Finding a teacher is a two-way street

Having established in the previous article the important role a yoga teacher plays in guiding and supporting someone towards greater freedom and less suffering, the question immediately presents itself: how do I find a teacher? This is a tricky issue, particularly given the abundance of people calling themselves yoga teachers, the fact that this is not a protected term, and an awareness of various scandals and abuses which have happened in recent years.

Walk the walk

जन्मौषधिमन्त्रतपः समाधिजाः सिद्धयः ॥
janma-oṣadhi-mantra-tapaḥ samādhi-jāḥ siddhayaḥ

If we begin from the Yoga Sūtra, Chapter 4 gives some clear guidance as to who is suitable to be called a yoga teacher. The first sūtra, YS 4.1, states that there are five ways to access the special potential yoga offers; of these five only samādhi is said to be appropriate. This implies the practitioner has followed the path of Aṣṭaṅga Yoga – that is, they have applied and experienced the complete breadth and journey of yoga, its challenges and triumphs, so as to understand what it really means to walk the path. So first, a teacher must be a complete practitioner him or herself.

निमित्तमप्रयोजकं प्रकृतीनांवरणभेदस्तु ततः क्षेत्रिकवत् ॥
nimittam-aprayojakaṃ prakṛtīnāṃ varaṇa-bhedaḥ tu tataḥ kṣetrikavat

The third sūtra, YS 4.3, tells us that some intelligent intervention is needed to allow us to access our potential and that such change must respect the nature of the individual who is changing and their limitations. This can be read in conjunction with YS 3.13 and the qualities of dharma pariṇāma, lakṣana pariṇāma and avasthā pariṇāma: potential, appropriate intervention, and timing. So secondly, the teacher must be experienced and skilful in using the full range of tools in many circumstances to intervene in this way.

निर्माणचित्तान्यस्मितामात्रात् ॥

The fourth sūtra, YS 4.4, explains that for true transformation to occur, an intimate link needs to be formed between teacher and student; this has nothing to do with attraction or ordinary relationships. It asks that the teacher set aside their own agenda to be fully available to the student, and ultimately the student is able to trust the teacher enough that they are able to do the same and a special link is made, heart to heart. This special bond of mutual trust, respect and positive regard allows the student to let go of some deep patterning and experience true freedom. So, the teacher needs to be caring, empathic and trustworthy. 

कर्माशुक्लाकृष्णं योगिनः त्रिविधमितरेषाम् ॥
karma-aśukla-akṛṣṇaṃ yoginaḥ trividham-itareṣām

The seventh sūtra, YS 4.7, gives a warning that not all who wear the clothes of a yoga teacher can be trusted with such responsibility. It lists four types of person able to influence others – those with initial good intentions who nevertheless are in some way deluded; then there are those whose motives are entirely selfish, they may have amazing abilities but there is a darkness that will ultimately harm the student; then those who are a mixture of the previous two and thus are unstable and lose clarity. Sometimes we also see those who are more interested in self-promotion, image and their own ego, and it is refreshing to meet a teacher who is humble, ready to acknowledge and work on their own weaknesses and shows genuine reflection, and cares about their students interests above all.

So only those with no personal agenda are safe as truly transformational teachers. Now this may seem a tall order in the modern era but, as teachers we need only be aware of our pitfalls and weaknesses to ring-fence them, to put aside our own agenda for the duration of our time with the student to ensure that our ‘stuff’ does not pollute the healing space and that we are fully available to help them.

So collectively, these profound sūtra-s give some clear direction to guide us when we are searching for someone to help us:

  1. They must be a practitioner of yoga in its fullest sense
  2. They must have adequate training in and experience of yoga teaching
  3. We must feel that we can both trust and respect the teacher
  4. The teacher’s conduct must be consistent with the teaching of yoga, especially ahimsa (non-harming) and satyam (honesty and integrity)

Look for a connector not a collector

If we now turn our attention to a more contemporary text, Freud and Yoga, TKV Desikachar acknowledges these challenges thus: “Building a relationship is difficult. It takes time to build confidence and trust.” So, as a student I have to be prepared to take the time to get to know a teacher and in the modern era, where we are so time limited, this can be a problem. But, as with any worthwhile endeavour, we must make this investment if we are to benefit from the teacher/student relationship.

Sri Desikachar also highlights another issue that stops us making appropriate links in yoga: “Today there are too many choices. As we may say, many people are ‘collectors’ but not ‘connectors’. That is why many people have not truly benefitted from yoga.” In other words, if we are led by the mind alone, we can be distracted by the plethora of options available to us – a different day, a different yoga studio/teacher/style of yoga!

Sri Desikachar then confronts another key issue for us all in these times: “Also there is fear. Fear of making a mistake, fear of disappointment, fear of being exploited.” Obviously, we need to be thoughtful about where we place trust, so some initial caution may be prudent, but gradually we need to entertain the possibility of allowing someone to help us.

From TKV Desikachar once more: “What I want to clarify is that the teacher does not want slavery. The teacher wants to serve the student.” And further: “For a teacher, the student is very important, because transmission of what the teacher got from his or her own teacher will die if there is no student.” I like this idea of a kind of non-hierarchical symbiosis where each party, teacher and student, has an important role to play and each can gain from a healthy interaction.

And finally, “Today more than ever, we cannot command. Respect must be earned and not demanded. The two conditions are authority and love. Authority stems from competence, while love comes from a long relationship, friendship, care, attention, and respect.”

I hope this short piece has helped to clarify some of the qualities required by both teacher and student for a healthy and fruitful relationship in yoga. Clearly it takes an investment on both sides of time, energy and commitment to an on-going relationship, focussed on the development and long- term well-being of the student.

Andy Curtis-Payne

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1 thought on “Finding a teacher is a two-way street”

  1. Susan McHale

    I really enjoy reading your articles, Andy. The great thing about one to one teaching is that there is an opportunity to connect, and that is so valuable.

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