The teacher is no more than a friend, and no less. Here with my dear friend and teacher Desikachar in front of an image of his father, the great Yoga scholar Tirumalai Krishnamacharya | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The Role of the Teacher in Modern Spiritual Life | Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell | Yoga Teacher at Heart of Yoga

Mark Whitwell
8 min readNov 14, 2022
The teacher is no more than a friend, and no less. Here with my dear friend and teacher Desikachar in front of an image of his father, the great Yoga scholar Tirumalai Krishnamacharya | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

In Tirumalai Krishnamacharya’s radical investigation of the human life he made the statement that there must be the intervention of a teacher. Indeed, the universal means of transmission of all spiritual cultures is the mutual affection between two actual people. This goes back to the ancient world where a friend, elder, or teacher was there in local community to give you help so you can enjoy your life. The ‘teacher’ was a person who could give you the tools of Yoga: the tools of direct participation in Life as it actually is, prior to your parent’s patterning and the world’s patterning. If the teacher doesn’t intervene, then nothing will happen. The patterning (samskara) of the world will continue. We need the teacher who recognises us, who sees us as we are, and gives us an alternative framework to live our lives. When somebody recognises us then we recognise ourselves. That is how the teaching function works. It is a very ordinary matter whereby the teacher is, ‘no more than a friend and no less.’

Desikachar and his wife Menaka. Together, they have done a great work dismantling the model of the teacher as a special person. “I never call the student ‘student,’ I say he is my friend. That to me is ‘mittra’ or loving care.” | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Krishnamacharya was very critical of the guru model of the perfect person without the actual Yoga as the practical means for students to embrace their own inherent wonder and power. His dear friend U.G. Krishnamurti called this ‘the social dynamic of disempowerment’ because the model of the perfect person implies that everybody is else is not perfect. “Humanity is doomed within that model,” he said. Social models train us to try and become something we are not, to duplicate the model of perfection that culture has invented. It is the game of knowledge that makes humanity miserable and susceptible to exploitation and abuse of all kinds. We need only glance at the news to find regular evidence of spiritual or religious power structures built upon this model being brought to their knees by sexual abuse scandals and predatory behaviour from self-presumed enlightened teachers. UG’s unique function in the world was to blast that game. Even on his deathbed he was shouting at people, “There is nobody else like you in the universe! You are utterly unique. Why do you want to be like me?”

Click here for free access to the Heart of Yoga Teaching Standards, a set of principles you can use to judge whether a teacher is teaching in an empowering or disempowering way.

The idea of the perfect person is the denial of the autonomy and intrinsic wholeness of the student. It is the first form of abuse upon all other forms of abuse are built (sexual abuse, predator behaviour, exploitation, and violence). UG said, “Nobody should be a slave to anybody else.” | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

And yet, the promise of a future perfection is all that is happening in the world of religion and new age spirituality; and all that is happening in the secular versions of self-improvement, the pursuit of success, money and power over others. The idea that Truth is absent and needs to be found is the idea that built civilization. Progress towards a future ideal of perfection is woven into thought, language, and culture as the invisible and all-pervasive automatic presumption.

So we need to be careful in the world of teachers and spiritual practice. Krishnamacharya’s son TKV Desikachar would warn us to, “Always hold the teacher at arms length until you can be sure there is no self-serving agenda,” until you can be sure that their motivation is to care for you, and that’s all. It’s tricky because sincerity is the main method of the spiritual business — people are sincere in their hopeful seeking towards a future perfection. They are then sincere in passing that search on to others. First you fool yourself and then you fool the people.

Ramanuja Acharya of the 10th Century and Krishnamacharya, together they understood that Yoga was necessary to actualize the ideals of religious life. Yoga deals with the mind and its presumption of two when in Reality there is in fact only One, only Reality | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The point is that the body is the cosmos. End of story. In the wisdom traditions of humanity, across all geographies, this realisation has been shared for all people to enjoy. In the language of Vedanta and pure buddhism there is a statement that “All that exists is Reality Itself — the One Indivisible Absolute Condition of Love-Bliss in which everything is happening.” Even difficulty and apparent limitation is arising in Reality.

The Yogas that Krishnamacharya brought forth from the ancient world were practiced in the context of this understanding. It was Ramanuja of the tenth century, the great avataric sage of Vedanta and the source acharya to Krishnamacharya’s family, who declared that “The world (all tangible conditions) are but a shesha (overflow) of God into form.” You are not a separate body living in a separate world. You are a continuity of the natural world existing, already, in profound relatedness to the universe. Modern science is increasingly drawn to the same conclusion. Consider the widely accepted understanding of modern physics that the world of matter, although apparently comprised of all manner of separate objects, is ultimately made up of a single vibration of light — each object existing on a spectrum of density to the One. There is no separation. This realization allows you to be in life with courage and certainty even in the midst of life’s difficulties.

“Reality stays Reality no matter what the mind is up to” Rosalind Atkinson. We have to do our Yoga because we have been traumatised by being born into a world that thinks we are separate from Life. Yoga restores the organism to its natural state | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Our daily practice is simply the embrace of the wonder that we are. Asana is not gymnastics, it is whole-body breathing which is the whole-body’s direct embrace of Reality Itself — Reality that is prior to thought, concept, knowledge, and naming. It is a soothing balm that starts with yourself and moves through your family and community. When the inhalation is merging with the exhalation, when strength is utterly receptive, the nervous system and its mind are reprogrammed to receive like never before. The body-mind becomes absolutely strong and able to give. At the same time, it is completely receptive to others, and the wonder, beauty, harmony and power of the cosmos that is inherent state. Via this breathing participation in the given Reality, the mind releases its previously held thought structures of separation and fear.

Spending time with Sriram, a fellow student of Desikachar and discussing his life as a Yoga teacher in Germany | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

It can be a little disappointing because as we embrace the radiance of Life, we also notice everything in us that has nothing to do with the radiance — the usual life droning on in the mind and all the habit patterns of thought (samskaras). Yet, regardless of whatever patterning may be there, it remains true that what there is is Reality Itself, and that all limitation is only an apparent limitation that in in fact has no consequence to the great Power of Reality Itself. We practice then no matter what is going down in our lives. It may be a good day or a bad day, a blissful day or a stressful day. As the mind oscillates you have this simple understanding recognition that what there is is Reality Itself. You become unconcerned therefore in whatever the oscillating mind is up to. If the mind is presuming separation and feeling bad (and that is the universal mind of humanity) then we are okay. It doesn’t become the basis of obsessive seeking in trying to get rid of it. You have a quiet Sraddha (faith) in the practice and know that it is doing its releasing work.

Yoga is a response to the suffering and misery that is happening in society. The practitioner is relieved of it personally but the observation of suffering and abuse will continue. It is likely to motivate you to bring Yoga into the world for the people, to give people their breath | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

I met U.G. Krishnamurti and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in 1973. I had come from the ashram of Ramana Maharshi to meet them both. The great non-dual sage Ramana was a contemporary of Krishnamacharya who was just down the road. I soon became committed to the teaching of Krishnamacharya, understanding his emphatic instruction that yoga is the necessary and practical means to actualize the great ideals of wisdom teaching.

“Yoga is the necessary means to realize the [non-dual] state that Ramana spoke from,” he said. “Yoga joins the two to become One. Otherwise the mind remains fixated on two.” He stated, “Without Yoga even the great ideas of God or non-dualism remain objects or ‘other’ to one’s life” He spoke about the necessity of yoga in saying, “Without the ‘practical means’ of Yoga, inspiration can make life worse due to the stark difference between the inspiration and the usual life droning on.” He would also say “It’s better not to be inspired in the first place if you don’t have the practical tools to respond.”

U.G. took it further to make sure yoga was not practiced in the model of “becoming,” but only in and as participation in the power, intelligence, and beauty of life that is already always the case. That is, participation in the union of opposites that are already One — the two are one. U.G. took Yoga from the linear path of trying to get somewhere (“becoming”) that was limiting even Krishnamacharya’s life and instruction. Thanks to these pioneering figures and their wives and partners, humanity now holds Yoga as a pure pleasure, as each person’s direct embrace of Reality Itself.

Om sahana vavatu.

May these technologies of practice spread quickly to all the people on Mother Earth.

*Join Mark and friends in the heart of yoga online studio for weekly classes and conversation and learn a simple daily yoga practice that is right for you.



Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.