We are told over and over again that “you cannot learn yoga from books.” Ironically enough, these words often appear in books. There are two main arguments to support this: for an asana focused practice, although books and videos provide instruction and reference, they do not provide feedback. And most of us (especially in the beginning, but even advanced practitioners) have a difficult time judging our alignment, increasing the potential for injury. The other argument, for scriptural study, is that the literature is so dense that the student needs a learned teacher to interpret it in an accurate and meaningful way.
Recall that yoga is an oral tradition, passed on from teacher to student directly. There was a time when students learned the Yoga Sutras, The Vedas, The Epics (all 100,000 verses of The Mahabharata and 24,000 verses of The Ramayana) by hearing them and committing them to memory. Those who learned by this method would be expected to hold the oral tradition as the most authoritative.
Things change with time. There is a story that at one time there was only one Veda. The sage Vyasa felt that humanity was no longer capable of learning such an immense work, so he broke it into four parts. (He must have still had some faith in humanity, because the four parts are still pretty expansive.) Recently (within the last 150 years or so) the oral teachings began to be written down and translated into other languages. Great teachers like Swami Sivananda (9.8.1887—7.14.1963) created and freely distributed libraries worth of teachings—many are still available for free at www.dlshq.org. And now one can find anything on the Web: texts, teachings, podcasts, videos, etc. can be downloaded or shipped right to your house.
The question becomes: Does the widespread availability of teachings dilute or diminish the authority of these teachings?
We should look at this question in relation to the four ages. In the first age, Satya Yuga, virtue reined. In the second age, Treta Yuga, there was 75% virtue and 25% vice. This was the time of Rama. The third age, Dvapara Yuga, had 50 % virtue and 50% vice. This was the time of Krishna and The Mahabharata. Krishna’s death ushered in the fourth age, Kali Yuga, our current time where there is 75% vice and 25% virtue. The cycle renews at the end of the current age.
Something needs to happen to turn the wheel from it’s darkest point to it’s lightest point. Although the cycle degrades gradually, it renews suddenly. In Satya Yuga, there was no need for teachers because humanity had direct contact with the Divine. As that connection diminished, the availability of teachings increased. It makes sense that in Kali Yuga there would be widespread availability of the teachings in order to push the world from darkness to the light.
The teachings are available because they need to be. In hindsight, we can see examples of those who knew humanity needed access to these teachings: Krishna gave the Bhagavad Gita not only for Arjuna’s benefit, but so that those of us in the following age would have a handbook (authored by a human incarnation of The Divine) to ferry us through the upcoming darkest of ages. Vyasa altered the format of the Vedas to make them more accessible, dictated the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagavad Gita. Vyasa actually gave the gift of Divine Sight to Sanjaya, so that he could recount the Gita directly to the blind King. The Gita we read today is considered to be an exact transcription of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna) to Ganesha preserving it for all time, and provided the first commentary on the Yoga Sutras (this commentary is the basis for ALL other commentaries which followed). Swami Sivananda states again and again [liberally quoting] “Read books until you find a suitable guru,” and part of his selfless service included writing, publishing, and freely distributing volumes of information to any seeker who asked.
How blessed we are that we have access to a wealth of teachings, for free, delivered to our own homes, and that there is a yoga studio on every block. We do not need to travel, give up our daily responsibilities, or spend a lot of money to reap the benefits of these teachings. The teachings are there for us, if we don’t take advantage of this accessibility, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
Whether the teachings come from the corner yoga studio, Google Books, B&N.com, iTunes, YouTube, or from a cave in the Himalayas, if they inspire you, provide health, provide comfort in time of need, encourage you to lend a hand to someone in their time of need, or serve to move you toward freedom in any other way, then that teaching is valid. Any practice or search for knowledge is better than no practice and no search for knowledge.
A teacher does not have to be physically present to effectively impart their teachings. Read a book, watch a video, or click away without fear!
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