A guru is a sage of steady wisdom, a teacher who shows you the way. As the distinguished Indian yoga master T. K. V Desikachar wrote in his classic The Heart of Yoga: “A guru is not one who has a following, a guru is one who encourages and shows the way.”
India does not have a patent on gurus. Other traditions, like the martial arts, also have knowledgeable masters to teach or show the way. In India, it is the guru who traditionally imparts the spiritual knowledge of yoga to his student. In Japan, the sensei, similar to the guru, is the mentor who instructs his students in the physical and mental components of the martial art.
Gurus are spiritual mentors, not molds to be cloned. They are gifted human indicators, rich in wisdom, knowledge, and clarity. A true guru directs you and helps you find your own path or your own voice. Some people search out gurus, and others haven’t the slightest interest in ever meeting one. When choosing a yoga class you may encounter teachers or yoga centers that follow a specific yoga lineage or philosophy based on the teachings of a guru. This doesn’t mean that you have to follow that particular spiritual philosophy to practice yoga. You may never come in contact with the teachings of a guru, and you do not need a guru to practice yoga.