I do my practice and it sustains me. Initially I needed lots of guidance, tips, hints and reassurance that I was doing my practice correctly (whatever that means), even someone to mirror or a level of achievement to aspire to. Over time these aspects of the teacher-student axis have become less important to me and I do more self-practice. However I don’t manage so well when I am completely with out a teacher. I won’t say that I cannot or could not enjoy my yoga as a solitary pursuit, but perhaps rather that I choose not to because a good teacher does bring something very special to the practice. I have reflected here a little as to what that might be. The more I think about it, the more I realize that these teacher attributes are difficult to pin down, nebulous and intangible, perhaps even a little mystical, which may raise a smile.
So my yoga teacher has made it clear that I get out of my yoga practice what I put in. If I commit one hundred percent then I get one hundred percent support back. Furthermore I am coming to accept the message that simply the doing of the practice is what it is all about. No aspirations or expectations. Turn up to your mat do the needful and experience whatever comes. This no nonsense pared down student teacher relationship works for me but has taken some time in its cultivation. I’ve been around the yoga block, having practiced on and off for more years than I care to mention. During that time many yoga teachers from many disciplines have crossed my path. I have to say that all of them have helped me, some in small ways and some profoundly. The yoga itself is a vehicle for personal development, but the human element is very important to me as well. So that communication with the teacher can be just as important as the style of yoga.
Here is what I have distilled to be my essential yoga teacher attributes:
I need to be challenged. Granted challenging yourself is part of the deal here; each posture has its variations and it is easy to let yourself off the hook and modify a pose or its intensity. But once a teacher knows you, subtle encouragement can help to work past the resistance, to let go and relax deeper. Have you noticed that in some classes you work harder than in others? Just the presence of a great teacher is enough for you to adopt a mindset of commitment and set your intention to do the best you can do on that day. An experienced teacher will often recognize sooner than me that my body actually has the ability to align better, flex further or create length and find space. This may just mean a better triangle pose or it may be a whole new asana. Not accepting that my body has reached its limits is something I need to feel from my teacher. As I get older this concept is more and more important to me.
I want my teacher to be no nonsense, straight talking, to tell it like it is. I don’t need platitudes. Questions often crop up about how to progress and improve and it is human nature to seek out short cuts and work arounds. Sometimes I have found myself asking my teacher of the time, “is there a passive stretch that will help me develop such and such a posture….?”
I have learned this means go away do your practice and there is no bypass for the hard work required. It helps if the message is sugared with a sense of humour ‘cause that can be a difficult message to swallow.
We all come to yoga for a reason. This may just be curiosity and a means to keep well in mind and body. Some of us may be a bit more physically and metaphorically bruised. I don’t expect or need my yoga teacher to be my shrink or physiotherapist or anatomist or life coach or nutritionist but I do need to feel that there is some communication that transcends the aforementioned disciplines. I now find myself smiling again as I return to the theme of the mystic element of what makes a great yoga teacher. I think what I am looking for is some sign of compassion and acknowledgement of the many reasons why students come to class. Different teachers may express this understanding in different ways but I look for quiet empathy to soften the message of get on and do your practice and have no expectations. After all we are just people trying to get by and an acknowledgement of that human aspect is very important.
A good teacher is a motivating force. A drive to move from where my practice is at to where the teacher sits has always been a force to move me onwards. It is not so much the physicality of what a teacher can do more the economy of work that they may demonstrate that inspires me. An ability to perform simple postures or more advanced ones is not the issue; it is more the effortless effort utilized by a good teacher that shows me the way forward.
Finally coming back to my indefinable mysticism, there is a certain composure exhibited by great teachers, which inspires. (Clearly yoga teachers are not super heroes and composure is allowed to slip from time to time. My testament to this is observing Matt Ryan in a car at traffic lights behind a dithering learner driver. Let’s just say his equanimity slipped momentarily…) I have a sense that this ethereal composure stems from more than just the asana practice, which is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to yoga than its physical aspects. I seek teachers who show glimpses of the way forward to their students, taking the practice away from the mat, rolling out their composure into day-to-day life, moment to moment.
So having reflected on what I am looking for in my yoga teacher, I have realized this is a very tough gig. To summarize a no nonsense challenging unostentatious empath with a sense of humour who can motivate with a composed air of indefinable mysticism. Well this may seem like a pie-in-the-sky wish list and I haven’t even mentioned that they need to know their yoga! However I have been blessed with great teachers some of whom really do have these attributes and skills. It takes years of dedication perseverance and talent to achieve these abilities. Thank you to all the teachers who have taught me for sharing their knowledge and showing glimpses of the way ahead.