On Saturday, our Reiki masters group, together since the spring of 2009, celebrated the closing of a chapter as teacher and students by doing a ritual along the Shenandoah River. We gathered in a circle, lit incense, and were guided by Luann to go our separate ways and reflect on the learning and growing we had done this past year.  I folded up my pants legs and waded into the water, watching minnows swim away from my toes as they created earth-clouds in their wake.

A solitary great blue heron suddenly landed on a branch laying across the water, where he disappeared in plain sight.  I walked over to a stone dock and watched cobalt-colored dragonflies in flight next to a Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly, with distinctive turquoise markings.  I had been given an esoteric instruction earlier in the week to observe butterflies as a way of understanding something happening in my own life.  My butterfly kept landing along different sections of the graveled pavement leading to the river’s edge.  There she seemed to pick at pebbles, rub her hands, and fold her wings shut, cutting off my view of her gorgeous markings.  She would stay put for about half a minute, and then she’d be off again, in search of a sliver of green growing between crushed rock.   

When the time felt right, I made a wish and then let the incense stick gently float downriver, as I hope to do  in real life (stop resisting so much, do more of what comes naturally, gives me energy, and feels right).  Actually, mine was quite a long list, punctuated by drawing of healing Reiki symbols into the water.  (Because it can’t hurt to bless our rivers and bays and oceans every day.  See Dr. Emoto’s wonderful photography of water crystals.)

The next stop on our Reiki graduation day involved an ingredient key to most Jewish rituals, but sometimes poo-pooed in many other spiritual traditions obsessed with physical purity.  (Not that Judaism doesn’t have its own ridiculous lists of what is and what is not pure.  I could write an entire book on this topic alone. Like the Catholics and the Rastafarians, libations abound.)

We drove through the gorgeous countryside to the Hume Vineyard, situated on a shale-rich former farm, just up the road from where the socialite Salahi’s had their own run-down vineyard.  On a large deck overlooking rolling hills, we broke bread, drank wine and feasted on empanadas and chocolate cake.  Luann had asked me to read my post on teaching, which generated rich conversation about the teacher-student relationship.

I’m reading First There is a Mountain, a book by an American woman who went to study yoga in Pune, India with BKS Iyengar.  The teacher-student relationship is highlighted throughout the book — not just between the author and Mr. Iyengar, but Mr. Iyengar and his teacher/brother-in-law Krishmachayra.  It’s fascinating to read about this Guruji and that one, many who are generous and smart and behave very, very badly at times.  Elizabeth Kadetsky writes beautifully about the rivalries for students, the petty jealousies that a teacher has for his more successful protege, the grudges that last decades, the fight teachers engage in around who teaches a more “authentic” yoga form.  The teachers have fundamental disagreements.  As in any spiritual tradition, some strongly believe that certain teachings much be available only a chosen few who had proven their commitment and for whom yoga was practiced as part of a whole system and way of life.  Others employ more populist approaches, following the guidance of an ancestor-saint named Ramanuja who screamed his clan’s secret mantra on a rooftop for all to hear.

Like Reiki, which had a weak pulse in the country of its birth until it was reintroduced by Westerners, yoga’s most recent re-emergence was catalyzed by the interest of Western Theosophists and philosophers in the 19th and early 20th century who had gone to India seeking out yogis and ancient lost texts.  Many yogis, including Iyengar and Gandhi, recount reading the Bhagavad Gita for the first time in their adult years, usually in English translation.

While they might have been piqued by outsiders’ curiosity, Indians such as Krishnamacharya sought out even more ancient and esoteric roots to yoga. Like their Japanese Reiki counterparts, they often found these deep in the Himalayas, spending years with teachers in Tibet.  Carrying the ancient teachings taught by monastics dwelling in caves, they crossed back into India, and from there, places like Hollywood and New York.

So where is Reiki (or yoga) from?  Who has the right to teach it?  What can be taught?  To whom?

Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism, comes from the Hebrew root which means “to receive.” Normally, people receive guidance and instruction from a teacher, though sometimes, insights and whole skill sets intuitively are received after periods of reflection.

The doing often enough can, in my experience, lead to the figuring out.

A fellow yoga teacher shared with me an incident in which another teacher questioned him about a pose he was teaching.  “Is this a real yoga pose?” He shrugged as he told me the story.  “What’s it called in Sanskrit?” Another shrug.  Many yoga teachers — Mr. Iyengar included — made up poses all the time.  Sometimes they made up other rules too.  “If you do my yoga, you can’t do other styles of yoga” (or lift weights, or eat garlic, or enter the ocean except on new moons and equinoxes).

No teacher is perfect, and no teacher gets it right all the time, as insistent as they might be.  It’s up to you to decide if you’ll get more from someone who’s Japanese or Indian or a vegetarian or alcohol-free.  A teacher is someone who’s been on the path, and hopefully picked up some incredible teachings – from their studies and their own practices.  What I’m enjoying about reading this book about the yoga luminaries is how fragile they all are at some level, how absurd we all are in our humanness.

The best teachers just help open you up to an even better one, housed somewhere deep within your own self.

As “back to school” is in the air, consider thanking your teachers this week.  Send a letter, or keep them in your meditations.  Sit very still, and see what your own internal teacher has been trying to say to you since last year.

Happy Rosh Hashana:  may your year be sweet and luminous.


Sign up to stay in touch and learn how to stay vibrant in the midst of life’s everyday stresses.