“The teacher is no more than a friend and no less than a friend” – Mark Whitwell.
A teachers’ job is to help you hold your practice space just right, reading you with the benefit of their own long journey behind them so you don’t hurt yourself, emotionally damage yourself and until you have enough self discipline, stability and self love to hold yourself with regular practice. An effective teacher will work collaboratively with their students as hurdles come up and layers of conditioning come off, thus providing support as one experiences both the positive and difficult changes that result from practice. Ideally, the student will feel autonomous yet supported, to make their own progress and discover their own unique expression within the practice of Ashtanga yoga.
From my perspective it takes a significant amount time to develop a relationship of trust and to get to know a student well enough to be able to really help them. As Mark Whitwell states, “the form of an effective teaching relationship is natural and mutual friendship. Anything else will transmit cultural limitations, not the understanding of the heart”. Much also depends on the student’s clarity and desire to be well and to actually practice, which can wavier – particularly in the early stages.
The sincere and consistent practice of yoga over a long period of time teaches us to cultivate healthy responses and discard unhelpful patterns through practices that address the body, the breath and the mind. I only see this as useful if it improves our relationship to ourselves, the dynamics in our our intimate relationships and our ability to engage lovingly with our communities. Ideally, yoga maps the lifelong journey towards embodying our spiritual lives through trusting and relaxing into the natural flow of life. I define success in yoga as cultivating a sustainable practice that evolves appropriately over the various stages of the lifespan with the aim of continuously deepening into our experience of love and freedom. Hence why an experienced teacher who is familiar with the terrain can be helpful – and, why I often jokingly say to ambitious young students “Relax, you are a yogi now, you have until you’re 80 to perfect that posture!”
A few other practicalities to consider
The sophistication of practice techniques taught is important.
A lifetime of techniques practiced poorly will not provide the benefit from yoga we are seeking, but we certainly will have wasted a lot of time and may even end up harmed. Anyone can become qualified as a yoga teacher nowadays after completing a short course and if you are new to yoga it can be hard to determine if your yoga teacher is well trained and has sufficient experience to help you. The variation in the depth and quality of training available is very large. A good rule of thumb is to look at the teacher’s linage. Choose a teacher that has trained with their teacher for a long time and that the training had depth across the whole system of yoga and was personal. Beyond that, that the teacher’s teacher had done the same. Associations such as Yoga Australia also accredit teachers based on their training and experience. A teacher with some form of higher education, such as Sanskrit, psychology, chiropractic, counselling and physiotherapy can also use their degree to enrich and broaden their teaching. In systems such as Ashtanga yoga, traditionally the teacher will wait until their teacher authorises them to teach.
When it comes to Mysore rooms, and I’m writing about this because that is the format in which I teach, smaller teaching ratios allow more opportunity for meaningful teaching and provide the teacher with the opportunity to notice and observe the subtleties in each student’s physicality, emotions and underlying tendencies. A ratio of one teacher to around 20 students provides a beneficial environment. As a teacher I would find it difficult to meaningfully teach more students than this without assistance on the floor. As a student I have not gained much benefit from very large teacher/ student ratios and often concluded that teaching environment was focused more on the celebrity of the teacher.
Whose your guru? You are!
Save worship for the divine and the divine only! A teacher is necessary and a guru is not. Be very wary of handing over your power and responsibility for spiritual growth to anyone carrying a human form. If history, and a quick google of ‘bad gurus’ has taught us anything – it is this.