What is the role of the teacher?
Considering primary sources of yoga, medicine and alchemy for contemporary issues
In recent years, the relationship between yoga teachers and their students has increasingly come under scrutiny in the wake of a series of scandals involving prominent gurus and yoga teachers.
What seemed at first to be the failings of some individuals is now thought to be part of wider abusive structures within yoga communities. For example, Matthew Remski's WAWADIA (‘What Are We Actually Doing In Asana’) project, which started out as an enquiry about injury in yoga practice, over time shifted its focus from asking about inherent dangers of yoga postures and sequences to harmful power relationships in yoga contexts. The first book of the project, which focuses on “the cultic mechanisms at play in the sphere of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga community” is now published and adds to an often heated discussion on online fora.
The impact of such scandals is also coming under the scrutiny of academic analysis with publications by Sarah Caldwell (Swami Muktananda), Josna Pankhania (Satyananda Yoga), and most recently by Amanda Lucia (haptic logics in guru-student relationships more generally).
With more and more survivors of abuse coming forward to talk about their experiences, yoga teachers and students are beginning to ask themselves hard questions about their practices and the ways in which they may have perpetuated or enabled abusive and harmful structures. How can both individuals and schools move forward without re-enforcing the structures that set the grounds for the abuses?
(On regret and suggestions on how to move forward in both personal practice and in institutionalised settings, see, for example, here, here, here, here, here and here. On the development of professional standards in regard to appropriate relationships between students and teachers, see here.)
In light of these developments, we have been reflecting on what, if anything, the premodern Sanskrit textual sources have to say on the teacher-student relationship. We should add as a disclaimer that the following is not intended to provide solutions for the current situation. At best, it may explain some of the historical structures that can underlie expectations of teachers’ and students’ obligations to each other. The Sanskrit sources describe a system of tutelage, in which a teacher instructs a single student or a select few. Moreover, both teacher and students are typically envisaged as male. This is clearly a very different context for teaching and learning than one typically meets with in a yoga class today, though echoes of it may still be found in yoga communities that understand themselves as being primarily directed toward spiritual goals.
What makes a teacher a good teacher?
Many of the ancient Indian textual sources describe ideal types of both teachers and students. Perhaps, the earliest examples concern the Vedic student and his teacher, first described in Gṛhya - and Dharmasūtras (Vedic domestic ritual and religious law literature). These serve as prototypes for descriptions of teachers and students in later literatures. For example, the notion of ideal teachers and students becomes a well-established topic in Sanskrit medical literature, where it is at least partly modeled on the Vedic example, but adjusted to a medical context.
One of the earliest ayurvedic treatises, the Carakasaṃhitā, describes what characteristics a student should look for in a prospective teacher:
tato 'nantaram ācāryaṃ parīkṣeta tadyathā paryavadātaśrutaṃ paridṛṣṭakarmāṇaṃ dakṣaṃ dakṣiṇaṃ śuciṃ jitahastam upakaraṇavantaṃ sarvendriyopapannaṃ prakṛtijñaṃ pratipattijñam anupaskṛtavidyam anahaṅkṛtam anasūyakam akopanaṃ kleśakṣamaṃ śiṣyavatsalam adhyāpakaṃ jñāpanasamarthaṃ ceti | evaṃguṇo hy ācāryaḥ sukṣetram ārtavo megha iva śasyaguṇaiḥ suśiṣyam āśu vaidyaguṇaiḥ sampādayati ||
Next, one should examine the teacher according to whether he is accomplished in the discipline and has observed practice extensively, whether he is skilled, competent, and clean, whether his hands are trained, whether he has all the necessary equipment, whether he has his wits about him, knows about natural states and about procedures, whether his knowledge is flawless, whether he is free from self-conceit, envy, or anger, whether he is capable of enduring distress, whether he is affectionate toward his students, and a teacher who is capable of imparting knowledge. Such a teacher quickly furnishes a good student with the qualities of a physician the way a seasonable cloud furnishes a good field with the qualities of grain.
(Carakasaṃhitā Vimānasthāna 8.4)
The Kāśyapasaṃhitā, a medical work on pediatrics from ca. the 7th century also describes an ideal teacher’s characteristics:
atha guruḥ - dharmajñānavijñānohāpohapratipattikuśalo guṇasaṃpannaḥ saumyadarśanaḥ śuciḥ śiṣyahitadarśī copadeṣṭā ca bhiṣakśāstravyākhyānakuśalas tīrthagata jñānavijñānanaḥ kalyo ‘nanyakarmāvyāvṛttaḥ śiṣyaguṇānvitaś ca | ato ‘nyathā dauṣer varjyaḥ ||
Now the preceptor: He is one whose expertise includes virtue, knowledge, discernment, comprehension, reasoning, and perception, who is endowed with good qualities, who is pleasant to look at and clean, a teacher who teaches for the student’s benefit, skilled at explaining the medical works, whose knowledge and understanding come from a preceptor, who is healthy, has no other commitments and [whose attention is] undivided, and who has the [same] qualities as the student. Otherwise he should be avoided because of his being defective.
(Kāśyapasaṃhitā Vimānasthāna 2.5)
Professional skills and knowledge are given prominence, but both passages also emphasize a teacher’s commitment to his student—being affectionate, giving the students full and undivided attention, and always having their best interests at heart.
The ideal teacher is complemented by an ideal student and here, the list of requirements is even longer:
adhyāpane kṛtabuddhir ācāryaḥ śiṣyam evāditaḥ parīkṣeta tad yathā praśāntam āryaprakṛtikam akṣudrakarmāṇam ṛjucakṣurmukhanāsāvaṃśaṃ tanuraktaviśadajihvam avikṛtadantauṣṭham aminminaṃ dhṛtimantam anahaṅkṛtaṃ medhāvinaṃ vitarkasmṛtisampannam udārasattvaṃ tadvidyakulajam athavā tadvidyavṛttaṃ tattvābhiniveśinam avyaṅgam avyāpannendriyaṃ nibhṛtam anuddhatam arthatattvabhāvakam akopanam avyasaninaṃ śīlaśaucācārānurāgadākṣyaprādakṣiṇyopapannam adhyayanābhikāmam arthavijñāne karmadarśane cānanyakāryam alubdham analasaṃ sarvabhūtahitaiṣiṇam ācāryasarvānuśiṣṭipratikaram anuraktaṃ ca evaṃguṇasamuditam adhyāpyam āhuḥ ||
A teacher who is resolved to teach should first observe the pupil according to whether he is calm and noble-natured, whether his actions are not vulgar, whether his eyes, mouth, and nasal bridge are straight, his tongue is thin, red, and clear, and his teeth and lips are well-shaped, whether he does not speak through the nose, is resolute and free from self-conceit, whether he is intelligent, endowed with deliberation and mindfulness and generous-minded, whether he comes from a family of physicians, or else behaves as such, whether he is devoted to truth, without deformity, his senses unimpaired, modest, and humble, whether his opinion is authoritative, whether he is without anger and free from vice, whether he has a good character, pure habits, affection, and skill and behaves respectfully, whether he wishes to study and has no other aim than to understand theory and practice, whether he is not avaricious or lazy, strives for the welfare of all beings, follows all the teacher’s instructions, and is fond of [studying or the teacher]. One with such qualities is considered fit to be taught.
(Carakasaṃhitā Vimānasthāna 8.8)
Most of this concerns a student’s general character. Perhaps the most pertinent statement in regard to the student-teacher relationship is that the student should follow all the teacher’s instructions: obedience to the teacher is mentioned again and again in the medical works as a desirable attitude of the student. The passage above is a little unclear about the question of love. The Sanskrit here reads “anuraktam”, which simply translates as “fond of”, without providing an object. The addition in brackets follows the explanation of the 11th-century commentator Cakrapāṇidatta, who states that according to some, “anuraktam” refers to study (adhyāyānurāga), and according to others, to the teacher (gurāv anuraktatva).
Similar ideas are found in Sanskrit alchemical treatises, whose goals resemble those of yoga texts more closely than the medical works. This is how one of the earliest Sanskrit alchemical works, the Rasārṇava (ca. 12th century CE), describes an ideal teacher:
nispṛho nirahaṃkāro lobhamāyāvivarjitaḥ |
kulamārgarato nityaṃ gurupūjārataś ca yaḥ || 2 ||
dāntaḥ śiṣyopadeśajñaḥ śaktimān gatamatsaraḥ |
dharmajñaḥ satyavāk dakṣaḥ śīlavān guṇavān śuciḥ || 3 ||
anekarasaśāstrajño rasamaṇḍapakovidaḥ |
rasadīkṣāvidhānajño yantrauṣadhimahārasān || 4 ||
rāgasaṃkhyāṃ bījakalāṃ dvaṃdvamelāpanaṃ viḍam |
rañjanaṃ sāraṇaṃ tailaṃ dalāni krāmaṇāni ca || 5 ||
varṇotkarṣaṃ mṛdutvaṃ ca jāraṇāṃ bālabaddhayoḥ |
khecarīṃ bhūcarīṃ caiva yo vetti sa gurur mataḥ || 6 ||
One who is free from desire, humble, who has abandoned greed and duplicity, who is devoted to the Kaula path, who always venerates their spiritual preceptors, who is patient, knows how to teach students, powerful, who is free of greed, who knows righteousness, speaks the truth, is skilled, well-conducted, full of good qualities, clean, knows many alchemical works, has experience in [setting up] an alchemical laboratory, knows the rules for initiation to alchemy, knows about instruments, herbs and minerals, the art of (preparing) reagents connected to tinting, how to obtain amalgamation, the art of (preparing) factitious salt, tinting, bringing (the mercurial elixir) to flow [i.e. to process it in ways that will allow the elixir to penetrate the body], (making) an oil and metal foil potion for penetration, optimising the colour (of precious metals) and mildness, assimilation (of substances) to unfixed and fixed (mercury), wandering the sky and the earth: he is considered a guru.
Here, professional or at least subject-based skills are emphasised even more prominently, and the teacher’s didactic skills (“knows how to teach students”) is all we find out about relationships to students. Incidentally, the enumeration of what the ideal alchemy teacher’s knowledge must encompass provides a neat summary of the discipline of alchemy.
The description of the student in this passage emphasizes a student’s religious fervour and good character, also noting that he should be devoted to the teacher (guruvatsala).
deśakālakriyābhijño dayādākṣiṇyasaṃyutaḥ |
lobhamāyāvinirmukto mantrānuṣṭhānatatparaḥ || 7 ||
sāmudralakṣaṇopeto gambhīro guruvatsalaḥ |
devāgniyoginīcakrakulapūjārataḥ sadā |
śiṣyo vinītas tantrajñaḥ satyavādī dṛḍhavrataḥ || 8 ||
The student [should be] one who knows the place and time for rites, who is compassionate and kind and free of greed and delusion, who is intent on the practice of mantra, who is marked with (auspicious) signs, who is profound and devoted to the guru, who always delights in the Kaula worship of gods, fire, and the circle of yoginis, who is humble, knows the Tantras, speaks the truth and is firm in his vows.
Notably, these passages do not inform us about interactions between teacher and student. We only learn a bit about what happens in the classroom from one single passage in an early ayurvedic treatise called the Suśrutasaṃhitā:
atha vatsa tad etad adhyeyaṃ yathā tathopadhāraya mayā procyamānaṃ
atha śucaye kṛtottarāsaṅgāyāvyākulayopasthitāyādhyayanakāle śiṣyāya yathāśakti gurur upadiśet padaṃ pādaṃ ślokaṃ vā te ca padapādaślokā bhūyaḥ krameṇānusaṃdheyāḥ evam ekaikaśo ghaṭayed ātmanā cānupaṭhet adrutam avilambitam aviśaṇkitam ananunāsikaṃ suvyaktākṣaram apīḍitavarṇam akṣibhruvauṣṭhahastair anabhinītaṃ susaṃskṛtaṃ nātyuccair nātinīcaiś ca svaraiḥ paṭhet na cānatreṇa kaścid vrajet tayor adhīyānayoḥ ||
śucir guruparo dakṣas tandrānidrāvivarjitaḥ paṭhann etena vidhinā śiṣyaḥ śāstrāntam āpnuyāt ||
The preceptor should teach a student who is clean and has put on an upper garment, who is untroubled, and who has presented himself at the [prescribed] time of study according to his ability a word, a quarter verse, or a verse. And these words, quarter verses, and verses should moreover be set in order again and again. In this way, he should bring them together one by one. And he should repeat them by himself neither too quickly, nor too slowly, without hesitation, not speaking through the nose, enunciating the syllables well, without slurring the sounds, without embellishing with his eyes, eyebrows, lips, or hands, and correctly. He should read in a voice that is neither too high, nor too low. And no one should pass between the two while they study.
On this, there are (these verses):
A student who is clean, devoted to the teacher, able, free from laziness and sloth, and who studies according to this method should reach the limits of the discipline.
(Suśrutasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 3.54-55)
The focus here is on learning a text, whereas arguably, in both the alchemy and yoga context, students are learning practical methods, their bodies and minds being both the subject of study and the tools for it.
However, what do medieval yoga texts tell us about the teacher? Generally speaking, it is assumed that a student must have a teacher in order to practise and succeed at yoga. Although practice characterises the path of yoga, the teacher’s role is seen as essential for attaining the goals of the practice. The following passages from several yoga texts are fairly typical examples of how these sentiments were expressed:
na vedair vedāntaiḥ smṛtibhir abhidhānair api na ca |
na cāpi cchandovyākaraṇakavitālaṅkṛtimayair
munes tattvāvāptir nijagurumukhād eva vihitā ||5||
Not by studying the doctrines of scriptural exegesis, logic, planets and mathematics, nor by the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Dharmaśāstras [and the like]; not even by lexicons nor metre, grammar, poetry nor rhetoric; the sage's attainment of the highest reality is gained only from the oral teachings of his own guru.
(Amanaska 1.5, ca. 15th - 16th century)
karṇadhāraṃ guruṃ prāpya kṛtvā naukāṃ tanuṃ narāḥ ||
abhyāsavāhanāśaktās taranti bhavasāgaraṃ ||14.15||
Having obtained a guru, the helmsman, and having made the body into a boat,
those who are devoted to sailing, which is the practice, cross the ocean of existence.
(Amṛtasiddhi 14.15, 11th century)
For the student of yoga, a teacher is often more important than scriptures:
tatrāsti karaṇaṃ divyaṃ sūryasya mukhavañcanam |
gurūpadeśato jñeyaṃ na tu śāstrārthakoṭibhiḥ ||3.78||
Since [the nectar is consumed by the sun and the body ages], there is a divine mudrā which cheats the mouth of the sun. It should be learnt from a teacher and not from the countless injunctions of scripture.
(Haṭhapradīpikā 3.78, mid-15th century)
By means of practices such as prāṇāyāma and meditation, yoga aims at stilling the breath and mind. Nonetheless, the teacher’s role was believed to be instrumental to achieving this.
guruprasādān marud eva sādhitas tenaiva cittaṃ pavanena sādhitam |
sa eva yogī sa jitendriyaḥ sukhī mūḍhā na jānanti kutarkavādinaḥ ||137||
Owing to the Guru's favour, the breath is mastered and, because of that, the mind is mastered by the breath. He alone is a yogin; he has conquered the senses and is happy. Fools, whose talk is false, do know [this].
(Yogabīja 137, ca. 14th century)
Although practice is the central pillar, so to speak, to the methodology of traditions such as Haṭha and Rājayoga, nonetheless there are statements to the effect that the practice of a technique without a guru is fruitless.
tatrāpy asādhyaḥ pavanasya nāśaḥ ṣaḍaṅgayogādiniṣevaṇena |
manovināśas tu guruprasādān nimeṣamātrena susādhya eva ||2.29||
And, in this case, the disappearance of the breath cannot be mastered by the practice of the yoga with six auxiliaries and the like. However, the complete disappearance of the mind can be easily mastered in merely an instant as a result of the guru's favour.
(Amanaska 2.29, 11th century)
A teacher of yoga is said to be one who has accomplished the practice. Conversely, accomplishing the practice results in one becoming a guru.
marujjayo yasya siddhaḥ sevayet taṃ guruṃ sadā |
guruvaktraprasādena kuryāt prāṇajayaṃ budhaḥ ||91||
One should always serve that guru by whom mastery of the breath has been accomplished. With the favour bestowed by the guru's teachings, the wise can master the breath.
dṛṣṭiḥ sthirā yasya vinaiva dṛśyād vāyuḥ sthiro yasya vinā prayatnāt |
cittaṃ sthiraṃ yasya vināvalambāt sa eva yogī sa guruḥ sa sevyaḥ ||44||
One whose gaze is steady without [any] visible object, whose breath is steady without effort, whose mind is steady without the support [of an object of focus], is a yogin, a guru and is worthy of service.
(Amanaska 2.44, 11th century)
If one assumes that a guru of Haṭhayoga is someone who has mastered the practice, then that person would be characterised by the benefits that are said to arise from its practice. For example, purifying the channels (nāḍī) of the body by mastering prāṇāyāma is said to result in the following:
yadā tu nāḍīśuddhiḥ syāt tathā cihnāni bāhyataḥ |
kāyasya kṛśatā kāntis tadā jāyate niścitam ||2.19||
yatheṣṭaṃ dhāraṇaṃ vāyor analasya pradīpanam |
nādābhivyaktir ārogyaṃ jāyate nāḍiśodhanāt ||2.20||
When the nāḍīs are pure, external signs arise. Leanness and beauty of the body then certainly arise. One can hold the breath as long as one desires, the bodily fire is stimulated, the internal resonance manifests and freedom from illness arise from purifying the nāḍīs.
That a guru should have good qualities is somewhat confirmed by a few general remarks scattered here and there in premodern yoga texts. One such example is:
guruṃ bahuguṇaṃ bhaktyā kāyavāṅmanasā bhajet ||5||
dṛṣṭir mano marud yasya rūpālambanarodhanam |
vinā nityaṃ sthirāṇi syur āśrayet taṃ guruṃ sadā ||6||
Through devotion in body, speech and mind, one should worship a guru with many good qualities. One should always resort to a guru whose gaze, mind and breath are constantly steady without the restraint of an object of support.
(Gorakṣaśataka 5-6, circa 14th century)
The centrality of the guru’s role appears to underlie prescriptions for the student to serve the guru. In fact, serving the guru becomes a requisite for success in the practice:
guruṃ santoṣya yatnena yo vai vidyām upāsate |
avilambena vidyāyās tasyāḥ phalam avāpnuyāt ||3.12||
guruḥ pitā gurur mātā gurur devo na saṃśayaḥ |
karmaṇā manasā vācā tasmāc chiṣyaiḥ prasevyate ||3.13||
guruprasādataḥ sarvaṃ labhyate śubham ātmanaḥ |
tasmāt sevyo gurur nityam anyathā na śubhaṃ bhavet ||3.14||
[The student] who has satisfied the guru and practised the knowledge [of yoga], will immediately obtain the fruit of that knowledge. The guru is a father, a mother and undoubtedly a god. In action, thought and speech, therefore, [the guru] should be honoured by students. Because of the guru’s favour, everything auspicious in the Self is obtained. Therefore, the guru should be served constantly. Otherwise, there will be nothing auspicious.
(Śivasaṃhitā 3.12-14, circa 15th century)
śuddhābhyāsasya śāntasya sadaiva gurusevanāt |
guruprasādāt tatraiva tattvajñānaṃ prakāśate ||112||
For one whose practice is pure and who is peaceful, knowledge of the highest reality appears in this very [birth] because of the guru’s favour [which is won by] serving him.
(Amanaska 2.112, 11th century)
The yoga texts we have consulted do not mention the guru’s methods of teaching. References to the words of the guru (guruvākya) implies that the teacher’s oral instruction, rather than, say, touch, were the medium for conveying knowledge to the student. The one exception might be an illustration in the Śrītattvanidhi, a nineteenth-century royal digest which has a chapter on āsanas (Birch & Singleton, forthcoming). It depicts someone assisting a practitioner to perform a moving posture (Fig. 1). It is worth noting that the textual description of this āsana in the Śrītattvanidhi does not mention the need for assistance.
Śrītattvanidhi (Detail from plate 15: Āsana no. 86, Viratāsana)
Published by Sjoman, Norman (1996). Yoga Traditions of the Mysore Palace, plate 15 (detail).
Furthermore, there are no references to group instruction in premodern yoga texts. One might infer from the descriptions of the hut in which the student was supposed to practise yoga, that the practice was done in solitude and instruction was given by the teacher individually to each student.
The texts of yoga, medicine and alchemy present an idealised world in which the teacher and student are supposed to function. In effect, the silence of the texts on matters such as inappropriate or abusive relationships between teachers and students, punishments, avenues of recourse available to a student who has been wronged and so on suggests that there was no formal consensus on how to address these issues across various traditions. Therefore, consulting the texts of yoga, medicine and alchemy will not provide answers to complex issues that currently affect both institutionalised and individual teacher-student relationships, such as power imbalances, gender inequality and deficiencies in regulatory frameworks.
Nonetheless, some of the above ideas in premodern texts concerning the role and authority of teachers and the behaviour of students can be discerned in modern yoga. For example, both Kṛṣṇamācārya and BKS Iyengar presented themselves as accomplished practitioners who had mastered the yoga techniques they taught. Also, devotion to the guru has been important in both the Śivānanda and Satyānanda lineages. Although this might suggest some continuity between premodern and modern traditions of yoga, medicine and alchemy, these behaviours also occur in other secular and religious environments of India and thus suggest larger cultural mechanisms at work. However, some of the texts mentioned above were widely disseminated in India in the twentieth-century and cited in modern publications. Therefore, it seems likely that their views on the teacher-student relationship have reinforced these attitudes and could enable them to persist in some environments in the future.
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