By Nick Beem
In this recurring column, we ask Chicago area teachers to interview their teacher about lineage and the teacher/student relationship. Nick Beem interviewed Parayoga founder Rod Stryker.
How do you define the terms “master teacher” and “Master”?
We have become a little fast and furious with the term “Master.” It began about 15 years ago as yoga was developing in popularity. In Sanskrit, the term is “Swami,” meaning self
(sva) master (mi). Now for the most part, senior American yoga teachers have begun to call themselves “master teachers,” [meaning] you teach something masterfully, as opposed to “Master.” A Master is someone who completely understands and embodies the destination of yoga practice.
Do you consider your own teachers—Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger (Mani) and then Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (Panditji)—Masters? Or, masterful teachers?
I would call both of my teachers “Masters.” At 19, I met Mani and studied with him for 30 years. He was a South African who trained in Tibet and India. There is no question in my mind that my current teacher Panditji is a Master, meaning he has an extraordinary relationship to what lies beyond the fields of normal perception. That is the meaning of yoga—to taste something that the senses don’t normally allow us to see. To see the invisible, to hear the inaudible and to connect to the sacred is the realm of the Master.
Often when we look for a master teacher, we look for a master entertainer. Panditji doesn’t necessarily fit that bill. His teaching requires students to have an openness that most people would [find difficult] to stay present for. Yet the ancient methodology of teaching was more of an inculcation of wisdom, and much less didactic than it is today. Half the time, when you are listening to Panditji you’re thinking, “What is he talking about?” Yet on a deeper level, something is being infused. Then it’s over and you go, “Oh my god, something happened there and I don’t know what it was.”
If you start to feel a quality of light, thriving and beauty, and if fearlessness and capacity begin to unfold in your life, then it means you are with a Master at one level or another.
When I started teaching in 1980, not a lot of people [taught or practiced]. The benefit [of little competition] was that I didn’t become a popular yoga teacher for almost 15 years and had a lot of time to stay a student. I was blessed to have time to incubate with my teacher and interface with practice.
How did you begin to train other teachers?
In 1987, Mani’s son Alan Finger opened YogaWorks in Santa Monica [with Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller] and taught meditation and some asana. After seven months, Alan left and they asked me, as his senior student, to teach meditation. In 1989, classes were starting to fill and they needed more teachers. Someone figured out teacher training could be lucrative. [Only a handful of yoga schools in L.A. had teacher training.] For YogaWorks’ training program, I manned the philosophy, pranayama and meditation part, and my partner taught the asana portion.
Given the new era of teacher training on seemingly every corner, what do you believe it takes to deliver an effective teacher training?
The teacher understands and has embodied the light and wisdom of [yoga], and also admits that it is impossible to train someone in 200 hours to teach yoga. I would like to see teacher trainings focus on the portion of yoga they can teach effectively while still being able to convey the larger context. Not everyone has to teach the meditative portion or the history of yoga. Some schools will emphasize the physical aspects of yoga, and even just for that, 200 hours can only cover a thimbleful of what could be taught.
How important is it to have a dedicated teacher or a teacher who is part of a lineage? Does everyone need a teacher?
I don’t think everyone needs a teacher. It depends on what you
want to get out of yoga. [However,] the further the destination is from
your level of understanding and your capacity, the more [a teacher is] necessary. When I was young, I learned how to do a cartwheel (it’s not that different from a handstand). I could look in a book and do a handstand, even if it wasn’t perfect. It would have been nice to have someone there who does handstands better than I do, but it’s not critical.
A teacher provides tools, and if we practice them, they can reveal what we are seeking. The teacher becomes a mirror for the parts of ourselves we don’t see and eventually, for all our projections and disappointments and unmet needs. The teacher provides the cauldron of our own evolution and also a loving hand to show us how to become more self-reliant through practice. Then we become part of the timeless chain of teachers and students that helps us unveil the deeper truths of life.
The teacher provides for us the opportunity to avoid the minefield of our own misunderstanding, ego and self-indulgence. If we are serious about understanding who we are, we need someone who sees us better than we see ourselves—who just sees better than we see.
The traditional teaching format was guru/shishya. Does this model still apply? Now students can pick teachers by signing up online based on their training interests.
There are people who teach, and then there are people who enlighten. I’ve been [referring to] the latter type. We can learn all kinds of new tricks and techniques online and at workshops, but the actual relationship to a teacher can’t happen just in group classes. Some personal interface [is necessary]. Most American teachers are not trained this way.
No technology will replace what happens to you during direct transmission and wisdom from a teacher. At ParaYoga, students meet with me one-on-one. I come from a tradition where this is the seminal element. Without it, I can’t be someone’s teacher. The goal is to light the light within the student so his or her own inner teacher wakes up. But that can’t come in a group of a thousand people just by saying you’ve attended my class. The lifeblood of what has kept these teachings alive is threatened by all this “iGuru” technology.
What is your hope for your students, particularly since they are spread across the globe?
What I expect of the student is very straightforward. It’s practice. There is a unique exchange when a teacher gives you a practice specifically for you. The elements of Ayurveda, self-inquiry, pranayama and the potential for the most mystical of all teachings: mantra.
The highest-level teacher gives you these things, and that is what I train my students to be able to do. After that, what is understood is that it’s the student’s job to practice.
Each time you sit down to practice, you consciously bring the teacher back. The teacher and the teachings are in the practice. Over months and years of doing this practice, we become who we are meant to be.
In 2007, when Nick Beem first studied with Yogarupa Rod Stryker, it was like discovering a hidden treasure. The blend of classical yoga, Ayurveda and tantra deepened his practice and teaching. Today, Nick Beem, E-RYT500, is a Level 1 Certified ParaYoga teacher, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner and member of the Phoenix Rising teaching faculty. He owns Grateful Yoga in Evanston with his wife, Lela.