Yogi Assignment: Unpacking Surrender on the Spiritual Path
There is magic both in the student and the teacher’s journey in yoga. Both are interdependent and not separate from each other. The teacher does not exist on some far removed, distant pedestal in the sky. The student is not some lowly being saved by the grace of the teacher. The deification of the teacher goes against the grain of the promise of yoga. And yet, there is an element of surrender that is vital to a successful teacher-student relationship. The student has to love and trust the teacher if they are going to have enough faith to practice through moments of difficulty.
As a student of the Ashtanga Yoga practice I have known great benefits from the act of surrender to my teacher. This has taken many different shapes. One simple example is that whenever I practice with my teacher in India I get up hours earlier that I would on my own. If I didn’t surrender to my teacher’s authority I would protest and fight to practice later. All my personal preferences would indicate that a later practice time would be more reasonable. But truthfully I learn a lot from surrendering to the time that my teacher sets for me to practice. There is a certain discipline that I take on that I wouldn’t otherwise. There are many poses that I currently practice because my teacher believed that I could. The first times I tried he had to lift up and basically do the pose for me. But slowly I got stronger. If I hadn’t surrendered to my teacher’s guidance in those moments I would not the practitioner or teacher that I am today.
So many people misunderstand what it means to surrender. The act of surrender is not like joining a cult. It is a highly intelligent choice made from a place of spiritual maturity. There is mystery around the notion of surrender that makes it hard to understand in pragmatic terms. Let’s unpack it a little here.
Students and would-be spiritual seekers such as myself come to the practice of yoga in search of genuine guidance towards a happier and more peaceful life. That is why I turned to this practice over 20 years ago and why I continue to practice today. To declare oneself a student of yoga or to identify as a spiritual seeker requires a desire to be taught and an awareness of the necessity of guidance. It’s a little bit like that moment when you realize you’re lost and need to consult your GPS before proceeding any further. Without the acknowledge that one needs help, the necessary request for help will never be made. You cannot be a student unless you feel like you need a teacher.
Continuing the GPS analogy, let’s explore what surrender might look like for the student who is a traveler on the spiritual path. Assume that you are progressing along a course that you think you know quite well. It’s a journey that you’ve completed many times before. You feel confident in your own abilities and decide that you do not need any guidance. With good intentions you set off. But, unbeknownst to you, there are many obstacles ahead—a car accident, road construction and all other sorts of delays. Stuck in a massive traffic jam you decide to open a popular navigation app, perhaps one like Waze that calculates the fastest route based on real-time traffic reports from users. The route you’ve been given by Waze takes you into unknown territory, to places that without the guidance you’d be lost. You’re a little afraid to divert off your known path, but Waze tells you that you will save 40 minutes and arrive at your destination on time if you follow the path as directed. It also shows you that if you stay on your usual course you will lose 40 minutes and arrive at your destination late. In a leap of faith, you “surrender” to Waze and decide to follow this new path. Now, since you don’t know the way yourself you will need step-by-step instructions or else you’ll get lost and end up even more late than you had been on your original route. As a good driver, you follow the directions and stay on the path until you reach your chosen destination. Having followed Waze navigation, you arrive close to the predicted time and successfully avoid inconvenient traffic delays. In the future you will find it easier to surrender to Waze. If each experience is similar while using Waze, you will conclude that Waze is a good teacher and a good path.
Similarly, in the yoga discipline surrender is not meant to be blind faith based on the charisma of a leader. Your decision to follow the teacher and the teachings is always meant to be evidence based. The results should speak for themselves. Just like a good GPS, your yoga teacher has walked the path before you and has seen where the traffic jams, road construction and other delays might be. As you proceed into the congested path your yoga teacher can suggest an alternate route, just like Waze. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to listen to the advice being given or stay the course on your own terms.
Now, assume the opposite happens. Imagine if instead of Waze you chose some new navigation app that uses sub-standard GPS calculations. Instead of avoiding traffic these directions bring you directly into the middle of even worse traffic. Then, instead of bringing you to your destination you end up utterly lost with north, south, east and west muddled and no clear sense of where to go next. You would give this navigation app a one star review and delete it from your phone. Apply the same logic to spiritual teaching—if you observe a community and the fruits of the practice lead to emotional and spiritual traffic jams, if the longterm students are not peaceful and the teacher embodies anger, chaos hatred and anxiety, then you might want to consider leaving the community. At the very least, you should think twice before engaging in an act of surrender. That is, of course, unless you want to get more angry, anxious and hate-filled.
There are, of course, many layers and nuances to the concept of surrender and this discussion is insufficient to address them all. My chosen analogy of the GPS-tracker app as a stand-in for the teacher or Guru only goes so far. In no way does this analogy seek to place blame on students or users of various apps. Even more so, this paradigm seeks to both recognize the hard work that students of previous generations have put in to give credible accounts of whether or not the teaching is working. Just as users on Waze report in real time the traffic and accidents that they themselves are caught in, so do real life students in spiritual lineages report on the positive and negative experiences that are a part of. If you happen to have the bad luck to the be in traffic and report it to Waze, the traffic is not your fault, nor can you be held accountable for the back-up. Similarly, if you have been harmed at the hands of a yoga teacher or found a particular practice to be destructive, it is not a judgement against you. Instead, it reflects poorly on the practice in question. Your honest reporting, whether on Waze or as a spiritual student helps others avoid the same accidents and traffic jams that you may have been caught in. While unpleasant for yourself, your experience has the potential to save others from the pain that you may be in.
Surrender is a deeply personal choice, whether that involves following a yoga teacher, downloading an app or pursing any course of study. The act of surrender in yoga is very much like the act of falling in love and deciding to start a relationship. You may meet someone whom you find attractive, but before you jump into a marriage it’s useful to date for awhile. In the process of getting to know one another you make a decision about whether you want to trust this person enough to surrender your heart in love. While many people quite literally “fall” in love at first sight, the process of surrender in yoga asks you to press pause and think before you jump. Instead of jumping head-first into whatever tickles your heart’s desire the whole premise of yoga is built on the idea that the results are measurable. Patañjali describes the yogi’s mind as equanimous, cheerful, harmonious, pleasant, kind, focused and filled with the light of God. These are the fruits of a lifetime of practice. While most yoga teachers, myself included, are working on cultivating these qualities we are all far from perfect. In fact our human foibles ensure that we too are students on the path and we too need a teacher. Much like the Waze app is built on users reporting real-time accidents and traffic jams that they see, teaching yoga is like reporting on where you have stumbled and fallen along the path in the hopes that those who come after you will not stumble and fall in the same spot.
To trust another person enough to let them lead you into unknown territory is scary. That trust must be earned and treated with respect. And yet, we are all human and make mistakes. I have personally let many people down and broken their trust in me. My faults have been all too obvious at times, perhaps to everyone except me. Our inevitable faults do not disqualify us from being teachers of yoga. In fact, it makes us better teachers because we will be crystal clear about our humanity and generate more compassion for ourselves and others. As students of yoga, since all yoga teachers are human being and come with all our human faults, it’s a good idea to surrender only in what I could call a small limited sense. Every spiritual teacher has blind spots and if something doesn’t feel right and if there is no evidence that the methodology works, speak up and don’t blindly follow. But, at the same time be careful to assume that you know everything. You may not be seeing clearly yourself. Or, a path that works for someone else simply might not be a good fit for you. As a student so much of the work is about cultivate a heart that is both wise and compassionate, independent and teachable, or, you could say, a good balance between abhyasa and vairaghya, practice and surrender.
There is also a big act of surrender that yoga is meant to prepare you for. And that is one that you will be able to give all your heart and soul without holding back. You will need your logical mind to evaluate the fruits of this higher path as well. You will not be able to grasp the totality of what is being asked, but it will all line up and be perfectly clear anyway. Yoga is a path to deepest and highest knowledge of the Divine. It is a method that prepares your heart and soul for a direct, personal and revelatory experience of God. When God happens, that is the moment when you have to be ready to fully surrender. And only God, the alpha and the omega, the Infinite, is truly worthy of your absolute trust. God is love. Love is an all-consuming fire, big and grand and beyond your control. Only those willing to risk everything truly experience the totality of love. Nameless, timeless, eternal, love is all there really is.
Hate is safe, small and predictable. Hate you can control because it’s smaller than you. Choose hate and you belittle your greatness with a groveling weakness that is beneath you. But, so many do because the other option is terrifying—to choose love is to risk everything, not knowing, no guarantees, no timeline, just a leap into a waterfall that sounds like infinity. If you come to the practice of yoga and think it’s just about some poses you will find out that we are seekers on an ancient path of awakening. As yogis, we pray at the highest temple, the altar of love, the unquenchable fire that burns through all impurities, leaving only the glowing heart within, filled and overflowing.
I cannot be conquered by anyone or anything. But I can choose to willing surrender into the arms of love. And I choose it every single time. What you seek also seeks you. So in your seeking set your sights on something worthy of your worship.