself, feels sacred.
I wonder, quietly, if this is what leads Kino and I into a discussion of God, into the ways institutionalized religion has failed many of us, and how yoga provides an opportunity for us to make our way back into something that is holy and sacred.
The conversation turns to this topic after I watch Kino’s eyes brighten when she speaks of her teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She refers to him as Guruji, a name of respect and honor given to one’s spiritual mentor.
The literal translation of Guru means one who dispels the darkness (or spiritual ignorance). Ji, when placed after any name in India, means “respected” or “beloved.” There is no denying the impact “Guruji” has had on Kino’s journey, and her whole-hearted commitment to the path that is yoga.
However, this has not always been the case. Kino chuckles her way through a story about her preparation to meet Pattabhi Jois in India.
“I spent the entire journey and the week before obsessing about what I wasn’t going to do when I was there. I am not going to bow down. I am not going to touch his feet. People say he gives you a hug, and I am not going to let him hug me.”
She describes herself, back then, as a student filled with “new york, east village, post-modern feminine angst.” I laugh, because that phrase is fantastic, and I can relate to that student, at a liberal college in the US, impassioned with feminist ideals, raging against patriarchal society.
I ask her insights about the guru-disciple relationship, and why, in her opinion, many, in the West, are hesitant or reluctant to embrace what has been the cornerstone of Eastern and yogic ways of teaching for centuries.
“I think in the Western world we are sort of masters of our own problems. We know exactly what is wrong with us, and we know exactly what is going to make us better. . .it is quite hard for us to let go of that. I think it is intimidating—the idea that there is someone we would need to surrender to, to trust. And that trust relationship is very hard when the ego is built up very strongly around the knowledge of self. And that knowledge, when it’s not based on the limitless self, is by its very nature, limiting.”
But the Guru, she asserts, in the traditional, yogic sense is simply a vehicle through which we are able to practice surrender to divinity, surrender to the Divine.
She looks directly into my eyes and states her foundational belief—that in the Western intellectualized world, there is resistance to the guru-student relationship because there is also a resistance to divinity itself. I cannot help but nod.
And she admits she is no stranger to that resistance. She, like many, has felt let down by institutionalized religion, and sees that it has been a vehicle of oppression and violence.
“However, there is a big difference in my opinion about the experience of divinity and what institutionalized religion has been. I feel like yoga has the opportunity, through the vehicle of surrender to a power greater than yourself, through surrender into divinity, to give you 2 things :
One: To give you back the true notion of yourself, instead of this individualized sense of self which is built on the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. . .to have the true notion of self be rooted in the limitless Self—the limitless nature of our inner being.
And two: To give us back our God, our divinity, our sense of the sacred, to give us back the sense of what is holy and what is truly divine in our lives.”
I smile. One cannot deny she is on to something here. As a student and teacher of yoga, myself, I have often found that students are seeking, are searching for a depth of meaning and purpose and the sacred that is not easily found in our modern, disenchanted world.
She believes, in meeting Guruji, she was able to practice devotion and surrender to a source outside of her small, ego self. She was able to practice trust and letting go.
“So when that moment comes for you to surrender into the Divine (or God), you’ve got that down. That surrender is what opens the magic of life.”
The conversation continues effortlessly, a deepening spiral onto sacred ground. She and I agree that a Guru is nothing more than a spiritual mentor—someone to guide us along the spiritual journey, to provide insight and knowledge, but then step aside and allow us to succeed, fail, fall, triumph, make mistakes, and progress.
She speaks about other paths, and how, if we are studying to be a doctor, we have a mentor, someone we shadow, learn from, and are guided by. Psychologists must do supervision. Ancient traditions often consulted the counsel of an Elder.
“If you were studying to be a doctor, you wouldn’t just start it off by yourself. . .what makes you think for the inner journey, we don’t need a guide? If you want to get lost in the Grand Canyon, be my guest (she giggles). Or you can go with a guide that knows the way. And once they’ve shown you, you can go on your own and maybe even show someone else.
In anything else that is not about the inner journey, somehow we get the idea that we should have a guide, a mentor, someone who is further a long that we can study with, and we should apprentice with that person—whether you are a blacksmith or a brain surgeon. But when it comes to the inner journey, somehow, we resist that.”
But Guruji, she declares strongly, was not a teacher that usurped a student’s own power. He saw the greatness in the student and would do what was necessary to bring about that greatness. According to Kino, he would never create a co-dependent relationship.
She speaks, a bit disappointingly, about aspects of the shala in Mysore now that he has left the body. The western students, who are now assisting in the shala, are very eager to help, to assist the yogis in their physical practice, which is a very different approach from Pattabhi Jois.
Kino gives the example of a woman who was practicing forearm balance, and began to fall over. A western student ran over to catch her, and Sharath (Pattabhi Jois’ grandson and pupil), emulating his grandfather, told the student “No. Let her fall. Let her fall.”
And this echoed Kino’s experience with her teacher as well. She was never told how to do things, but was simply guided, pushed, encouraged, and loved.
“Meeting Guruji was the opportunity to get the direct experience of two things – I looked into Guruji and I felt love, and I felt support. I felt something that wasn’t available anywhere else in my life.”
Kino sips her tea briefly and continues on. She tells me that she believes the resistance to the Guru-student relationship in our culture stems from the stories about the abuse of power that has been documented in such relationships.
“False gurus are part of the delusion along the path of yoga. That’s one of the biggest sources of the disillusionment—when we come into contact with false gurus.”
But Guruji, she declares with confidence, would never cross that line.
And her post-modern feminist angst, upon meeting him, completely disappeared. Her rational agendas of what she was going to do and what she was not going to do vanished.“When I saw Guruji, and looked into his eyes, before my brain could think, my heart opened, and my hands were on his feet. It was one of the first moments of my life where my heart took over and my brain quieted down.”
I smile gently at the loveliness of that statement. And somehow, there is a tangible feeling of love in the room. I sense a presence that is holy. A silence enters. And I think to myself. This. Is. Yoga.