Many people wonder whether they need a teacher in yoga. This is an important question.
A carpenter learns the trade from a master carpenter. Yes, one could learn on his/her own, make all the mistakes and find ways around them, and attain some level of competency. But, learning that way is slow, and many poor practices would likely be learned along the way which would be hard to change later. Such a person might never attain a high level of proficiency.
It's the same with yoga. We may think we can pick up a book on yoga learn what we need from it. That will work fine if all we want are some techniques or a physical workout. But we won't learn the nuances that make all the difference. In addition, because each person’s personality and habits are different, necessary individualized guidance will be missing without a teacher.
The need for a competent teacher is far greater when one is seeking the ultimate goal of yoga, union with the True-Self.
The journey to the Self is long and fraught with challenges. One must know the best way, how to avoid the pitfalls, and what to do when you're stuck. The landscape of consciousness vast; there are levels of consciousness, incredible pleasures, serious dangers, worlds within worlds, and many places where one could become stuck or lost. For such a journey, the help of one who knows the lay of the land, the shortest routes, where the dangers lurk and how to avoid them, is essential.
Even more important, we need a guide to consciousness who is not our own ego. To attain the goal of yoga, liberation or self realization, we need to release our identification with all the things we identify with, such as our personality, body, emotions, and contents of the mind, and shift that identification to pure being. This means overcoming the process within our mind called ego. But, if we have no external teacher, then our ego will have to overcome itself to reach the goal, and you can imagine how that will go. From inside the box of the ego, we don’t have the perspective needed to throw off the ego. Only someone who has overcome his or her own ego will have the clarity to help us in this task.
Let me give an example. Many years ago, my parents visited me when I was living in the San Francisco area and my dad and I had a terrible argument. Feeling badly afterward, I consulted my meditation teacher—who was an extremely advanced meditator—Swami Veda Bharati, and asked him what to do. His answer was to “revere your parents.” What? Honestly, I had no idea how to do that. So over the following weeks, months and years, I made it my practice to learn how to revere my parents and to do so to the best of my ability. Over time, Dad’s and my relationship completely changed to one of love and appreciation from its previous dysfunction. Actually, my relationship with both my parents transformed in this way. Righting my relationship with my parents freed up energy that I could then use to deepen my spiritual pursuits. Without the outside perspective of Swami Veda, I would not have even thought of doing this.
A true teacher on the path of Yoga is like a light that illumines the path before us. How else would we find our way in the darkness?