As I continue to complete the creative content for the MAPS Global Education Strategy (music, yoga and books to melt the heart and connect our world), I feel it’s grace that yoga is widely available today.
Yoga guides us to connect with a profound intelligence that exists within all things, through all things, at all times. It inspires hope and compassion as we meet the fullness of our lives – the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of us need guidance to access this intelligence so that we can experience yoga’s gifts of wisdom, compassion and courage. How do we find the right teachers to help us? I share the following, based on my own experience as a longtime teacher and working with many other teachers over the years.
WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES OF A GOOD YOGA TEACHER?
Every yoga teacher will have diverse teaching styles and experience. Having taught since 1993, I have found that the common thread in inspired yoga teachers is that they know they are not the doers. This means that they teach from a place of humble service to a greater whole. They are a neutral, luminous conduit – not an attached persona – for the ancient, brilliant and wise message of love and interconnection that is yoga. They know that this message comes through them, when they are receptive, and is never about them.
The right yoga teacher for you may or may not have a huge following. What is most important is that he or she supports you in the practice that is right for you, while demonstrating a sincere commitment to embody the teachings themselves. He or she will be clear, consistent, trustworthy, patient and non-attached. He or she will not impose an ideology, but encourage an awakening of the luminosity that is inherent in you. As such, a good yoga teacher does not push students, but encourages and guides. If your teacher gives adjustments to your physical posture, it should feel safe, not taking you beyond your healthy range of motion or leaving you feeling invaded or helpless.
A real gem of a spiritual aspirant, and this includes yoga teachers, will not be overly shiny, but will radiate a warm humility, a potent kindness, a strong, inner steadiness and fierce dispassion. As their own practice has taught them to rest in vast stillness, an infinite light shines through them.
A qualified yoga teacher should be rooted in a broad understanding of yoga as a path for awakening, not simply a series of exercises to get you fit. Hatha yoga, the yoga of the body, rests within a large body of yogic knowledge. A skilled teacher needs to understand not only physical anatomy and how to guide correct physical alignment, but also that the purpose of the alignment is to purify the subtle channels of energy throughout your body/being. Since hatha yoga is a multidimensional restructuring, the teacher must have experience in meditation and mindfulness. Remember that the stilling of the mind and the cessation of the ego in order to return to an undivided state is the ultimate goal of yoga.
As I have shared in the past, there are three touchstones that help you make wise decisions: rootedness, vitality and expansion. The right yoga teacher for you is one whose presence and classes have you feeling rooted, vital and expansive. To find out why these three qualities are key aspects to holistic decision making, visit my blog post “Three Steps and Three Touchstones for Wise Decisions”.
HOW CAN I TRUST A YOGA TEACHER WHEN THERE HAVE BEEN SCANDALS ABOUT FAMOUS YOGA TEACHERS?
Ignorance is as old as humankind. When we elevate humans to the realm of gods, they are bound to fall. We do it to our movie stars. We do it to our politicians. We do it to our spouses and friends. And we do it to our yoga teachers and spiritual teachers. If we make someone an angel, they will eventually become a devil. If we lift them up beyond the ground, the force of gravity will eventually bring them back to Earth.
Scandals in the yoga scene are nothing new. Ancient yogic texts such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana have ample stories illustrating the twisted acts of human folly while on a spiritual path. Most important is to remember that scandals are created by imperfect humans, not the eternal divine. When we allow the behavior of others to determine our willingness to practice yoga and spirituality, we are called to make peace with our own shadows, and with our hungry egos. Use discernment when choosing a yoga teacher that is right for you. Read and review others’ experiences, but most importantly, go by what you feel is right for you. Again, check in with yourself and see if, regardless of what others may feel or say, you feel rooted, vital and expansive when guided by this teacher.
Classically, aspiring yogis were taught by an enlightened guru, that is, a realized master who fully embodies yoga’s transformative power. As such, the guru has no ego. Without any sense of personal gain or attachment, the guru has the fierce ability to mould the aspirant’s consciousness to cultivate purity of heart. As hatha yoga awakens the vital life-force that lies dormant within you, it is important that a skilled teacher knows how to guide the use of this subtle spiritual power to benefit all beings, rather than to feed the ego. This is not to say that you cannot learn and benefit from a teacher who is not realized. Most of the yoga teachers I have had in my lifetime, from whom I have gained great benefit, were not. But it does mean that you must not pretend your teacher is beyond human tendencies. It does not matter if a person promises eternal life, attests to be the best yogi ever or preaches the way of the holy. If they are not a fully realized master, they will cast a shadow. Whether they are in touch with it or in denial about it, it is there. It is up to you to use your discernment to see it, or to deny it.
Anyone who is not fully enlightened is going to be uncomfortable in some way with their shadow. We all have parts of ourselves that we do not like, and do not want others to see. When it seems that you can avoid having to muck out your own dirty basement by following a shiny leader on a path to the promised land, you might be tempted to sign on the dotted line and project perfection on a limited individual in an imperfect world. However, in so doing, you are bound to be disappointed. Remember though that disillusionment is just the collapse of illusions that you needed to release in order to evolve. As such, disillusionment, as uncomfortable as it may be, is in fact grace guiding you towards greater wholeness.
A wounded child within you may hunger for some mystical big mummy or daddy to dissolve your pain and do your uncomfortable work for you. But you are not a little child living in lack. Rather, you are an adult child of the divine, fully supported to do your very important inner work and take responsibility for the shadows that you – no one else – cast on the ground behind you. When you work with a yoga teacher, you are called to remain an adult responsible for your own tendencies.
I love the quote in the French movie Amélie, “The fool looks at the finger that points at the sky.” A yoga teacher can support you to release that which does not serve. Allow him or her to be like the finger that points you to the sky of pure consciousness, which is beyond you both. Do not pledge blind allegiance or give away your power. The right yoga teacher for you would not allow you to do so anyway.
May you connect with yoga teachers who support and guide your practice to feel rooted, vital, expansive. May they inspire you to remember your eternal luminosity.