When the student is ready
When the student is ready, the teacher appears . . .
Or so the saying goes. But the widespread popularity of yoga means that, these days, students have the option to go teacher-shopping. You need a time that fits your schedule, a style that fits your goals, a studio you like and a practice that's not too easy, not too difficult. It's no wonder that people easily slip into cafeteria-style yoga and take their first class with one teacher, an intermediate level class with someone else, switch teachers when they're injured, and start the whole process over again when their schedule changes. All this shifting around drains the potency of the teacher student relationship, and circumvents the personal work that is needed in the pursuit of true inner growth.
Time spent with the teacher will shape your experience more than the schedule, the format, the brand, the content, the price or any other aspect of the practice. The teacher will influence the way you view yourself, the world, your long-term growth as a practitioner and the way you see students if you teach. The process of finding a great teacher requires faith, patience and a little bit of humility but a great teacher makes the sacrifices worthwhile. I believe it is still possible to surrender to the mystery, and you will recognize a good teacher by these attributes:
1. She has a teacher, who has a teacher, who has a teacher . . . Devotees wear white while they under the teacher's tutelage but then change to brightly-colored robes – such as orange or maroon -- once they have been initiated into certain traditions. The change in color represents having walked through the fire of the teacher by facing fears, doubts, resistance, desires and other obstacles that necessarily surface under experienced instruction. The teacher's feet have been held to the fire, so to speak, and you can have confidence that they have worked hard to earn the blessing of their own teacher.
2. She has a personal practice. If she is teaching asana, she has a personal asana practice. If meditation, a meditation practice and if pranayama, a pranayama practice. A personal practice is an earnest, consistent yoga practice conducted independently over a long period of time. It is not the same as teaching, taking classes, following online videos, leading or attending workshops. True knowledge can only be gained through the direct experience of day-after-stacked-up-day of trial and error, sparks of insight, tedium and boredom, navigating injury, cultivating patience, pushing oneself past comfort and constant self-inquiry. We would never expect an artist or a physician to teach anything they had not explored deeply on their own, and finding a teacher with a consistent practice will benefit the student more than any accumulation of theoretical knowledge.
3. She is transparent. The teacher is the same person in front of the class, in front of her mother and in front of the altar. Cultural pressure makes all of us believe we should look or feel a certain way in front of others, and yoga teachers are no exception. They have bad habits, insecurities, biases and personal difficulties just like anyone. But taking the spiritual practice of self-inquiry to heart means there is a willingness to look honestly at oneself. A good teacher is willing to be called out, and when she discovers areas that need attention she does not contort herself psychologically to hide them. She allows herself to be seen, and she can handle criticism; that is what a long-term, quality yoga practice gives.
4. She is honest. No white lies, no ‘borrowing’ sticky notes from the studio, no telling students they should stay in an upper level class when they most definitely should not. She keeps promises, follows through, starts and ends class on time. She admits when she is wrong or made a mistake and takes mature steps to repair the situation. She does not teach things she does not yet understand for the sake of entertainment or novelty. An honest teacher recognizes when an issue goes beyond her scope of knowledge and makes referrals to other health professionals.
5. She has a plan. An experienced teacher is not interested in giving you a fitness experience, because she knows you can get that elsewhere. A good teacher can see what you cannot, and her suggestions are designed to usher you gently along the path of growth and freedom. She may tell you to relax your shoulders because she sees the tightness in your heart, or she may tell you to lay off practice for a while so that your hamstring has a chance to heal. She can explain in practical language why she is asking you to do something.
6. She pushes you. A good teacher will eventually push you, because she recognizes that you can only get so far on your own. She has been where you are and come through it with wisdom, insight and experience. She will risk popularity in favor of excellence, and will demand that you give your very best. A good teacher does not assign more than a student can handle, however, and recognizes that people come with different levels of readiness and available energy. She judiciously selects practices that are appropriate, and waits to see if they are absorbed before giving more.
7. She has integrity. In short, her actions match her words and her words match her actions. The platitudes espoused in class should be things she has grappled with in her own life, not quotes grabbed off of Instagram on the way in from the parking lot. She knows that learning is borrowed, but wisdom comes from direct experience and she will never ask you to do something she does not fully understand herself. A good teacher makes every effort to live the teachings when no one is looking, not just in front of a class.
8. She has clear boundaries. Yoga teachers are inevitably projected upon. A good teachers understands this and approaches all students with steadfastness, kindness and respect. She does not play favorites and carefully avoids putting students in the role of confidant, problem solver or consultant. She shares personal information sparingly, knowing that students will unintentionally burden themselves with her problems. She takes seriously her responsibility to create personal and professional boundaries, to protect both the student and the therapeutic benefit of the relationship.
9. She has humility. Beneath the normal ups and downs of life, a good teacher stays connected to an ever-flowing current of gratitude. She sees spiritual purpose in all experiences, especially the unpleasant ones, and does not feel entitled to anything. She carefully avoids the term ‘my students,’ and will gladly recommend a different teacher for a student when called for. She does not succumb to the mindset that personal value is correlated to class numbers, and she even recognizes that there is nothing particularly special about teaching yoga. She sees herself as but one tiny spark of infinite consciousness.
Writing these qualities came from having had close relationships with my two primary teachers over many years, and also my own relationships with students. As I write, I see room for improvement in myself and hope this encourages others to be intentional and selective in considering a teacher. Have faith, and keep your eyes open. You don't want to miss an opportunity because you were Google-ing "how to find a great yoga teacher" on your phone.